Your daughter crawls over and takes your son’s toy car.
He freaks out. Grabbing the car back from the baby.
She starts to cry.
You swoop in to intervene.
Cradling her while you glare at your son, you say, “She’s just a baby. She doesn’t know better.”
Setting your daughter on the floor, you grab a few of his cars.
Again he protests.
“You need to share. You still have plenty of cars to play with.”
Assuming the problem is solved, you walk away.
Unfortunately, this tiny 10-second interaction that seemed so innocent and clear-cut may have had an unintended consequence: Fueling sibling rivalry.
Your response matters.
You don’t mean to pit your kids against each other.
For goodness sake, you’d give anything to have peace in your home!
You try to encourage them to get along using phrases like: “Just let her play with you!” Or “Your sister’s playing quietly, why can’t you?”
But these often do more harm than good.
Think about what might be going on for your child when he hears these statements:
- I don’t know a better way to handle this situation, mom. I need your help!
- Can’t you see that I’m struggling with big feelings too? I don’t know how to manage them!
- I guess sharing toys means giving up something without my consent. I hate sharing.
- I can’t do anything right.
- My mom loves the baby more than she loves me.
- I wish the baby was never born.
Your child may not be able to verbalize these thoughts and feelings, but they’re real. And next time your daughter crawls his way, those thoughts and feelings are going to flood his mind. The more often the scenario repeats. The stronger the feelings become.
Unless you help them change the pattern.
10 ways you can reduce sibling rivalry.
Kids of all ages need to learn how to interact with others respectfully. Especially other people who get into their stuff, disagree with their ideas, and share a common living space.
Thankfully, there are things you can do to encourage siblings to get along.
- Quiet your own alarm: Conflict between siblings can be an automatic trigger for many parents. When you start to panic, stop. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that although things sound bad, reacting with anger will not solve the problem. Repeat the mantra, “this is not an emergency” and see the situation with a calm brain.
- Accept that everyone is learning: Instead of saying, “You’re the oldest, you need to be a good example,” realize that he is still figuring out how to manage frustration, interact safely with a baby, or trade toys fairly. Expecting him to “be an example” may fall outside of his abilities in this situation.
- Forget Being Fair: Every child is unique. This means they will need a personalized response from you that has nothing to do with their sibling. Some kids need more attention, some need more teaching and some need more supervision. Focus on meeting the needs of each child instead of trying to make everything you do “equal.”
- Stay neutral: Sometimes, it’s easy to assume who started it or who’s to blame. Still, refuse to take sides. Remain focused on helping both kids learn skills to handle the situation better next time, rather than pointing fingers or trying to find who’s at fault.
- Respect personal space: Create a house rule that encourages family members to understand and acknowledge each other’s boundaries. This means that a child should be able to take a break from playing, have some say about whether or not a sibling can join in their play, and have an opportunity to spend time alone.
- Sharing is optional: Forcing kids to give up their toys against their will can breed resentment and frustration. Instead, teach your kids to be savvy about sharing toys or taking turns. Model and practice how to trade, how to wait patiently, and how to respectfully express that they are not ready to give up a toy quite yet.
- Allow feelings to be expressed: Older brothers can be bossy and baby sisters can be annoying. When you provide your child with a safe place to talk about these feelings, you let them know that it’s ok to have mixed feelings about their siblings and that you are there to help them sort it out.
- Listen with empathy: You don’t have to pick sides. As you listen to each child express their side of the story, rephrase their perspective in a way that shows you get where they are coming from (even if you don’t agree). Put yourself in their shoes and realize that the situation was hard for both kids.
- Problem solve together: Encourage your kids to define the problem and brainstorm solutions in a way that works for everyone – not just one child. You may have to model, give them the words, or guide them through tricky situations. As your kids get older, step back and let your kids work it out together!
- Connect with each child: When kids know that you are on their side, that you’ve got their back, and that you will do the same for their sibling, they feel safe and secure. After an argument, they may need to be reminded that your love hasn’t changed. And, more than anything, they both need to know that you have more than enough love to go around.
All kids want to know that they are valued as individuals. And, they want to know that the standards you place for their brother will be true for them as well.
How does this look in real life?
Your son has toy cars spread out on the living room floor. Your daughter crawls over and takes a car.
Your son freaks out and tries to grab the toy.
You sit down on the floor, moving your daughter (still holding the toy car) to safety on the other side of your lap.
Turning to your son you say, “Having a baby that can crawl is hard sometimes. I can tell you’re busy setting up these cars. Can you show me what you’re working on?”
He dives into an explanation about the town he’s setting up.
When he’s done you turn to your daughter (who’s lost interest in the car, but you’re modeling for both kids, so you continue), “You wanted to play with brother’s car! We say, ‘Please’ when we want to play.”
Finally, you say to your son, “The living room a place where everyone can play, even babies. Would you like to move your cars to the table or would you like to give your sister a few cars to use?”
He decides to move his cars to the table.
He feels empowered. He knows that he has options when this situation comes up again. And, he knows that you’re going to help his sister respect his needs and feelings as well.
One more thing.
It’s common to baby your youngest, to have high expectations for your oldest, or to get so busy with your day that one child’s thoughts and feelings get pushed aside.
But, if you find that your responses seem to favor one child over another on a regular basis, it might be time to step back and see things from the other child’s perspective.
- How might this child be feeling?
- How might this child interpret my response?
- How have I held him to a higher (and maybe unrealistic) standard?
- In what ways am I focusing more on the other child?
- When have I minimized this child’s feelings or thoughts in favor of their sibling?
- How can I help this child make better choices?
- What else does this child need from me?
When you start seeing each child’s individual needs, you create a family atmosphere where each of your kids know you are on their side, they realize that they actually have a voice that you will respect, and they are confident that your love will not run out.
Which means less sibling rivalry!