How to cope with squabbling siblings: Five expert tips on handling competitive children

Studies have found conflicts can happen up to eight times an hour. But parents can help

Illustration: JooHee Yoon/ New York Times

Illustration: JooHee Yoon/ New York Times

 

Sibling screaming matches may seem louder and more oppressive during a pandemic when no one is leaving the house, but according to Jeanine Vivona, a psychologist who has studied sibling rivalry, “competition with siblings is just a fact of life. And we, as people with siblings and people with children, can just try to manage it as best we can.”

The book of Genesis holds what Mark Ethan Feinberg calls the “founding stories of the Western psyche.” Feinberg, an expert in sibling behaviour at Pennsylvania State University, in the US, points out that, among other things, it is dripping with tales of murderous and covetous siblings, like Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau. And these stories unfurl “themes researchers are exploring today: dastardly deeds, conflict over parental love and resources, and triangulation of children into parental conflicts”.

Sibling conflicts may happen up to eight times an hour. Pairs of sisters tend to be the closest, and sibling dyads that include a brother have the most conflict 

Sibling rivalry is so profound that hundreds of years ago, when child mortality was much higher, children under five with close-in-age siblings were more likely to die. These deaths were most likely “related to increased prevalence of childhood infectious disease in such households, and lower levels of maternal nutrition, and perhaps more general competition for parental attention”, says Sarah Walters, an associate professor of demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an author of a study on siblings and mortality clustering in 19th-century Belgium.

Still, observational studies have shown that sibling conflicts today may happen up to eight times an hour. Other research finds that pairs of sisters tend to be the closest, and that sibling dyads that include a brother have the most conflict. “Conflict does decrease into adolescence; it sort of levels off,” Feinberg says. “Early and middle childhood are particularly difficult times for sibling aggression.”

While most siblings aren’t fighting for actual scraps, psychologically, sibling rivalry serves a developmental purpose: it helps children figure out what is unique and special about themselves, otherwise known as “differentiation.” Children want to be seen as the most special by their parents, so they’re “always going to push for preferential treatment” over their siblings, says Vivona, who is a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey. But they may also shape their interests and personalities around their siblings’ skills and desires.

If your children are being kind to each other, ‘praise them really loudly all over the place’. But if you’re criticising, try to do it outside of the other child’s earshot

For example, let’s say the older son is a soccer star. The younger child or children may then avoid soccer altogether, either because they are afraid they won’t be as good or because they fear they might be better – and they don’t want to take that risk either, Vivona says. Or perhaps they both end up on the soccer team, but the older one is the serious hard worker, and the younger one tries to establish himself as the team jester.

Just because sibling rivalry is to be expected does not mean there aren’t ways to mitigate it.

Here are five suggestions from the experts to handle squabbling sibs.

Figure out what sets them off
“Pay attention to what tends to happen before conflict breaks out,” says Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor in child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. If your children fight every time they play video games, for example, make sure you’re in earshot when they sit down to play. Listen for the particular words or tones of voice they are using that are combative, and try to intervene before it escalates.

Help them learn to resolve conflict 
Once tempers have settled, try to sit your kids down and discuss the problem “without blaming or accusing”, Feinberg advises. Give each child a chance to talk, uninterrupted, and have them try to come up with solutions to the problem themselves. By the time kids are primary-school age, they can “evaluate which of those solutions are win-win solutions and which ones are most likely to work and satisfy each other over time”, he says. They should also learn to revisit problems when solutions are no longer working.

Praise them in public and punish them in private
If your children are being kind to each other, “praise really loudly all over the place”, Hunter says. For example, “I love that you let your sister go first!” But if you’re criticising them, try to do it outside of the other child’s earshot, because she may use it as ammunition (“Remember, Mom said you couldn’t jump off the couch”).

Try to find moments where everyone can come together
Your children’s temperaments and personalities may be similar, or they may not. They may both love dance, or one loves dance and the other just wants to play chess. One might be rigid, and the other is a free spirit. “Try to find common activities that allow everyone to be flexible and to feel connected,” Vivona says.

Don’t be afraid to choose an activity, like family movie night, that might result in an absurdly long delay as children argue over which one to watch. “The fact that it takes a long time should not take away from the fact that it’s something valuable,” she says. “You’re going to experience the rivalry – there’s no short-circuiting it.” But in the end, you can all sit together and keep each other company and eat popcorn, while your children learn valuable skills, like compromise. Even if you are watching Toy Story for the 15th time.

Don’t forget the pandemic is hard on children
“We are all spending more time with each other indoors, especially in the winter,” Hunter says. “I think some of these conflicts can be really solved by telling our kids to go outside and run around the house.” They may get twitchy when they’re cooped up, so throwing some physical activity into the mix, even if it’s an indoor obstacle course made with couch pillows, can change the mood. – New York Times

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