Sibling rivalry

Siblings walking away from the camera
Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

Sibling rivalry is natural and to be expected. Children want to be the centre of your attention and find it difficult to adjust when a new baby comes along. There can be plenty of conflict, particularly when children are close together in age, as your older child is unable to understand what is happening and why your attention is now diverted elsewhere.

Remember, children will seek attention in any way they can, so if you have a baby and a toddler then you do need to be alert to the fact that your toddler might hit, bite, pinch or push the baby. Emotions can be all over the place for young children and it is important to recognise that it isn’t that your older child doesn’t like their younger sibling, it is really that they become anxious and overwhelmed and confused as to why your attention isn’t fully on them. It is a major adjustment for your older child.

There are some positive things you can do to help your older child know you still love them and that you like spending time with them and you can guide them where needed in managing emotions and situations.

  1. Make time every day, even if only for 15 minutes, where you play and engage with your older child. If you have someone who can watch over the baby/younger child, that is ideal, or make use of the time when your baby is sleeping. It might be that this has to happen when both parents are at home. It is important that for this period your older child feels wanted, valued and that you are present with them doing an activity that they have chosen. Just make sure that the activity can be done in the time period you have. Going out to the park or a swimming session on their own with one parent can build great positive memories and strengthen child/parent relationships.
  2. Children are more likely to react impulsively or have emotional meltdowns when they are tired, bored, hungry or have too much physical energy. Make sure that these needs are met to reduce the likelihood of challenging behaviours.
  3. Validate and value the emotions being expressed. If your children are both old enough then give time for both children to share with you what has happened. Explore some solutions together to decide how to move forward.
  4. Try not to intervene too quickly unless it has become physical. See if you can simply give them some space and time to work through the problem themselves. If you do need to intervene, get down to their level; avoid reprimanding by shouting or calling across the room – show you are being present for them. Bring the child/children to you, putting an arm around each to help calm and reassure them. Explain what they need to do or (as above) offer some suggestions on what to do next. Listen to each child’s version of the situation and encourage ‘I feel’ statements that the children can use to share how they feel in the moment.
  5. If you have a baby, try and involve the older child in helping you. Can they get the nappies out, pass the wipes/cotton wool, read a story to the baby or decide where to go on a walk.
  6. If the older child has hit their brother/sister then focus your attention on the child who has been hurt and comfort them first.
  7. Model positive conflict resolution yourself. Let children see how you deal with disagreements, particularly between parents and other adults. Demonstrate breathing exercises, taking a time out to give yourself space and time to calm down. If children are exposed to lots of shouting and tension in the home, they are likely to copy these behaviours. Of course, there may well be times arguments do become heated but try and see this from your child’s point of view.
  8. Recognise and praise positive play. Give the children attention when you notice what they are doing and express your interest in the play. Ask if you can join in. Take photographs to remind children of times they played together well. As they get older, try to create an environment which encourages interaction and exploration.

If you’re having a problem with sibling rivalry in your household, get in contact with me to get some advice and work on a way forward.