Sibling Fighting

Does sibling fighting concern you?The time to address sibling rivalry is now. Jealous siblings, who view each other as rivals, may have difficulty getting along as adults. Adult sibling rivalry is a concern in many families. Rivalry among siblings does not always end in childhood.

Do you wonder how sibling rivalry is affecting your children? Has sibling rivalry gotten out of hand? You are not alone. Sibling fighting is an issue for many families, and contributes to considerable stress in children and parents alike.

Sibling Rivalry and How to Help

How Common Is Sibling Rivalry?

Most children adjust fairly quickly to a new brother or sister. Yet, even in the best sibling relationships sibling rivalry is common and understandable. When the new baby is born, an older child is likely to feel "dethroned" or displaced. The parent must devote much of his or her attention to the new arrival. The new baby requires considerable time and focus. The parents now divide their attention between two or more children. And the new baby frequently receives the bulk of it, due to the infant's vulnerable and needy state.

Parents have less time for their older children. Both the quality and quantity of their interactions with their older children may decrease. Older siblings are likely to notice the difference and feel displaced. The new baby becomes a rival for the parents' attention. This can set the foundation for sibling rivalry.

In addition, sibling rivalry in childhood may also set the stage for rivalry as adults. However, sibling rivalry is usually most pronounced during the toddler, child and preteen years.

Is Age a Factor in Sibling Fighting?

Age is a factor. Sibling rivalry appears more intense among younger children and spans the toddler, preschool and elementary school years. As children move into their adolescent years and become more independent, sibling rivalry usually decreases.

Young children are most likely to fight over possessions. Elementary school aged children frequently fight over which television program to watch. This can be a constant and ongoing battle.

Preteens will also resent a younger sibling when they perceive the parent favors the younger child: for example, when they believe the parent does more for the younger child and babies him or her. Parents are more apt to baby and coddle their youngest child. Older children often resent this. Similarly, older children also resent a younger child when they feel unfairly blamed for the conflict between them.

Sibling conflict also appears most intense when children are close in age-2 years or less. This is likely because similar aged children depend on similar amounts of attention and support from their parents.

As the age span between them increases, sibling rivalry seems to decrease. Older children, for example, often take on a care-giving or protective role with a younger sibling.

How to Help An Older Child Adjust To A New Sibling?

1. Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to involve the older child before and after the birth. For example:

  • Before the birth of the new baby encourage the older children to be part of the event. Involve them in preparing for the arrival of the baby (preparing the baby clothes & the baby's sleeping arrangements, looking at their baby pictures etc.)
  • Read appropriate children's books to the child about the arrival of a new brother or sister.
  • After the baby is born continue to involve the older siblings. Ask them to help with the baby. Encourage them to become aware of the baby's feelings and needs, and help comfort the baby when appropriate.

2. Attend to the Older Child's Needs.

  • Try not to ignore your older children as you care for the new baby.
  • Remember the close times you shared with your older children before the baby was born. Continue to arrange special, close times. For example, set aside a special time for your older child and integrate this into your day.
  • Maintain the older child's routines as much as possible and continue to provide them with love and attention.

3. Be on the Look Out for Signs of Jealously.

Jealousy often lies at the root of sibling fighting. Signs of jealousy in a child who feels displaced by the new baby include:

(a) Behavioral Concerns

  • Changes in behavior
  • Difficult and demanding behavior.
  • Dependent, clinging or whining behaviors.
  • Mood swings, temper tantrums or irritability
  • Problems with eating, sleeping and toileting routines.

(b) Difficult and Hurtful Behaviors Toward a Baby or Younger Sibling

  • May taunt, tease or say unkind things about the baby.
  • May be aggressive or hurt the baby (e.g. pinch, poke or hit their younger sibling).
  • With older children signs of jealousy and rivalry between siblings might include teasing, name calling, shouting matches and the occasional kicks and punches.

Should You Intervene in Sibling Fighting?

Parents can help their children deal more effectively with sibling conflict. When siblings fight parents can use these incidents to teach children how to get along with others and solve conflict. Sibling fighting also offers opportunities to enhance the child's social and psychological competence and the traits that signal a high emotional IQ.

Use incidents of sibling fighting, for example, to teach children how to solve conflict, to problem solve, assert themselves, handle negative feelings and empathize with and appreciate the perspective of others. Without intervention the inappropriate behaviors that often characterize sibling fighting may become habitual. Children may then use these behaviors to solve conflict with peers.

A reliance on these inappropriate behaviors can contribute to behavior and social problems in children, at school and in the community.

Common Mistakes Parents Make

  • Ignoring extreme sibling rivalry and dismissing it as normal.
  • Failing to teach children how to solve problems and conflicts with their siblings.
  • Failing to model appropriate conflict resolution skills.
  • Consistently favoring one child over another.
  • Expecting too much of an older child, compared to a younger sibling.
  • Blaming an older child for sibling fighting because he is older and should know better.
  • Unnecessarily pampering and coddling a younger child and/or doing this far more than was the case for another child.
  • Failing to maintain a consistently caring, supportive and attentive relationship with their older children following the birth of the new baby.
  • Failure to teach children how to solve problems, manage anger and deal with their feelings.
  • Consistently blaming one child for sibling problems without ensuring whether this is warranted.

When Sibling Fighting is Out of Control

Sibling fighting that crosses the line and is out of control may signal more serious concerns. Not all sibling fighting is normal. Sibling fighting can be abusive and involve physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. Sibling abuse often goes unrecognized by parents and society.

Yet, like any other form of abuse, sibling abuse represents a serious concern. It can have long lasting and detrimental effects on the victim, such as depression, anxiety, low self- esteem and poor self-image.

Parents who are concerned about sibling fighting may benefit from the support of a child psychologist

Sibling fighting that includes extreme hostility and/or verbal, emotional or physical abuse is cause for concern. When one sibling repeatedly bullies and victimizes one or several of his siblings intervention can help solve the problem and help you to help your children.

Children who bully and victimize their siblings may suffer from behavioral and emotional concerns and might benefit from professional support.

If sibling fighting is out of control, keep the following in mind:

  • The parents' relationship with each other can influence how stormy or smooth the sibling relationship is.
  • Sibling fighting is less pronounced when parents handle conflict appropriately in their own relationship, and during their interactions with each of their children.
  • Sibling relationships are also friendlier and less conflictual when their parents respond warmly and sensitively to all their children and do not consistently favor one over the other.

Visit our website to find more help for child problems.

You can also can also contact Dr. O'Connor about sibling fighting or rivalry. Following her review of your concerns she will offer recommendations to address them.

Dr. O'Connor also offers Psychological Assessments to help you get to the "root of the problem" and address child problems.

Dr. O'Connor runs her practice, in Toronto (Yonge & St.Clair.)

She can be reached at 416-592-0838.

You can also contact Dr. O'Connor by email.

Dr. O'Connor is the author of I Can Be Me-A Helping Book for Children of Alcoholic Parents.