How to turn rivalry between your children into kinship?
A child might develop a beautiful kinship with their siblings, but rivalry could also settle in, which is quite normal. The age and needs of children are factors that can make conflicts more intense.
Causes of rivalry and quarrels
Difficult relationships between brothers and sisters can be exacerbated due to proximity, time spent together, and sharing close intimacy and a feeling of belonging to the same family.
A child may experience rivalry with a sibling for different reasons:
- Worry about their role in the family that causes them to try to capture the attention of their father or mother. The child is “defending” their place in the heart of their parent. This behaviour is instinctive and irrational.
- Lack of self-confidence. The child may feel less competent than their brothers or sisters in certain areas. This is why it’s important to talk about the strengths of each child, for example by saying: “Your brother is gifted in mathematics, and your strength is dictations.”
- Age difference and associated needs. For example, the arrival of a newborn requires a lot of time and proximity on the part of the parents, Similarly, the elder may find it unfair when they have to perform a task alone, while their younger brother has assistance from the parents. Sharing parents and toys can be difficult for young children.
- Vastly different personalities among children can create even more conflicts.
- Lack of personal space. Having a personal space helps children differentiate themselves from their siblings. They can use it to store their most precious toys that they are not obligated to share, so they feel their belongings are safe even when they are away.
- Guidance from parents during a conflict between brothers and sisters can be perceived as injustice. This is the case, for example, when a parent regularly reminds the elder to set the example or asks them to yield to a younger sibling. The elder may then feel they cannot express their needs or what they are experiencing to their parents.
Signs of jealousy among siblings
Your children can quarrel or tease each other for fun. Don’t worry about every hint of argument. If you feel that discussions or games are escalating too much, now is the time to intervene.
Signs of persistent jealousy:
- Your child is more sullen, and tends to sulk.
- They may act as a buffoon or try to get your attention more than usual.
- They disobey rules and intentionally act mischievously.
- They regularly show signs of impatience or belligerence. For example, they bite or push their siblings.
If one or several of these behaviours persist, observe your child when in the presence of their sibling. Try to understand what is happening so you can help change their behaviour.
Through their actions, your child is trying to capture your attention. By highlighting their good moves, you give them positive attention, and this could encourage them to improve their behaviour.
In your child’s mind…
A child 5 years and older still needs support from an adult to resolve their conflicts, because they are still building their self-esteem. Although they are increasingly able to understand the situations they are experiencing and the point of view of another person, they still have difficulty choosing or applying the right strategies on their own.
Until the age of 7, the child is still self-centred. They are less aware of the needs of others and may have more difficulty sharing their space and belongings with their siblings. For this reason, conflicts before this age are still focused on the possession of an object or toy (“Why can she have this toy and I can’t!”)
At age of 7, the child reaches the age of reason. They open up to the world of others and learn to negotiate. They can express their point of view and understand the impact of a positive or negative gesture. It becomes easier for you to hold logical discussions with your child, help them express their feelings, and encourage them to think of solutions to resolve conflicts with their siblings. They are also more open to collaborating and making compromises in more difficult situations. At this age, conflicts are more about the feeling of competence (“I am not as good as him!”) than the concept of possession.
Suggestions to lessen rivalry
Here’s what you can do to try mitigating the drawbacks of sibling rivalry and prevent it from escalating:
- Reassure each of your children about how important they are to you. When a new little brother or sister arrives, it is important to explain to the elder that you love them just as much and that you are still there for them, even if your baby or youngest child requires more care and intervention from you. Remind them often to comfort them.
- Plan quality time one-on-one with each of your children. Each child needs to feel they are special to their parents. Spending time alone with you is valuable to them.
- Do not pick favourites. Strive to be as fair as possible in the attention you give to your children. Each child has different needs depending on their age. Therefore, you can give certain permissions to one of them because of their age or devote more time to a child who is having difficulty doing their homework.
- Do not compare your children to each other. Do not cite brothers and sisters as examples, as this could create an unhealthy competition between them. Every child is unique. Encourage them to develop their own strengths and work on their difficulties, but without comparing them with the strengths and challenges of their brothers and sisters.
- Encourage your children to help each other. Do not hold the elder responsible for the youngest, but encourage each of them to help or encourage their siblings when they are experiencing difficulties. Capitalize on their individual strengths to promote mutual assistance.
- Set the example. Your children learn by imitating you. Try to settle your own differences and conflicts calmly, without shouting, screaming, or showing envy.
- Foster the development of their social skills. To achieve this, expose your children to various social situations, teach them pro-social behaviours (e.g., sharing, cooperating, helping), and encourage your children to adopt them. However, adjust your expectations according to the age of each of your children. The younger they are, the more immature their brain is and the more difficult it is for them to manage their emotions and impulses.
How to react to conflicts and fights
Regardless of what you do, your children will certainly go through periods of rivalry, which can cause friction and turn into conflicts and fights. You can help them resolve their disagreements and reduce the frequency of bickering.
- Remain calm when you intervene. The more calm and confident you are, the more your children will feel they can trust you to guide them through conflicts.
- Do not try to find who is wrong or who is right. Expose the situation to the children: “That’s enough now! There seems to be a problem between the two of you, and we will settle it together.” If you take sides, your children will tend to get more defensive and try to blame the other. Breaking down the problem makes your children more likely to take responsibility, because they don’t have to worry about you accusing them or casting them as the “bad apple.”
- Describe the problem without judgment, and confirm what happened. For example, you can say: “You want to build your wood blocks tower alone, but your brother wants to help you… and he also likes to crumble the tower? Is that what is going on?”
- Accompany your children and encourage them to calmly express their emotions and thoughts with words.
- Invite them to think about solutions before suggesting yours. Evaluate the pros and cons for each. If a suggested solution is not suitable for one of the children, encourage them to come up with other ideas.
- Do not intervene immediately in a conflict. Instead, observe your children to see if they can resolve the conflict on their own, but take action if there is an exchange of insults, aggressive gestures, or if you feel that they have reached a stalemate. If one of the children is young, guide them in developing their social skills and becoming more autonomous in conflict resolution.
- Do not tolerate physical violence. Should a fight break out, say “stop” in a firm voice and separate your children. Invite them to take a timeout to calm down, specifying that you will all reassess the situation when they feel better. Once they have calmed down, ask them to discuss the problem, explain how they felt, and work together on a solution.
- After a conflict, make your children reflect on the consequences of their behaviour (e.g., conflicts create sadness or anger, make them less interested in playing together later, etc.).
What if rivalry becomes out of control?
If despite your precautions and all the efforts you put into finding solutions, conflicts nevertheless frequently emerge and undermine family harmony or become too violent, it may be useful to get support from your local CLSC, where you can be referred to a behaviour specialist if necessary.
Things to keep in mind
Rivalry between siblings occurs for various reasons, including age difference or conflicting personalities.
To reduce rivalry between your children, avoid picking favourites and making comparisons and try instead to promote mutual assistance.
When dealing with conflict, stay calm, describe the problem without being judgmental, and try to get your children to find solutions to defuse the crisis.
Scientific review: Marie-Hélène Chalifour, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2022
Photos: GettyImages/Dejan_Dundjerski and SolStock
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
CRARY, Elizabeth. Arrête d’embêter ton frère, laisse ta soeur tranquille : comment faire face aux disputes et aux rivalités. Nouvelle édition, Vanves, Éditions Poche Marabout, 2020, 192 p.
FERLAND, Francine. Bien grandir : le développement des 6-12 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, coll. “Parlons Parents,” 2022, 216 p.
LAMBIN, Michèle. Frères et soeurs pour la vie : complicités et rivalités. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, coll. “Parlons Parents,” 2019, 164 p.
MARKHAM, Laura. Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. New York, TarcherPerigee, 2015, 352 p.
PAPALIA, Diane E. et al. Psychologie du développement de l’enfant. 9th ed., Montréal, Chenelière Éducation, 2018, 352 pp.
WEBMD. Sibling Rivalry. 2022. webmd.com
KARST, Patrice. Le fil invisible. Markham, Éditions Scholastic, 2019, 40 pp.