10 ways to stop sibling rivalry

This week, Prince George was photographed looking a little nonplussed at his sister’s arrival. Rivalry amongst siblings is incredibly common, and even valuable – it helps them learn about negotiation, and their place in the world – yet it’s frustrating and upsetting to watch your children at odds with one another.

We asked Clinical psychologist Dr Laura Markham for her tips on handling rivalry, while maintaining the emotional connection that every child needs…

1. When tempers flare between your children, always start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to stay calm. Young children’s brains are still developing the capacity to self-regulate, so you can count on childish behaviour and some stormy interactions. The parent’s reaction either calms or inflames the storm.

2. Empathy is your magic wand. Children are much more likely to co-operate if you acknowledge their perspective. “I know, you don’t want to get out of the bath… You were splashing your brother’s face… I know you love splashing, but that was too much splashing for him…You can splash in the paddling pool tomorrow.” You need to set limits and uphold them, but you never need to be mean about it. Demonstrate kindness.

3. Allow all emotions, limit behaviour. Kids are allowed to be angry and to express that to each other, but they aren’t allowed to attack each other physically or verbally. “I can see how angry you are at your sister… You can tell her without calling names. The rule in our family is no name-calling.” Remember that when emotions are expressed, they begin to evaporate, so make it safe for your children to cry and talk about what upsets them. This is the first step of children learning to regulate their emotions.

4. Consciously work to create positive interactions between your children. Every relationship needs six positive interactions for every negative interaction. Laughter and physical contact stimulate bonding hormones like oxytocin and reduce stress hormones, so get your children laughing together and snuggling several times a day.

5. Remember that children need to feel connected to you to WANT to cooperate. When your child gets defiant, consciously relax and try to reconnect by describing the problem from her perspective. “You sound really angry… I think this isn’t what you wanted… Tell me about it, sweetie.” Every day, spend one-on-one time with each child just connecting with her. (This is not structured time like reading a story. Let her pick the activity and play with her.) If you create a sweet, deep relationship with each child, they won’t be as threatened by their sibling.

6. Resist blaming, even if you think one child is wrong. It just puts kids on the defensive. Instead, describe the problem as objectively as you can, “I hear loud voices… it sounds like both of you want the elephant.” Decrease your own anxiety by reminding yourself that you don’t have to decide who is right. That’s always a mistake because the child who “loses” concludes that you prefer their sibling, which increases sibling rivalry. Instead, prevent any violence by getting between the kids, restore a sense of safety with your calm presence, uphold family rules (“No hitting! Hitting hurts!”) and support your kids to work out a solution.

7. Soothe your kids when they’re upset. All humans have mirror neurons so we pick up other people’s emotions. But sometimes we find another person’s emotions too upsetting, particularly if we are uncomfortable with our own feelings. So when parents soothe an upset child, the child learns that emotions aren’t dangerous, and becomes more comfortable with his own emotions – and more able to tolerate and empathise with the feelings of others, including siblings.

8. Teach empathy and emotional intelligence by talking about emotions every day.

  • “I can see how disappointed you are.”
  • “George hurt his knee, ouch! Let’s give him a hug to help him feel better.”
  • “I wonder what the baby is feeling when he looks like that?”
  • “That little boy is crying; I wonder what’s going on?”
  • “I’m feeling frustrated… I can’t get this to work right. I’m going to take three deep breaths to calm myself down.”

9. Expect some friction. Conflict is part of every human relationship. Siblings are the people we practise on, who help us smooth away the rough edges of our own self-centredness. Your job is not to prevent conflict but to help your children learn to calm themselves and work things out respectfully.

10. Expect to repeat yourself. It takes time and lots of repetition, but if you take the time to teach your children to express their needs without attacking the other person and to find win/win solutions, they’ll have the skills to work things out with each other and to create rewarding relationships for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Calm Parent, Happy Kids: The Secret of Stress-Free Parenting and Calm Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. You can find her online at AhaParenting.com.

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