Sibling rivalry- when to get involved

Sibling rivalry- when to get involved

Arguments among siblings are not an unhealthy phenomenon. But, parents should be concerned when this becomes a regular occurrence because it can have a devastating long-term effect on the whole family. By Fundiswa Nkwanyana 

Sibling rivalry and when to get involved:

If you have more than one child in your family, then you are probably accustomed to some bickering, competition, fighting and animosity among them. Sibling rivalry may be frustrating to witness because as a parent, you want your kids to have a loving and close relationship. In my experience, most parents usually brush it off with comments such as “just get over it, you’re family” or “I don’t care who started it; you are both punished”. And, they utter these comments without carefully analysing the situation. Sibling relationships often come with some sort of competition, and you can turn it into lessons on tolerance and love.

SEE ALSO: The effects of playing favourites 

What causes sibling rivalry?

“I’m stressed because my three children aged between 2 and 12 are always bickering and fighting with each other. I don’t know what to do,” says Nomfundo Zwane. After taking a closer look at the situation, she realised that the cause was the age gap between them. This is because their development stages are not the same, and so have different emotional needs. Another reason for sibling rivalry could be the lack of bonding between your family unit. “When a family does not spend time together, they are bound to have communication issues that can spark sibling rivalry,” suggests Michele Berger, an educational psychologist. She adds that the stress in your lives as parents can also aggravate discourse among siblings because it decreases the amount of time and attention you give them. “When children feel that they must fight, perform or achieve in order to have your attention, sibling rivalry is likely to ensue,” she adds. Talk to your children and understand where they are coming from because sometimes, the problem is with you as a parent, and you may just not be aware. Additionally, don’t let your frustration blind you from figuring out the reasons for your children’s behaviour in order to find a solution. Andrea Nettel, founding director and counsellor at The Family Counselling Centre, says issues among siblings often start when they feel that they are being replaced, and so have to compete for attention. According to an article published on Young Parents ( titled Six Reasons for Sibling Rivalry, some of the other causes are:

  • Children don’t feel special enough, and become insecure about their relationship with parents.
  • Parents unintentionally compare their kids with each other, and this brews resentment that can lead to fights.
  • As the number of people in the home increases, children feel that they don’t have personal space and time.
  • Most parents assume that their children will naturally get along. So, they don’t teach them how to value and respect each other.
  • Parents do not explain why the other child is getting more than the other.

Sibling rivalry can also be an indication that your family is struggling with power imbalances and communication. When siblings fight for attention, respect, acknowledgement, affection, acceptance, encouragement and support from their parents, they become rivals,” says Andrea. But, conflict can also be caused by an age gap, gender roles, personality traits, favouritism and your reaction to fights.

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How to remedy the situation

Once you have an understanding of the cause of the conflict, you need to step in and fix the problem. You also have to remain calm and objective so your children can learn how to handle conflict. “It is important to find ways to connect with each child individually and together, to strengthen the family bond,” states Andrea. She also suggests that you don’t rush to intervene “I always panic and shout at my teenage twins when they get into a physical altercation over household chores and TV time,” says Mary Jones. A physical fight is a sign that the situation is out of control, and of a need for urgent intervention, according to Andrea. So, separate them without shouting, and instruct them to have a cooling-off period before reprimanding them. Also, ensure that you empathise and encourage them to talk about their needs, and see their sibling’s perspective. You need to praise and acknowledge them publicly and privately, and not play favourites. Michele adds that you enjoy your children’s individual talents and successes without comparing them. Encourage them to cooperate rather than compete, teaching positive ways to get attention, and always being fair. Plan fun activities together because when children do this, they are less likely to fight. Make sure that they each have a chance to enjoy their time and space alone or with friends without other siblings. Speak positively about all your children, and encourage them to do the same.

SEE ALSO: Discipline your child the right way


Children that grew up in a family where sibling rivalry was tolerated are likely to be competitors as adults due to unresolved issues. The childhood trauma influences their thoughts, feelings and behaviour in ways that continue to hurt them. As much as you can play a big role in helping them resolve this, the onus is on their willingness to do so. “I always advise parents to not pick a side, and encourage their children to talk to each other and resolve their issues,” says Shallen Moodley, a family therapist. When tension has been brewing for years, it is not easy to forgive and forget. But, it is not impossible. “The first step is to acknowledge your pain, understand where your sibling is coming from and be willing to forgive and make amends,” she says. If all else fails, nothing is wrong with keeping your distance from your siblings, but still be a part of their lives. “Keep the peace by sending cards, attending family gatherings and remaining respectful. Also, avoid talking about your sibling with other family members,” she cautions.

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