How to talk to kids about their sibling rivalry

It’s important to make the older child feel secure and loved, for example make sure the family bookshelf features equal numbers of photographs of each sibling

Don't play favourites between two siblings. Getty 
Powered by automated translation

I remember pulling a knife on my older sister once. I was about 5 years old, and it was a tiny, folding blade on a Swiss Army penknife, so she was never in any real danger. To say that I was in big trouble would be an understatement, although it made a change from being told off for leaving teeth marks in the heat of an argument. Years later, when we'd made up and my parents went away on holiday, my mother hid all the sharp knives in the house. The ­realisation made for a week of laughter and poorly cut bread. I'm still not sure whether she was worried about burglars or a resumption in hostilities. 

A generation later, and nothing much has changed: there’s only 18 months between my two girls, and they’re constantly trying to outdo each other, bickering and crying out for my attention. I’m sure that they’ll grow out of it, but how to live with the terrible twosome in the meantime?

Well, life’s unfair

Perceived inequalities are a ­critical flashpoint in sibling ­rivalry. Anyone who has more than one child will have served up this little gem at some point, ­cringing all the while. And, yes, life is ­unfair, but your child isn’t asking for a lesson in realism when he or she is questioning why their elder sibling is allowed to go to bed half an hour later than they are. It’s more constructive to point out that fairness isn’t the law of family life, because sometimes, one child (or parent) needs something more than the other – and more sleep for a younger child is a good case in point. 

Don’t play favourite

It's asking for trouble to spend time comparing your children and it's guaranteed to stoke long-­lasting resentments that may cause a rift in adulthood. In Adult Sibling Relationships, academic co-authors Geoffrey Greif and Michael Woolley, from the school of social work at the University of Maryland, studied 260 siblings to determine how family dynamics play out among forty-somethings. They found that "if adults report that they did not feel jealousy between themselves and their siblings when they were young, they are more likely to be close to those siblings".

The trouble starts with child no 2

There are no prizes for guessing that sibling rivalry begins with the birth of a brother or sister. It’s ­important to soften this fundamental change in the family dynamic by making the older child feel secure and loved. Make sure, for example, that the family bookshelf features equal numbers of photographs of each sibling. In later years, don’t give the eldest child responsibility for his or her brothers or sisters because it sets them apart from their sibling peers and stops them all rubbing along together – for good and bad. 

More than just a petty squabble

If you'd like future family get-­togethers to be jolly rather than frosty affairs, it's worth investing in your children's relationship rather than always leaving kids to work it out for themselves. A good sibling relationship serves as a ­useful template for later friendships and more intimate relationships, according to Laurie Kramer, a psychologist at Northeastern University, who started the More Fun with Sisters and Brothers Program, an online tutorial to help children between the ages of 4 and 8 years get along, coached by their parents. It encourages parents to step in and mediate in sibling rows, help children to see each other's point of view and encourage kids to control their anger. As always, communication is crucial.  


Read more:


It’s not all bad news

When the war of the worlds breaks out in the living room, it feels like everyone piles in to add to the drama, but what about when silence reigns? If your children are getting on well together, don’t take it for granted and take the opportunity to praise their efforts instead. 

Try not to take it all personally

It’s tempting to see constantly brawling kids as evidence that you have somehow failed as a parent, but the family home is necessarily a testing ground for some useful life skills, such as negotiation and compromise. Sometimes, you need to step back and watch your kids put those skills into practice on their own terms. Then, there’s your own sanity: it might be that parents should break the pack and spend time with siblings separately to give everyone a break from the tensions on daily display. One-on-one time with friends and separate hobbies will also provide some welcome respite. 

Parents, it’s time to grow up

If mum and dad’s “discussions” take the form of shouting at each other, it should be no surprise when kids follow suit – with a door slam thrown in for good measure. On the flip side, kids will also learn from parents showing love and respect for one another – and should be praised accordingly – and that should be your secret weapon.