sibling rivalry

Dealing with Sibling Rivalry in the Under 7s

16 July 2023
Posted by: Chelsea

Sibling rivalry can become a major headache for some parents.

Fortunately, there are ways of reducing or eliminating it.

What is sibling rivalry?

The term is usually applied to situations where children set out to ‘beat’ their sibling or siblings in one form or another.

However, this isn’t the sort of intention that one might find in say a board game or if the siblings are on opposite sides in a sport. Sibling rivalry is a form of constant competitiveness fuelled by resentment, aggression, ill-feeling and at times, clear hostility.

Although relatively common in younger children usually with minor symptoms, it can sometimes carry on into teenage years and even adult life.

The severity may vary significantly.

In the majority of cases, this syndrome is manifest by typically short-duration niggles between the children, petty fights, sulking and minor lies about what the other party has been up to. Unfortunately, in some cases, the rivalry may be so intense as to give serious cause for concern through real efforts to cause serious injury to a sibling or the theft and destruction of each other’s property etc.

Causes

A child who has become used to getting 100% of their parents’ attention may, understandably, resent a new arrival and the need to start sharing that attention.

In other cases, the causes may be due more to personalities. Contrary to what we might all hope for in our families, the reality is that siblings simply don’t always get on because their personality types may naturally conflict. Where that is the case, the rivalries may be particularly acute.

Although most parents work hard to try and evenly distribute their attention, at times that may be impossible. Examples of that might include children with special educational needs or health problems.

It’s also possible that rivalries might arise due to varying performances in pre or primary school. One child doing very well across the board may be resented by their sibling who might be requiring additional help.

Some psychologists speculate that such rivalries have their origin in our ancient past when competition for food and parental care/attention would have been critical for a child’s survival. There is though, no hard evidence to support that.

In many cases, it isn’t possible to allocate a specific cause to individual cases of sibling rivalry.

Sexes

At one time, it was believed that such rivalries tended to be more common between brothers or sisters rather than brother-sister.

However, there seems to be little foundation for this assumption – at least with younger age children.

What you can do to help avoid or minimise the problems

In reality, there is no surefire way to guarantee that you’ll avoid sibling rivalries. You can though try to ensure that you:
balance the time you invest in your children as evenly as possible. This may be difficult if one sibling is a baby or toddler with the other slightly older but the effort will be noticed and appreciated by the older child;

  • avoid unintentional value-judgement comments about one child’s activities against the other’s, e.g., “why don’t you try and do more sport like your sister?”;
  • praise their respective pre and primary-school work equally, even if they have different ability levels in different subjects. This may need to be adjusted as they age but initially it is important;
  • avoid taking sides when they squabble – unless there are very clear issues that require one child to recognise that they have done wrong;
  • sit down with them together and regularly chat about your family life together;
  • find time for each of them individually, where you are theirs and not a shared resource.

Help

None of the above steps will guarantee to avoid sibling rivalry and tensions but they may help. Some families never experience these problems whilst, for some, they can be a nightmare of constant conflict.

In a few rare cases, the tensions may become so severe (e.g., constant serious fighting between siblings) as to cause parents to fear for the safety of their children. In such cases, there are excellent family stress counsellors available who may be able to help. You can usually contact them through your doctor.

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