By Jan Cheek, MSW, LCSW
Secondary to COVID-19 “shelter at home” mandates and finishing the last couple months of school at home and online, and then the elimination of many organized summer activities such as summer camps and sports programs, family together time has been greater than usual. There are, of course, many bonuses for having family together time and, also, many challenges especially when there are few options for respite. One of the challenges includes increasing sibling rivalry behaviors, the natural jealousies, competition, bickering, and fighting for attention that occurs between siblings in family relationships.
What types of behaviors are typical of sibling rivalry? The list can be long, but the most common behaviors for kids aged toddler through teen years might include: arguing, whining, tattling, hitting, bossing, stealing, lying, blaming, name-calling, provoking, hiding, antagonizing, teasing, destroying things, and refusing to play. Certainly, if you are a parent, or if you are a sibling, something on this list is very familiar!
Why do siblings fight? Why do kids who are otherwise well-behaved and “good” kids capable of being so “mean” to their own brothers or sisters? Social scientists and developmental specialists have done much research in the study of sibling rivalry. Their social and developmental learning models indicate that the intensity of these sibling rivalry behaviors and interactions actually can have positive results with assisting children with learning negotiation strategies and problem-solving techniques. They suggest that the behaviors assist with overall adjustment and management of intense emotions through childhood development such as frustration, hate, envy, jealousy, sadness, disappointment, love, fear, courage, loss, despair, and excitement. The rivalry helps children and teens learn how to deal with power struggles, how to compromise, how to stand up for themselves and for what they believe in, and how to manage conflicts and handle issues more cooperatively.
Parents often wonder if they are doing something wrong if their children are frequently bickering. Parents desire for their kids to be nice and kind to each other, to be fair and respectful, to share, to be loving and to not hurt each other’s feelings. Parents commonly feel upset and frustrated and even become outraged with their kids when they feel as if they are constantly refereeing arguments and fights. Sibling rivalry is quite normal and can be impacted by age of children, age differences of children, temperaments of children, genders, and numbers of children in a household. Parenting style and parenting behaviors can influence the intensity of sibling rivalry, but some rivalry is very typical.
If we as parents will remember that this behavior is actually developmentally normal and has potential of being really quite productive in terms of helping kids become good problem solvers and handle issues in a more cooperative manner, then perhaps we can be better observers about when our intervention is really necessary. We often intervene immediately to try to shut down any bickering and fussing because it is so unnerving and irritating to us. In truth, it is best to let kids work things out on their own when there is just mild and moderate arguing and power struggles. If there is physical contact or a threat of danger, then we should think of intervening and separating folks until there is a calming down (if anyone is hurt, always tend to the hurt child first). And then, once calm, acknowledge each other’s feelings and viewpoints. Explore possible ideas for various solutions from each child, and from the parent, for the problem at hand and for potential future concerns to use as a learning opportunity.
Kids need for your family rules around problem solving to be very clear, such as: No hitting, kicking, spitting, or destroying other people’s things. Use words to describe feelings. No name calling. Tell the truth. Do not take anything that is not yours. Treat all people with respect. An important rule that helps with sibling rivalry is No Tattling-Only Telling. Tattling is defined as anything that is said to try to get someone in trouble, such as: “Sissy is eating ice cream in the living room!” Telling is defined as anything that is said to try to HELP someone NOT be in trouble or be hurt, such as, “Sissy is standing on the bookcase and is gonna jump!”
It is important to remember that kids do not have to like each other all the time, but they must follow the rules your family establishes and they cannot be mean to each other. Parents should not punish children for having disagreements and being upset with each other, but only discipline for rule violations.
Parents can prevent escalations of sibling rivalry by realizing that they need to help kids have enough positive attention and one on one time with parents, even if it is just a special ten-minute period of time devoted to each child daily. Parents need to assist with helping kids learn how to problem solve, and learn how to make amends, and learn how to prevent conflict with others, and learn how to respect others, and learn how to reconnect with family members when upsets have occurred. Parents are the role models. Empathize and validate feelings of a child, but do not choose sides, such as: If a kid says, “He took my toy!” Simply respond, “Oh Goodness, that must hurt your feelings for someone to take your toy.” It is quite amazing how just acknowledging feelings can minimize escalations and allow young ones to then problem solve on their own. Treat all parties equally if you do not have all the facts. Consider taking away whatever the kids are fighting over if they cannot resolve the issue themselves and giving it back when they have a plan for how they intend to be cooperative with each other. Competing for parental attention is a normal process. Unless there is danger involved try to actively ignore kids seeking attention in a negative way. Offer attention only when kids are seeking it in a positive manner.
Sibling rivalry is a normal dynamic. We have had increased exposure to the impact of it due to increased family togetherness secondary to COVID-19 safety measures. If you have concerns that your family may be experiencing extreme emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms that are out of the range of normal sibling rivalry, our expert mental health providers at Behavioral Healthcare Associates have years of training to assist with evaluating and treating what might be going on. Please contact our office at 919-292-1464 for an in office or a telehealth appointment, or for additional information. You can also gain additional information about our providers and practice on our website http://www.behavioralhealthcareassociates.org