If you have more than one child, you're bound to have some sibling rivalry. It's very, very hard for children to have to share us. In fact, when a younger sibling is born, virtually all children worry that they've lost their parents' love. Why else would you have gotten a newer, younger, model?
In addition to sibling rivalry, kids can have personality clashes, or clashes because they're different ages and want different things --or because they're close in age and want the same things!
Finally, like other humans who live together, even the most loving siblings have bad days and conflicts. And kids don't have the perspective to know it's not necessarily the other person's fault, or the skills to work out differences.
But your children can be friends for life, and your parenting can prevent and even transform sibling tensions. How?
1. Teach your children skills to get along with each other.
All human relationships will have some conflict, and we can't expect kids to automatically know how to work things out peacefully. But most adults didn't learn good social-emotional or conflict-resolution skills as children, so we don't know how to teach them to our kids. We tell children to use their words, but often they don't know what words to use, and when they're upset, they can't access those reasonable words.
So parents can expect to have to set limits over and over, giving kids the language to express their needs and solve their problems, without attacking each other. This is a skill they will use in every relationship for the rest of their lives. And yes, if you do this consistently, you will see your children begin to use this language with each other, without you needing to intervene!
Here's a simple but very effective three-step process to teach skills when you need to set limits on how your children are interacting.
- Acknowledge feelings or wants: “You wanted your brother to stop pressing your nose, so you pinched him.”
- Set limit: “No pinching. Pinching hurts.”
- Teach alternatives: “Tell your brother ‘Stop touching me!’”
2. Rather than jumping in to admonish your child when she bothers her sibling, coach the other child to stand up for himself.
If you always defend one child, the other child becomes convinced you love the sibling more, and sibling tensions get worse. Instead, coach both children to express their needs, and back them up as necessary.
Dad: “Daniel, you look upset. What don’t you like? Can you tell your sister?
Daniel: “Daniel don’t like pushing!”
Dad: "Serena, Daniel says he doesn’t like being pushed. Will you stop pushing or do you need my help to move away?”
3. Institute self-regulated turns instead of forced sharing, to foster generosity and lessen conflict.
Make a family rule that when you're playing at home, each child can use the toy she has for as long as she wants it, up to the next meal. If she wants to share it with her sibling before that, it's her choice, but she decides when she's through with the toy. If she puts it down, the other child needs to ask, "Are you done with your turn?" before making off with the toy. Of course, when you're at the park, or have other children visiting, then you need to warn kids in advance that you're taking short turns in that situation.
Here's what kids learn from forced sharing:
- If I cry loud enough, I get what I want, even if someone else has it.
- Parents are in charge of who gets what when & it’s arbitrary, depending on how dramatically I beg for my turn.
- My sibling and I are in constant competition to get what we need. I don’t like him.
- I won! But soon I will lose again soon. I had better protest loudly when my turn is up to get every minute I can. If I make my parent miserable, I’ll get more time with the toy.
Here's what kids learn from self-regulated turns:
- I can ask for what I want. Sometimes I get a turn soon; sometimes I have to wait. Everybody gets a turn sooner or later.
- It’s okay to cry, but it doesn’t mean I get the toy.
- I don’t get everything I want, but my parent always understands & helps me.
- After I cry, I feel better.
- I like the feeling when my sibling gives me the toy. I like her.
- When I’m done with the toy & give it to my sibling, I feel good inside, generous.
Worried about the crying from the child who is waiting for their turn? At first, there will be some, so look at it as a chance to help your child express any pent-up tears and fears they've been carrying around. Once they get a chance to cry with your loving attention ("I will help you wait for the toy") they often have little interest in the toy, suggesting that their upset wasn't really about the toy to begin with. And once you start using this rule, children love it and stop fighting about sharing.
4. Don't ever compare your kids to each other or to any other child.
"Why do you give me such a hard time about brushing your teeth? See how your sister just opens her mouth?"
You may think you're motivating your child, but what he hears is that his sister is better and you love her more. Just set whatever limits you need to, without reference to his sister.
Even positive comparisons backfire. When you say "I wish your brother would just sit down and do his homework with no fuss, like you do!" your daughter thinks "I'm the good kid so mom loves me...I always need to be a good girl to be loved." She's also now invested in your continuing to see your other child as the bad kid.
5. Work to create an atmosphere of kindness and appreciation in your house.
Give your children opportunities to be kind to each other and to appreciate each other by making it a normal part of your family life. For instance, keep a kindness journal in which you write down examples of kind acts you notice between your kids, or that they report to you. Read excerpts to your children on Sunday evenings so they can bask in how good they feel, both as the giver and receiver, and so they get a chance to see each other as a source of love and kindness.
Every night at dinner, have each person find at least one specific thing to "appreciate" about each other person:
- "I appreciate that Jillian helped me with my homework."
- "I appreciate that Mommy played my game with me."
- "I appreciate that Daddy made my favorite dinner."
- "I appreciate that Danny didn't bother us when my friends came over to play."
6. Help them be a team.
I'm not a fan of rewards in general, but I do look for every opportunity to reward teamwork between siblings. You might try to make your kids partners in avoiding fights with each other by setting up a Cooperation jar and putting a coin in it every time you observe the kids nice to each other, including playing without fighting. If they express feelings in an appropriate, respectful way, they gain coins, especially since that is so hard for kids. The kids get to decide (together) how to spend the money.
7. Make sure your kids each get enough personal space.
Siblings have to share parents, toys, family time, and the spotlight, which is a lot to share. Sharing a room can foster closeness between siblings, but it can also be just too much sharing, especially for children who have very different temperaments. Room sharing is easier when kids have some private space, such as a high cupboard to keep special possessions away from a younger sibling, or a "tent" bed so a child can be alone when he chooses. Some children even get along better once parents paint a line down the middle of the floor, and set the furniture up to define two separate spaces.
8. Love each one best.
If your child KNOWS that you could never love anyone else more than you love him, he won't find himself jealous of his sibling very often. So your first focus needs to be strengthening and sweetening your relationship with each child.
Be sure you're following the other recommendations on this website to build connection -- Special Time one on one for each child daily, for instance. Lots of laughter daily. Empathy so your child can express emotions. Loving guidance instead of punishment. Kids who are raised this way are happier and emotionally healthier, so they get along better with their siblings. Every child needs to know deep in their bones:
“There is more than enough for you, no matter what your sibling gets. I could never love anyone more than I love you.”
My book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life has lots more solutions, tips and skills to help your children get along better and develop a strong bond for life.
Don't miss the article How To Prevent Sibling Fighting
And here are two scripts to get you started:
Looking for help with older kids fighting? How To Intervene In a Sibling Fight »
Questions and Answers about siblings:
How to stop siblings fighting? »
3 year old attitude, hitting little sister »
4 year old hitting little brother, Sibling Rivalry »
Curing Sibling Rivalry with Angry Four Year Old »
Baby is 6 months: Siblings aggressive, bedwetting »
Parents ask me all the time for good books that deal with sibling relationships. Here are some suggestions for both you and your children.
There are also books on adding a baby to your family on this page: Books about the New Baby for Older Siblings