Sibling rivalry is a major source of stress for parents and siblings. However, there are a number of ways to address it that will really make a difference.
There are often issues underlying the rivalry, and rivalry and jealousy are different for different age groups. It’s not necessarily obvious that certain behaviour is linked to rivalry when in fact it is. As with any emotion, it’s very important to look behind what is causing the problem.
Scarlett, aged 3, was jealous of her one year old sister watching a ‘Baby Santa’ DVD with their grandmother. “Granny, I want to get rid of baby Alice and get one of those smiley babies.” “Oh really darling, where should she go?” “You can have her, Granny.”
Sibling rivalry connected to the arrival of a new baby
New baby jealousy will often kick in when the baby becomes more 'interesting' and a more obvious threat to the sibling, which usually happens at about six months. However, it can be apparent from the very moment the baby arrives. Looking behind the behaviour, the causes are likely to be:
- The older sibling can feel that his place has been usurped, and that he isn't the cute youngest one any more, which is threatening.
- He fears that he will never get the same attention as before from any member of the family.
- Annoyance at having to share his parents’ attention.
- Frustration that his daily routines have been interrupted by the needs of the baby.
- A real dilemma: even though he will have some protective instincts towards the baby, and often a deep love, at times he will simply wish the baby would disappear. He may even harbour shame about feeling this way.
Solutions to jealousy at the arrival of a new baby
As discussed on the page Uncovering Emotions, it is vitally important that children have their feelings validated and articulated for them, as they are very unlikely to be able to express them themselves. Using simple language, you could say: ‘You feel worried that Mummy won't love you as much now the baby is here.’ ‘Whilst I know you love Tommy, sometimes you want to hurt him too and you feel bad about that.’ ‘It’s frustrating having to share Daddy with Isabel; you want him all to yourself and you often have to wait until he’s finished with her before you can do what you want to do.’ By articulating these feelings, you will show your child that he is normal and that his feelings are valid. This will help his feelings of frustration to dissipate.
Assigning the older child a role can be helpful. They could be in charge of nappy wipes, muslin cloths or certain toys. They could manage bathtime: making sure the water is at the right temperature and that the towel and clothes are ready. When possible, they could give the baby a bottle or help to feed him solids.
Devote whatever time you have available on spending one-to-one time with the older child. Make sure you communicate just how important this time is to you: ‘Isn't it nice spending time together, just me and you?’ It might be that this is simply a trip to buy a loaf of bread. It doesn't have to be a day at Legoland! It’s the appreciation you show and the value you place on your time together with the older child that matters.
A story from my family
We had had a lady called Jackie helping us for a few weeks when Scarlett was born. Out of the blue ten months later, Felix, aged 3½, suddenly said, ‘Why isn’t Jackie coming back to collect baby Scarlett?’ I asked him who he thought Scarlett belonged to. He said, ‘Jackie and I want Jackie to come and take her back because I don’t like her in our house. I want Jackie to have her.’ I said, ‘I can tell you feel really jealous. Is there anything specific you feel jealous about?’ and Felix said, ‘She’s naughty and she tries to grab my toys.’ ‘I’m so glad you are telling me this and sharing your feelings with me,’ I said. ‘Are you also jealous that she spends so much time with Mummy?’ ‘Yes I am,’ said Felix, ‘and I want to spend more time with you, Mummy.’ Even though it was pretty difficlut to find more time to spend with him, I know it made a difference helping him to express it. After that, when we did have a few moments together, I would say, ‘It’s so nice having time with just you.’
Sibling rivalry and squabbles:
Very often there is something behind the squabbles, fights or put-downs. It may be that the one who seems to be the aggressor is having a hard time elsewhere in his life. He may be struggling to make friends at nursery or school; he may have just started school and he’s finding it stressful; it may be that he’s being excluded or bullied at school and he hasn't told anyone; perhaps, academically, he doesn't feel very strong and the result is he takes it out on someone who is permanently in his life.
The most important – and hardest – thing is to stay out of the squabbles. That isn't to say that you can't help them come to a solution, but don’t take sides. The minute you take sides, you are saying that one sibling is the bad one and the other the good one. This simply isn't true. There is a dynamic between them and the younger one learns quickly how to goad and provoke her brother or sister. They learn to do it in a cunning way so that it isn't at first obvious, but it is there. I remember seeing Felix, aged 2 years, take a toy from his older brother, Nico, and Nico didn't react. Felix clearly wanted a reaction and a bit of 'fun' so he said, ’Nicooooo, I got your tooooy’, then he waved it under Nico's nose and ran away. It was clearly a ploy to push his brother's buttons. Nico then grabbed the toy and pushed Felix, who started crying. Had I not seen the beginning of the event, I would have been tempted to wade in and tell Nico he was being unkind, and to give back the toy and share.
- Act as a mediator to help them come to a solution: ‘Hmm, two children, one buggy and you both want it. What do you think we should do?’
- ‘You are both so cross with each other that I think you need to cool down and when you feel calmer you can come back and work out how to solve this.’
- ‘Sam, when you use put-downs like that Jack feels really humiliated by you and I'm not sure what you are trying to achieve by saying those things. If you want something, please just ask him in a polite way or say nothing.’
- Praise them when they are getting on well, even if it is only for a few minutes. Make sure they have the perception of themselves as siblings that can have a good relationship. It is so easy to only focus on the bad stuff.
- Describe patterns of human behaviour: ‘James, I think you must have had a bad day today. When you came home you leapt on Sacha when she asked if she could borrow your calculator. When people have had a rough time at work or at school they try to take it out on someone else. You want to rid yourself of bad feelings and pass them on to someone else. Does that really work?’
- Set them a task that involves teamwork. It might be to do a puzzle, lay the table or go shopping with a list. As they are forced to work together, you can praise the small steps along the way: 'Hey, look at that, Jenny. You suggested another way to play the game and Annabel agreed. That is real teamwork.'
- Keep them occupied. Very often it’s when children haven't had any physical activity, have been cooped up inside the house and have been watching too many screens that they alleviate the boredom by provoking a fight.
- Remember that it is completely normal for siblings to squabble. Send them away from you so that you don't hear the noise or walk away yourself. They are learning life’s negotiating skills, where the boundaries lie and how to solve problems – especially when you help them focus on that.
Another story from my family
Scarlett, aged 4, and Felix, aged 7, have had a day of squabbling. After they’d cooled down I suggested that Scarlett went and asked Felix if he wanted to play their game ‘sleepy sleepy’. I suggested that she practised asking without whining, which she was willing to do with me. She then went and found him and asked nicely and they had a lovely game together. A day or so later Scarlett chose Felix to come with her on a picnic and they snuggled up on the rug. Then he let her have his Chelsea football medal saying, ‘She let me come on the picnic, so I let her have my medal – but not for always…’