Siblings can get on like a house fire. They can also be worst enemies. Although there have been relatively few studies on sibling rivalry, some evidence suggests that the relationships between siblings are highly complex and are structured around envy, jealousy, competitiveness, and a sense of “unequal justice.”
Many parents blame themselves when their kids have given up on each other. Indeed, parents consciously or subconsciously control the dynamics underlying sibling relationships. What is true is that how we raise our kids can determine if they turn into allies, or into the greatest enemies of all time.
The problem with sibling rivalry is that the damage done in childhood can be impossible to resolve in adulthood. Most adults who have “tense relationships” with their siblings know that the divide is often difficult to cross later on in life. Yet siblings can be a great resource. As some studies have pointed out, no other relationships last as long as sibling relationships. Siblings often provide support and serve as companions, confidants, and role models in childhood and beyond. Fortunately, it is possible to foster positive sibling relationships using these tips.
1 | Focus more on being fair, not equal
No matter how hard you try, you can’t treat your kids equally. Multiple studies have found that differential treatment of sibling occurs throughout life. When you try to be equal, there’s always one kid who’ll think he’s getting the short end of the stick. The problem is when we treat our kids differently the chances are higher that siblings relationships will be less positive, and there is evidence to support these views. Other studies have found that parents can improve the quality of sibling relationships if kids believe that the reasons for differential treatment are fair.
Being fair means respecting the unique needs of each individual kid. When you explain to siblings that older kids have more privileges but they also have more chores, they are more likely to see your decisions as fair. The book “Siblings Without Rivalry” shows how we can treat children unequally and still be fair.
2 | Don’t tell kids not to fight, teach them how to fight
You can’t expect your kids not to fight. Siblings fight. That’s just the way it is. Fighting is normal. What matters is how it’s done and what happens after the fight is over.
Teaching kids how to fight requires you to set a few ground rules. When kids participate in setting these rules, they are more likely to respect them. Ground rules may involves issues such as unacceptable ways to resolve conflict (for example no aggression), consequences when the rules are broken, and how to make up after a fight.
3 | Resist the urge to intervene
Taking sides when kids fight rarely leads to positive relationships. At best, the “guilty party” will seek to “get even” with his sister(s) or brother(s) or will feel that his family is against him. Instead of focusing on “who started it,” focus on what you see: “I see two kids going against the rules.” You could also try to ignore them if no violence is involved or ask them to take their fighting elsewhere.
Resist the urge to repeatedly assign blame to one kid for “always starting fights.” Remember that what we expect of our children can become self-fulfilling prophecies. According to the Golem Effect, we cannot expect good behavior from our kids when we have low expectations of them.
Naturally, you need to be attentive to conflicts and may have to intervene where young kids are involved or when your kids constantly fight over the same issue. You also need to intervene when fights turn violent. We need to teach our kids to manage anger and anxiety when they constantly react to each other with violence.
4 | Teach cooperation, not competition
There are things we do to make our life easier. We tell our kids that whoever finishes his dinner first will get a special treat. We tell them that whoever brushes her teeth first will get something in return. We tell them that whoever gets in the car first can sit in the passenger’s seat. The problem is when we turn to competition to get things done faster we teach our kids to constantly perceive themselves as “against each other.”
Fostering positive relationships requires us to teach our kids that they’re in this together. When you tell your kids that they’ll get that special treat but only if they tidy up within five minutes, you teach them cooperation. When you set them up against each other by telling them the first kid to finish tidying up will get the treat, you teach them competition.
5 | Make room for family bonding
Provide regular opportunities to bond and pave the way for cooperation. For example, have regular family routines where each kid has a specific task to increase the chances of bonding. The more kids have fun together, the easier it is for them to build positive sibling relationships. When you master the art of family negotiation, you also help strengthen the parent-child bond.
6| Begin a one-on-one routine
Have one-on-one moments everyday with each of your kids to help them feel special and help nurture their self-esteem. When children feel appreciated they are more likely to develop positive sibling relationships. One-on-one routines can be as little as five minutes spent with each child, talking or doing activities that they enjoy.