Sibling rivalry and balancing the needs of the whole family

With Back to School well and truly underway it can be hard settling back into a routine of school and activities after the long summer holidays. In families with more than one child it can often become a challenge to balance the needs of each family member (including our needs as parents) and to give each child the time and space to grow. Children often compete for their parents attentions, and sibling rivalry and jealousy is common in the early years of development. The good news…its completely natural and can even be helpful!

The Centre for Parenting Education offer a fantastic guide on dealing with sibling rivalry and more importantly what we can learn from it. There are in fact benefits of these interactions which can go on to shape how our children handle future conflict, resolve issues, react to challenges, negotiate and compromise. These life skills are frequently used in our adult lives at work, with friends and family and so shaping them young and harnessing sibling rivalry into a positive learning experience can be of benefit to parents and children.

Coaching is based on the foundation that we are all unique individuals with our own unique view of the world. We may not always understand another person’s view but we can respect it, and accept it as theirs. This rationale is a powerful concept when working with children as resolving sibling conflict requires understanding of each child’s perspective. As parents we often dismiss the name-calling and fighting as annoying and exhausting however each child will inevitably have their reasons. Seeing things from their perspectives can be the gateway to helping them resolve sibling disputes and fine tune their interpersonal skills for later life.

The Child Development Institute offers the following advice for recognising your children’s unique character and addressing sibling rivalry.

  • Don’t make comparisons. (“I don’t understand it. When Johnny was her age, he could already tie his shoes.”) Each child feels he is unique and rightly so-he is unique, and he resents being evaluated only in relation to someone else. Instead of comparison, each child in the family should be given his own goals and levels of expectation that relate only to him.
  • Don’t dismiss or suppress your children’s resentment or angry feelings. Contrary to what many people think, anger is not something we should try to avoid at all costs. It’s an entirely normal part of being human, and it’s certainly normal for siblings to get furious with one another. They need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry, too, but have learned control and that angry feelings do not give license to behave in cruel and dangerous ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger (“I know you hate David right now but you cannot hit him with a stick”). and talk it through.
  • Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. First we must teach children that feelings and actions are not synonymous. It may be normal to want to hit the baby on the head, but parents must stop a child from doing it. The guilt that follows doing something mean is a lot worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean. So parental intervention must be quick and decisive.
  • When possible, let brothers and sisters settle their own differences. Sounds good but it can be terribly unfair in practice. Parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate, especially in a contest of unequals in terms of strength and eloquence (no fair hitting below the belt literally or figuratively). Some long-lasting grudges among grown siblings have resulted when their minority rights were not protected. extend this into advice for older children and offer some lovely insights into how to maintain your personal boundaries, be kind, accept differences between you and your sibling and above all be in control of your own self. As parents, all we can do is share our own wisdom with additional insights from the many resources designed to help with family life.

  • Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. So said Oscar Wilde. Thinking for yourself is important in helping discover who you are and what you’re about. As we mature it’s only natural to want to re-assess the rules and beliefs you picked up along the way. It is up to us to decide what’s of personal value and what’s best to discard of the beliefs and expectations we grew up with.
  • Stop wishing your sibling was different Your sibling may not be irritating you or hurting you because they are malicious. They may just view things differently from you. View yourself from your sibling’s perspective. The best way to see a change in them is to change your own thinking and behaviour about them.
  • Manage your emotional self It’s easy to identify someone else as ‘difficult’, but how often do you acknowledge that you can be difficult as well? Take responsibility for your actions. It’s okay to permit feelings, which are neither good nor bad but indicators of your wellbeing. The resilient person is a problem solver who doesn’t paper over uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, but acknowledges them. So whilst conceding that they are angry and thinking to themselves, ‘I’m upset and hurt about this,’ the resilient person is also thinking, ‘but I can deal with it.’
  • Show yourself kindness If we take good care of ourselves, we’re more likely to be willing to show loving concern and kindness to others.
  • Maintain good interpersonal boundaries Foster an atmosphere of mutual respect as opposed to hostile competition between you and your siblings. The best way is to establish personal boundaries. Boundaries help us express our individuality. These are the limits we establish to prevent being encroached upon by other people. These can be material boundaries (money, clothes, food); physical boundaries (your personal space, privacy, and body); mental boundaries (your thoughts, values, and opinions). Whilst other people may try to over-step your boundaries, it’s your job to uphold them.
  • Walk the walk, not just talk the talk There’s a fable about a crab who asks her son “Why in the world do you walk sideways like that?” “You should always walk straight forward.” The little crab obediently answers, “Show me how to walk, I want to learn.” The crab tries to walk straight forward, but can only walk sideways like her son. The moral of the story, don’t tell others how to act unless you can set a good example yourself.
  • Follow your conscience Don’t maintain secrets or family rules simply to maintain the peace. If we permit and conceal wrongdoing or maintain lies that may adversely affect other people, we become sharers in the guilt. Be prepared to speak your truth and follow your own conscience.
  • Take charge of you Don’t think you or your siblings can’t alter entrenched positions or change the way you communicate. Studies on personality suggest changing patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can eventually lead to permanent changes in a range of different personalities. One possible reason for this is that people change their very social identity as well, including how they see themselves. Exceptions include those who have no scruples (sociopaths), and the extremely self-absorbed (narcissists) because these individuals cannot empathise with, or accommodate, other people and are highly resistant to change. Presented with siblings and other family members like these, there’s little one can do except protect yourself by upholding robust personal boundaries, even cutting ties with them if they pose a danger.

If family life is overly disrupted by sibling rivalry then it can become challenging for parents and children to enjoy quality family time together. Finding strategies to support family life, parental rules and children vs adult time can support finding that balance. Kalila offers one-to-one life coaching and family sessions with a certified NLP Practitioner. For more information, and to book an online consultation, visit our Coaching page.