Sibling Rivalry

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					Sibling Rivalry

‘Mom, he hit me!’
‘Why can’t you to take the baby back to
where you found him?’
‘Dad, she took my toy without asking!’

The rants and raves of sibling rivalry can
be heard in almost every family – usually
accompanied by parents wishing their
children could get along all the time. But
is this a realistic expectation? Dr Anthony
Costandius, a Cape Town psychologist,
does not think it is. ‘Parents should not
expect their children to love, or even like,
each other all the time,’ he says. ‘Conflict
is a normal aspect of any relationship and
can even help deepen and define sibling

In fact, the skills children learn from
fighting with their siblings can help
prepare them for life outside the family
circle. They can learn to assert and
defend themselves, express their
feelings, negotiate, compromise and
resolve conflicts. ‘Children will generally follow the example of their parents’ relationship, that is why it is
important to exemplify values of love and respect, particularly during conflict resolution,’ says Dr


Rivalry usually stems from two (or more) children competing for their parents’ love and attention, say Adele
Faber and Elaine Mazlish, the authors of Siblings Without Rivalry (Avon Books). ‘It can be magnified by the
envy that one child feels for the accomplishments of the other, the resentment that each child feels for the
privileges of the other and the personal frustrations that they don’t dare let out on anyone else but a
brother or sister.’ Sibling rivalry can happen at any stage of development, says Dr Costandius. ‘At a
younger age these conflicts may be more physical, attention-seeking behaviours directed towards the
parents, whereas when children grow older they may focus their aggression towards each other physically
or verbally, to establish the pecking order. When children move into their teens they tend to lose interest in
their families and seek the comfort of their friends, making them less focused on a sibling, although some
forms of antagonism can still be present,’ he says.

Anita Grant, a social worker and counsellor at The Parent Centre in Cape Town, says that they often see
more sibling rivalry between children who are close in age (within two years) and are the same sex.
‘Conflict also tends to heighten when they are between eight and 12 years old, when the older child
approaches adolescence,’ she says.


As parents, we can sometimes unknowingly flame the fires of jealousy between siblings. There is,
however, a lot you can do to nurture your children’s relationship, and encourage harmony:

    1. Firstly, acknowledge the feelings of your children. If they are sad, say to them, ‘I can see you are
       feeling sad.’
    2. Don’t compare children. Each child is unique, with their own strengths. Focus on these, rather.
    3. Don’t worry about treating children equally; rather focus on treating them according to individual
    4. Avoid favouritism and recognise that each child comes with their own temperament. Although it
       may be normal to favour the child you get along with better, it can be detrimental to both children.

    5. Each parent should spend time alone with each child
       every day, making him/her the centre of attention.
    6. Make sure that each child has a private space, even
       just a box or shelf, where others need permission to
       use the items there.
    7. Set clear limits. Let children know that actions such as
       tattling or physical violence are not acceptable and
       that there are clear consequences for any violations.

When your children are fighting there are a few steps
that you can follow to help ease the tension:

     ●   Acknowledge the feelings of both parties in the dispute.
     ●   Listen to each child’s point of view.
     ●   Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem.
     ●   Express your confidence in the children’s ability to
         work out a solution that is mutually agreeable.
     ●   Leave the room.

This allows the children the space to come up with their own
solution, often an idea that the parents would not have thought

If you come across a fight that will lead to physical or emotional harm, intervene immediately.
Acknowledge each child’s feelings by describing what you see (‘I see two angry children about to hurt each
other’). Then separate them for a cooling-off period. If they cannot work out a problem themselves, allow
them to voice their concerns and come up with a solution with the help of other family members.

If a child’s aggression cannot be contained or someone’s physical or emotional well-being is at stake, you
should seek professional help. ‘If ignored by parents, sibling rivalry has the potential to impact well into
adulthood,’ says Grant. ‘This can lead to adults having issues about themselves, as well as having strained
adult sibling relationships.’


Some children have trouble adjusting to the arrival of a new baby. Imagine having had a monopoly on your
parents’ love and affection, only to be displaced.

Here are a few things that can make it easier:

     ●   Get your child involved before the birth. Let her talk to the baby and feel it kick. Show her pictures
         of what a baby looks like in the womb.
     ●   To give her an idea of what to expect when the new baby comes, Dr Bill Sears, a leading American
         paediatrician and father of eight children, recommends replaying her babyhood by going through
         old pictures of when she was born. It can also help to read stories about having a new baby or visit
         friends with new babies.
     ●   Try not to make any changes in her routine close to the birth. Moving her to a new room, weaning
         or toilet training could make her feel displaced by the new addition.
     ●   Get her involved after the birth.
         Let her help choose which clothes
         the baby should wear.
     ●   When friends bring gifts to
         welcome the new baby, have a
         few small gifts for her so she
         doesn’t feel left out.
     ●   When mom is busy with baby, get
         dad, grandparents or other family
         members to spend time with her.
     ●   Accept that she will have negative
         emotions about the baby – this is
         normal. It is better for you to
         empathise with her than to deny
         her feelings.

Your older child’s age and stage of development play a large role in how she will react to her new sibling. If
the child is under three, she still does not fully understand the concept of sharing, so may struggle to
understand that she now needs to share you. Also, children under two generally cannot control angry
impulses, so accept this and keep an eye out when they are around the baby.

Written by Tara Lerner
Bankmed, Autumn 2007

Useful Contact Details
The Parent Centre offers support and advice to parents and has branches in Wynberg, Khayelitsha
and Mitchell’s Plain. Call them on 021- 762-0116.
Call the Parent and Child Counselling Centre on 011-484-1734.
Bankmed Baby Banker programme offers information and support to all expecting parents.
Enhanced maternity benefits are subject to enrolment on the Baby Banker programme. Call toll free
on 0800-22-656-33.