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Managing Sibling Rivalry

If you’ve ever seen the movies In Her Shoes, Stuck on You, Cheaper by the Dozen or Adaptation, you might think sibling rivalry is funny. If you’ve ever seen the Australian classic Coolangatta Gold, or The Godfather trilogy for that matter, you’ll know that it’s not.

Put simply, sibling rivalry is conflict between children from the same family. “The most common variety of sibling conflict is usually related to children having to share a living space,” says Matthew Sanders, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland. “For example, when another sibling arrives and they’re not the centre of the universe, and have to share parental attention and learn how to manage that sharing of the adult audience.”

Unfortunately, while it might begin at a very young age, it doesn’t always disappear. “I’ve seen people in their 70s carrying on the same way,” says psychologist Andrew Fuller, author of ‘Tricky Kids’ (Finch Publishing). “We need to recognise that what parents do about it is important.”

Getting it right

For the most part, squabbling kids is a normal part of family life, and it’s true that sibling relationships help children to learn the skills they’ll need to deal with friendships and other relationships later in life. “It’s a life skill to learn how to get on with the people you live with,” says Sanders.

Experts agree that the number one rule for parents, in the case of sibling rivalry, is to teach the kids to sort it out for themselves. “No parent has ever walked into a room where two kids are fighting and managed to work out who started it and got it right,” says Fuller. “Intervention is not the answer. Instead, you need to set the boundaries, make the rules obvious,

There are exceptions, however – if the conflict becomes violent, or if there’s a large age gap between the children. “If that’s the case, or if it’s threatening to become the main game in the family, you need to put your foot down and let them know it’s not okay,” says Fuller.

Rivalry Rules

According to Andrew Fuller, parents could ask themselves one question if sibling rivalry is causing them real headaches: “Are they squabbling because they perceive love to be a scarce commodity,” he says. “If that’s the case, you may need to let them know you love them more often. But most sibling rivalry is not about that really.”

Don’t take on the role of ‘sorter’. “These are skills that kids need to learn to work out,” says Mathew Sanders. “Give them adult guidance, hints and tips, without taking over.”

Praise your children for doing the right thing. “If you catch them sorting a problem out between themselves, tell them they’ve done a great job,” says Sanders.

Don’t reward dobbing behaviour. “If one sibling is complaining to you about the other, they’re signalling that they think it’s your job to fix it for them,” says Sanders. “If you go in there and say ‘leave your brother alone’, you’re doing two things: providing the irritator with an audience for more irritation, and rewarding the dobber for complaining. Send the dobber back in to sort it out.”

Further Information

Comments (1)

Constant bickering between my girls

I am at wits end with the constant and escalating fighting between my 11yo and 9yo daughter. They are so nasty to each other, won't share or be generous and its like the 9yo is constantly baiting the other for a reaction. They are name calling and hitting each other and really don't know what to do about it. We send them to their rooms and remind them how lucky they are to have each other and how unhappy we are that they fight all the time. Does anyone have any techniques that have proved effective, I need something before they end up spending time together in the chook shed!