Sibling rivalry is "characteristic of virtually all children. Pleasant, obedient kids fight with their brothers and sisters just as do unpleasant, disobedient kids" (Latham 273).
"You are not going to completely eliminate rivalry among siblings unless you completely eliminate the siblings" (274), says Dr. Glenn Latham, a researcher and parenting expert.
Children use siblings to test limits, learn social skills, and to establish who they are. Sibling rivalry is part of the territory of growing up; however, there are ways, according to Dr. Latham, to keep sibling rivalry "within tolerable limits" in your home (273).
Ignore it, and it really might go away
Dr. Glen Latham suggests the most effective skill for dealing with sibling rivalry is to simply ignore it. He writes, "[sibling rivalry] teaches [children] how to deal with peers in a more controlled environment. Sibling rivalry is not violence. It is jousting" (275).
Most of the time we should stay out of the way. However, when insults have become personal (there's a difference between calling someone a "stupid head" and a personal, cutting remark about a low grade actually received on a test), if character is being attacked, or the rivalry has become mean and vicious (kicking, hitting, biting), it is time to step in.
Remain calm, composed, and direct
If you decide you must intervene, be as simple as you can. Use statements like, "You may not say those things to your brother," and administer the consequence.
Even as you read this example, you might hear the other child's automatic reply in your mind, "But she started it!" Don't allow yourself to become the referee, or even a member of the audience.
Teach appropriate social skills
Excessive sibling rivalry can be a signal to parents to teach (yet again) appropriate social skills, at a later time, when things have cooled down.
As Young et al. remind us, modeling the correct way to handle a situation is one of the best ways to teach the positive. (See Teaching is a Better Form of Discipline for a complete overview of Dr. Young's ideas.)
Apply consequences and praise
The most effective consequences are those that are understood in advance, matter to the child, and are immediate.
Let your children earn "positive consequences" as well. Acknowledge the many things your children do right, including the many things they do right for and with each other. Allowing their positive interactions to earn your attention can go a long way in teaching them how to interact together in positive ways.
You may want to consider what is setting off the sibling rivalry and work to combat that. Is there competition for resources, like using the piano to practice first? Sometimes there are things we can do as parents, like creating a piano schedule, that can dampen the fighting.
Sometimes sibling rivalry can be about getting your attention. Letting children know you value their unique gifts can help them enjoy it when you compliment another son or daughter.
When it comes to acknowledging appropriate behavior, Dr. Latham suggests "Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it coming" (279). It can even be helpful to set small items around your home (any objects that serve as a prompt for you will work) that remind you to say something positive to your child. Chances are when you glance at one of your reminders you'll find your child doing something praiseworthy, and maybe even something positive regarding each other. "Wow, Seth, I like the way you make sure Stephanie has privacy when she's talking on the phone with friends. I'm sure she appreciates that."
One set of parents examined their reactions to their children's behavior by creating a chart with columns titled "Day, Behavior, Frequency, Comment" (Latham 281). On the chart they noted the larger behavioral happenings and their personal reactions to them. This technique can pinpoint patterns in parenting, and can help "assess risks" (Young et al.), which will give parents a jumping off point for teaching children in a positive way.
One mom has her children put each other's clothes away when they're both present to help with laundry. Helping our children serve each other can also be an important step in helping them love each other.
In an article in the New Era the author suggests utilizing"time alone" to strengthen family relationships. In "Time Alone" you invite a family member to spend an hour doing something they like with only you. It's a laser focus of attention on a single sibling or parent. "Time Alone" is a simple formula for friendship that might make a change in your family. Some family members experience results in just a few meetings" (Barrand). "Time alone" can be simple things like taking a walk together, getting an ice cream cone, or doing anything that's enjoyable. You may want to create a schedule for the family so everyone has a turn with each other.
There will most likely be sibling friction some of the time, but there's no need to "completely eliminate the siblings" (Latham 274) to make your home a happy place.
Some friction between brothers and sisters is simply a fact of family life. When sibling rivalry reaches a point at which it cannot be tolerated, following Dr. Latham's principles can help create a more positive atmosphere for the children, band parents--in your home.
Barrand, Tracy. "One on One," New Era, Feb. 1995.
Latham, Glenn I. The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children. Logan, UT: P&T Ink, 1994.
Young, Richard K., Sharon Black, Michelle Marchant, Katherine J. Mitchem, and Richard P. West. "A Teaching Approach to Discipline: An Alternative to Punishment." Marriage & Families, August (2000): 9-15.