Do you find yourself stepping in to break up fights or arguments, only to find they then gang up against you to defend and support each other?
This behaviour is inevitable - and perfectly normal. In fact research suggests it is positively beneficial too. But too much bickering between siblings can be wearing for all concerned.
While rivalry may be at its peak in the early years, be prepared for your children to be competing into their teens and in some cases even into adulthood.
The good news is there is a lot that parents can do to influence relationships between their children. It’s worth spending a little time thinking about how you can achieve some degree of harmony.
Why do they argue and how is it beneficial?
Siblings have a unique relationship. They share the same environment, the same genetic make-up (if they have the same parents) and have to learn to share their most treasured possession - usually their mother.
With a brother or sister, a child usually feels a sense of security and freedom that allows them to test out all sorts of emotions that they wouldn’t dare exhibit with anyone else. They can scream and fight with a sibling in a way they can’t with a friend.
This helps children learn the consequences of losing their temper, and getting back as good as they give. They learn to take criticism without it destroying their self confidence. It also enables development of social-cognitive skills as they learn the arts of negotiation, manipulation and other means to get their own way.
And they learn about loyalty as siblings tend to be critical of each other, but defensive when a sibling is attacked by an outsider.
Because of their shared life experience, siblings tend to have stronger bonds in adulthood and tend to be a good source of support even if they don't consider themselves to be particularly close.
When do problems usually start?
Often right at the beginning - with the arrival of a new baby in the family. Studies show that the way a mother interacts with the new child will have an effect on the future relationship between the siblings. It is very natural to feel protective but if you are very protective with a new baby, the older child is more likely to feel resentful and show aggression.
Preparing older children carefully for a new arrival is important, as is spending time alone with each older child once the baby’s born. This can be difficult - do ask for help. Organising for someone to look after your baby for an hour, or taking an older child out for treats, is a good idea.
What about when children are big enough to fight?
As children grow up, this is bound to happen at times. Letting them sort out their own disputes is best as it helps develop their problem solving skills. Step in only if they are not resolving the argument or if there is an obvious inequality. For instance, one child has something that’s being used as a weapon.
In that case a parent should act as the arbitrator - not blaming one or the other, but asking what is going on and how it started. Getting clear answers can often be difficult though.
Get them to apologise to each other. If they won’t, try saying: "Well I’m unhappy about that", and walk away. Usually they sidle up to you later to make amends. It's also worth trying to encourage appropriate behaviour by suggesting after the incident what your children could have done instead. You are aiming for assertiveness not aggression.
How do you handle general squabbles?
Letting children take turns at being ‘first all day’ is a tactic that often works well. A lot of squabbles happen because each child wants to be the one that sits in the front of the car (if big enough), take the last chocolate croissant, choose the story, sit next to mum, etc.
So the ‘first all day‘ strategy is preventative. They all learn that they get their own turn eventually and also, very importantly, they learn to cope with the horrid feelings of seeing their sibling get the best bit because they know that it's soon over and they get the good bit the next day.
What about sly behaviour?
This is more difficult to deal with. For instance one child might spoil a drawing that the other had done, or hide something that is precious to the other.
Confrontation is likely to result in denial from the perpetrator. If you can be sure that one child did commit the deed, the best tack is to say: "I know you did this - it is hurtful to me and hurtful to your brother/sister."
Is encouraging rivalry ever helpful?
Comparison and competition are natural between siblings. Although we are rightly discouraged from making comparisons between our children, we can sometimes find rivalry useful.
For instance we may encourage our children to race each other to see who gets dressed first. Even in these day-to-day activities though you should try to even out who wins, so that if one child wins one time the other wins the next. Also praise them for joining in.
It is important to avoid comparing things that are outside your child’s control, for example appearance and academic and sporting performance.
What about when they are playing well?
It’s important to acknowledge this. A simple: "You played very nicely together this morning" will give your children the message that you do appreciate it when they are friends.
How do you handle disagreements between teenagers?
Because teenagers are more verbally able, they tend to use more arguments than violence, although boys in particular can still be physical even when it comes to fighting with their sisters.
With this age group, parents can easily be ganged up against. It’s best to try to encourage teenagers to sort it out themselves - not by closing the door and shutting your ears, but helping them solve the problem.
Teach them strategies to work though a problem, even if the outcome is that they agree to disagree. Sometimes teenage siblings go through a period of estrangement which is hard for parents to witness, but very often it is resolved once hormones have settled down.
Parents need to continue to be vigilant that they are being fair, even if they might appear at times to favour one child over the other for a particular reason. If this happens, try to rationalise it to the other child.
For instance: "You cannot play your guitar because your sister is revising for GCSE's. Once they are over you can practice but not now. When it's your turn to take exams I will do exactly the same for you".