It hasn't been a great week. The behaviour of my younger child has been, if I am to describe it politely, 'challenging'. At the lowest point I was to be found crawling on my stomach over hot-wheels vehicles and marbles to enter into under-the-bed negotiations with the defiant four year old over whether or not he was going to school in his pyjamas. At first I put it down to end of term tiredness and a cold. But it was more than that. His sister had had two days off school, which meant two bonus Mummy days, and he wasn't happy.
Sibling rivalry is part of family life. From the moment a second baby joins the family, your attention will be divided and it will be impossible to keep everyone happy all the time. As parents we can endeavour to treat each child fairly, but there will be occasions when we want to celebrate individual successes, need to devote more time to a sick child or want to provide extra emotional support for worries. Each child is unique. They will need us for different reasons at different times. In treating them fairly we must be sensitive to their individual difficulties and strengths, not simply try and administer an identical amount of time and attention to each one. However, a young child's ability to appreciate their sibling's needs is limited and their understanding of 'fair' may differ from yours.
Depending on their age and language ability, it can help to name the feeling for them. For example, “I think you might be feeling cross because Amy has been getting lots of presents for her birthday”. Gradually they will then learn to name their frustrations for themselves rather than demonstrating them through their behaviour. Often an acknowledgement of their feelings and some special one to one time when they have calmed down is enough to redress the balance.
Sibling rivalry usually shows itself as minor tussles or squabbles which are best ignored, but sometimes a line will be crossed and you will need to intervene. For example, when there is physical aggression or name calling. Be clear with the children, and yourself, about what that line is and what the consequences will be, and always follow through. Try not to get drawn into the “but he started it!” debate. If you did not witness what happened, then both children will need to receive the consequences. Encourage your children to use their words to resolve disputes. For example, if a fight breaks out over a toy, then you could give them five minutes to come up with a way to play with it together otherwise the toy will be taken away. If one child comes to you to tell tales, then tell them to go back and tell their sibling how they are feeling. You can help them develop their 'getting along' skills through turn-taking games and supported imaginative play, where you encourage them to listen to each other's ideas and look out for opportunities to praise sharing, thinking of others and “good working together”. In recent research from the US, Professor Mark Feinberg has suggested that siblings who feel like they are part of a team rather than competitors, and who are supported to discuss and resolve problems for themselves, are more likely to develop positive relationships with each other.
In fact, sibling arguments do present opportunities for social development. Through bickering with their sibling, children can learn to express their feelings and to problem solve. With parental support and within the safety of their home environment, they will learn where the boundaries lie and gradually learn to resolve conflicts effectively within them. A younger sibling will be exposed to more sophisticated emotional language by the older one and both will get the chance to practice their negotiation skills. The sibling relationship can provide an important foundation for managing complexities in future relationships.
Following some intensive miniature dinosaur play with Mummy, things seem to be settling down again here. Actually, there seems to be a lot of sibling whispering and giggling. Working together is one thing but conspiring to cause mischief... .I think I'd better go and investigate!
Clare Henderson qualified as a Clinical Psychologist in 2002 and has been working with children and families ever since. She currently works for a child development team in Surrey and is mother of two small children of her own to keep her busy when she's not working or writing for us.