Sibling rivalry is nothing new. History is littered with stories of dueling siblings, from Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots to the Jackson family. And it's the stuff of many popular television shows: Your kids fight and probably relate to the lovable characters on the PBS kids show Arthur, while you chuckle over the antics of bickering brothers on Everybody Loves Raymond. In real life, though, sibling rivalry isn't so funny. Read on to learn about the causes of sibling rivalry and what to do about them.
- Attention seeking. Kids need parental attention almost as much as they need food and water. They'd prefer positive attention, but they'll take whatever they can get. Sometimes kids fight as a way to get your attention, and when they're pushing your buttons, they know they've got you. "Catch them being good," says Rose Hanna, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Most often, parents do not know how to create a cohesive sibling bond between their children—and they only focus on stopping a fight—but they have to actively teach compassion and connection."
- Parental comparisons. Your oldest child excels at sports and routinely brings home straight A's, while your younger child has zero eye-hand coordination and struggles to get C's. Verbalizing a comparison like this is a surefire way to breed competition, so keep your observations to yourself. It's okay to notice differences in your kids, but always acknowledge the good qualities in each of them.
- Different personalities and interests. We all have different interests and personalities, and some siblings are just, well, different. Take an easygoing approach and point out the wonderful things about diversity. Make comments like, "I love that Kate is athletic and Sarah loves to draw. It makes our family so much more interesting than if we all liked the same thing." Look for common interests to draw kids together, recommends Meg Akabas, a parenting consultant and founder of New York-based Parenting Solutions. "When kids have a shared goal, they'll want to spend time together," she writes. "Some possibilities: playing strategy board games, creating artwork, doing science projects, sharing a recreational sport, taking a class, writing and putting on shows, or building and organizing a collection."
- Developmental phases. Spaced three years apart, your kids have always loved playing together—but when your older daughter starts middle school, your fourth grader may seem lost and out of sorts. Kids sometimes fight more when one enters a new developmental phase, leaving the other one behind. Reassure both children that this time will pass and they'll soon enjoy each other's company again. It's also helpful to explain each child's perspective. "Olivia loves you just as much as ever. She's just busy now with new things at middle school," and "You're changing quickly and Brenden feels left behind. Be patient with him and include him when you can."
- Lack of skills. One kid's neat as a pin, while the other thrives in clutter. Of course you're going to have some fireworks! Conflict is inescapable, but sometimes fights escalate simply because kids haven't learned to solve problems. Be a role model by settling your own disputes peacefully, through compromise and conversation. And when a fight erupts, ask your kids to think about possible solutions. Family counselor Jean Tracy suggests role-playing conflict resolution and teaching your kids easy phrases like "It makes me feel mad when you..." or "Please ask before you use my..." Finally, when all else fails, step out of fights. You can say something like, "Dad and I don't treat each other like this and I don't like listening to it. I'm going to my room. Let me know when you're done."
Some siblings fight more than others. In the end, they're ultimately responsible for the quality of their relationship. Teach kids conflict resolution skills, set firm rules, such as no hitting, and avoid making comparisons or playing favorites. Over time, kids usually make peace with each other and the drama subsides.