Sibling Rivalry: 5 Common Mistakes Parents Make

It is completely natural for parents to want their children to get along. Who wouldn’t want their children to be best friends and to look out for each other when we are not there to do so? Sibling relationships are unique and special. They are unlike any other relationship we will have in our lives; however, by its very nature it is not always going to be the idyllic vision we had hoped. Sibling Rivalry, is always going to play a prominent part of most childhoods.

Sibling Rivalry: 5 Common Mistakes Parents Make

Often, a child will become a sibling during their toddler years; a time of significant turmoil and change. This is also a time for extreme testiness as children seek to assert their independence whilst at the same time looking to their parents more than ever to guide them lovingly towards appropriate behaviours. They demand more attention during these years, wanting to be sure that despite all their behaviours, actions and inactions, their parent’s love for them is solid.

Then, all of a sudden, a new baby arrives in their house. A so-called sibling that they are expected to love and accept no questions asked. They get booted from their cot only to watch it being wheeled down the hallway to the baby’s room. They see all their old clothes suddenly hanging in the baby’s wardrobe and they can’t help but feel a little miffed that the baby’s room has been newly decorated and kitted out in preparation for its arrival.

Sometimes a child gets caught up in the excitement and seems genuinely happy at the anticipated arrival of their sibling. They help with all the baby preparations and give the baby tender kisses through Mummy’s belly but often, they are blissfully unaware of the huge change that’s about to happen in their lives. Once that change is upon them, it is normal that they would blame the baby, sparking the first round of sibling rivalry.

This is exactly what happened to us and as much as we would have dearly loved our littlies to skip hand in hand through their days together, the odds were not stacked in our (or their) favour and through our well-meaning inadvertence we made several mistakes in our parenting during this time that further exacerbated the sibling rivalry between our children.

Mistake 1: Over Zealous Preparation

Like many parents, when I fell pregnant with our second baby we excitedly told our daughter she was going to be a big sister, expecting her to share in our excitement. The problem was, this excitement really belonged to us. For a young child, a new baby in the house isn’t all that crash hot. There’s less time spent on them, Mum and Dad are tired and irritable, there’s lots of noise from a crying baby that won’t settle and they suddenly have to share toys, share a play space and sometimes even a room. Children don’t automatically know about these drawbacks before baby arrives but the sense they get of impending change can be enough to unsettle most children.

This didn’t stop us from attempting to lure our daughter into the same excitement mode in which we were operating. So, in anticipation of having sibling best friends, we attempted to plant positive images in our daughter’s mind. We would say phrases such as “You’re going to be such a fantastic big sister!” or “It’s going to be so much fun having a baby brother or sister to play with.” And we let her know (in hope) what a great helper she would be when the baby was born.

Whilst these phrases seem pretty innocuous, children are extremely perceptive. They are already noticing that a significant amount of their parent’s attention is now on this unborn child. They can see through the motives behind such well-meaning statements. By now our daughter was already questioning whether this new sibling was really all it seemed cracked up to be.

When our second daughter finally arrived, our eldest soon realised she had been tricked. It was not fun nor could she play with her new sibling. In fact, her new life was far from her promised reality. She had no inclination to be Mummy’s helper and the baby had thrown her life into chaos. She was not happy and her behaviours communicated this to us.

If we had our time over, I would not have talked up her responsibilities as an older sibling. I would have prepared her better by spending more time with her, anticipating any anxieties she might be having and alleviating them by talking through the some of the changes honestly with her.

Making a special book for her that stepped her through what she would be doing when I was in hospital having the baby and then what it would be like having a new baby at home would have empowered her with knowledge that would have made her feel more settled about what her future might entail.

Mistake 2:  Not accepting a sibling’s negative feelings

It is inevitable that most older siblings will have some level of resentment at the arrival of a new baby. It is rare that a young child is completely happy and accepting of the fact that they are no longer the centre of their parents’ attention.

Our toddler was unable to articulate how she felt, but communicated her angst through erratic and unsettled behaviour. This change in behaviour occurred way before baby had even arrived as she began to feel a sense of uncertainty about the way her future was looking.

Stressed, tired and less mindful in our parenting at that stage of our life, we did not act empathetically towards her. It was frustrating and seemed so out of character but we were not able to recognise it for what it was. We scolded and reprimanded the poor behaviour which further reinforced our daughter’s feeling of ill-will towards her new sibling.

What our daughter was trying to tell us was that she didn’t want the new baby in her house, she didn’t want to be a big sister and she was upset with us for bringing her here. Furthermore, she wanted desperately to know that despite her feelings, we still loved her. She wanted us to understand her and to help her get through it.

Respectful parenting expert, Janet Lansbury taught me that when a child expresses negative emotion towards their sibling or parents, it is important to show empathy towards them; to acknowledge that this is a hard time. She suggests talking to them about the fact that it can take some time to adjust when there are big changes in life and to reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and that you love them no matter what and will always be there for them.

We learned that admonishing our daughter for feeling badly towards her sibling had amplified her sibling jealousy.

Mistake 3: Forcing Siblings to Share

When our baby became mobile she naturally gravitated towards where her older sister was playing and became interested in her toys. At that stage, our toddler was just turning 2 years and very possessive over her toys. It seemed only fair to us, though, that she share her things with her sister. When she would snatch toys back out of baby’s hands if she should try to investigate them, we were quick to rush in and defend baby, forcing Miss 2 to return the item at once.

We soon learned though, that this act on our part was causing our eldest considerable distress. She saw it as us taking sides and took her frustration out on the root cause – her sister.

In fact, it is normal for toddlers in the early years to be possessive of toys. It is a developmental trait not a sign of inherent selfishness. By insisting a toddler goes against his urge to protect his toys and give them up to their younger sibling (no matter how ‘unfair’ it seems to the parent) will help to put a divide between the pair.

In most cases, it is better to let the children work through sharing conflicts and maintain a completely neutral stance through sportscasting (unbiased narrating of the situation without intervention). Often, without the pressure placed upon them to share, children will inevitably find a common ground that suits them both and if not, that’s okay too. We have found that they do get there eventually.

Mistake 4: Taking sides in sibling disputes

As the girls grew, we found them having disputes over all manner of things from who got to be buckled into their car seat first to who got the biggest piece of cheese in their bowl. Whilst we understood it was entirely normal and healthy for children to have these disputes, it didn’t make them any easier to listen to or deal with. We wanted them over or better still, we wanted them not to start in the first place.

So we would jump in the moment one started baiting the other and tell them to stop. We would try to appease the child who found themselves on the perceived losing side of battles and we would be quick to judge the one who seemed to be in the wrong.

However, when we took sides in these disputes because there seemed to be an injustice, we neglected to see that the one who we deemed in the wrong had her own hurts, needs and perceptions driving her to behave in that way. This can cause them to think their parents favour their sibling and cause resentment between the two.

Arguments will arise often throughout the days as children learn about one another, investigate and experiment with social understandings and develop empathy (the ability to see things from another’s point of view). We have learned we must not pass judgement or blame, nor should we assign roles such as bully, aggressor or victims to the children.

Instead, “It sounds like you two are have a disagreement. X you wanted to be buckled into the seat first. I buckled Y first this time.” is all that is needed to allow them both to hear that you understand what is happening and give them a chance to process and work through the conflict in their own way.

Mistake 5: Comparing one Sibling against another

Right from the get go, there were noticeable differences between our children’s personalities, mannerisms, traits, habits and behaviours. Once we got over how it’s possible to create such different little beings, we learned that it is best to keep those comparisons to ourselves.

Comments such as: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or “Look, your sister has made her bed, why haven’t you?”, pits one child against another. The child being encouraged to be more like his sibling is made to feel like he is inferior or that their parents’ love for the other is stronger, however far that is from the truth.

Encouraging children to compete against one another in an effort to move them through daily tasks is another trap to be avoided. “Who’s going to be the first to get into their car seat?” or “Let’s see who can get their PJs on first.” is fraught with danger as once again, children are forced to compare their skills and ability with one another in an attempt to please us. It goes without saying that the losing party in the race is going to feel like they are not as good as their sibling in their eyes and their parents.

Our children are now 3 and 4 years old. They still regularly have disputes throughout the day but we are now finding that we are needing to intervene less and less. In fact, the less input we have in their arguments the better they are at resolving them for themselves.

When left to do so, there is no residual animosity felt like there once was when we were masterminding the negotiations and resolutions for them. They are usually running off to play together in no time, having learned one more thing about each other and taking one more step towards being future best friends.

You might also enjoy reading:

Could NOT Forcing My Toddler to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts -Part Two? ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

Resolving a Toy Fight With One Simple Phrase ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

Interfering in Sibling Relationships Can Push Them Further Apart ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

My parenting is inspired by the RIE approach. If you are interested you can find more info here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links):

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition)  ~ Magda Gerber

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start
~ Magda Gerber

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting  ~ Janet Lansbury

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury

Sibling Rivalry: 5 Common Mistakes Parents Make

15 thoughts on “Sibling Rivalry: 5 Common Mistakes Parents Make

  1. Zareen

    Thanks for this post! It’s funny because these are all things I know but in the heat of the moment (ie a fight over a toy) it all gets forgotten. I find it hard to maintain my cool even though I know my older daughter is having a hard time at the moment as her younger brother has just learnt to walk. Trying hard each day to give them space to resolve themselves, just very hard to not reprimand when it becomes physical. I’m hoping it get easier with time and my skills get better!

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      Yes, it can be challenging when the altercations become physical. Maybe stay close to your children through this phase as your daughter has to deal with the transition of her brother to walking. Being there to prevent the physical is just what your daughter needs. She is acting on impulse and needs a helping hand to guide her. it sounds like you are doing great!
      Let me know if I can help in any way 🙂

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  3. Jackie

    Wonderful post. So many points to consider that I think parents can say/do without understanding the ‘damage’, If I could have my time over I’d also stop giving my ‘big girl’ responsibility for her little brother.

  4. kate @ livinglovinglaughing

    Oh, sibling relationships are such precious, tenuous things, aren’t they? But if cherished, they can be one of life’s greatest gifts! I agree that there is a delicate balance between highlighting this to them and overselling it, lol! Thankfully we have never really had any rivalry/resentment issues between our three (yet!!?) but certainly dynamics and issues that need to be worked through crop up along the way. Lately I have been trying to be more conscious of the impact of birth order, it is fascinating to see it play out but also want to be aware of it especially in myself. At the end of the day, we cherish as best we can but as you mentioned, we also need to give respect and space for them to work out and own their own relationships. What a blessing to be able to support them and give them tools along the way though! xx

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      I find birth order fascinating too, Kate but I haven’t looked into it closely. Perhaps I should!? It really is a delicate balance as you say in encouraging their relationship and forcing it. Thanks for popping by.

  5. Danya Banya

    Love this post. We do a lot of sportcasting at our place too – I am always amazed at how simply verbalising the situation is usually enough for them to work it out themselves.

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