How to deal with sibling rivalry
Second baby caused the green-eyed monster to rear its ugly head? Naomi Reilly investigates how to deal with sibling rivalry
Despite imagining a second or third child as perfect companions for your firstborn, sibling rivalry can appear from the moment you become pregnant. And even though you may try to nip it in the bud, it’s not always easy... Unless you know how.
Enter Dr Laura Markham, author of Calm Parents, Happy Siblings (£12.99, Vermilion). She believes that all siblings experience a degree of jealousy towards each other occasionally. But why? ‘It comes from the competition for scarce resources – the parents’ time and their loving attention – that all children need to thrive,’ she says. There are also certain triggers that she believes make the emotion more prolific – children of the same gender, with small age gaps between them and with more than one sibling will all supposedly have an increased predisposition to sibling rivalry.
Laura’s advice for parents who notice the problem is to read it as a warning sign that they need to take immediate steps to strengthen the individual relationships they have with each of their children. ‘There are many means of doing this, such as spending oneon-one time daily with each child, and creating a family culture of support rather than competition,’ she explains. There are plenty of other tactics that she suggests. Here we reveal all the top tips and tricks that Laura claims will help you on your way to having a harmonious household. Trust me, with three children of my own, I’ll be paying very close attention.
Kerry’s daughter Molly, now eight, felt completely dethroned when son Max, five, arrived on the scene. ‘Molly was furious about the fact that I had to spend the first week of his life away from her, staying in hospital with him as he was very poorly. She wouldn’t speak to me when she visited each day, focusing instead on trying to pull the wires out of his incubator,’ she says. Jealous reactions are not unusual – many firstborns will have trouble acclimatising to their new family dynamic. But Laura says that setting a positive foundation before the new baby is born can help significantly.
‘Talking to your child about the new baby before they arrive helps to create empathy,’ she advises. ‘Asking them questions such as, “I wonder what the baby is doing in there – practising karate?” or “Do you think he hears your voice?” helps them to see the new baby as a real person with thoughts and feelings, and it’s been proven that if you can do this, siblings are then much nicer to the baby when he arrives.’
INVOLVE SIBLINGS WITH BABYCARE
Sarah’s son Axyl, who’s now four, would constantly ask, ‘When will he be going back?’ after she brought her second son, Felix, home from hospital when Axyl was three. ‘He just didn’t get that Felix was here to stay,’ she says, ‘and no matter how many times I talked tohim and tried to explain things, he seemed in denial that this was how it was going to be from now on.’ In a situation like this, Laura advises getting your firstborn to be as involved as they possibly can in the care of your new arrival, to help them feel as if it’s their baby too.
She also recommends letting them be the star of the show when visitors come round to see the new baby, as it’s vital to let them know they still matter. ‘The more you can stay calm and reassuring, the faster your first child will learn that he’s still loved as much as ever,’ she says.
CREATE A NO-BLAME HOUSEHOLD
When your children argue it can be tempting to take sides – but Laura says it’s never a good idea to do this, even when one child is clearly in the wrong. ‘Even if the three-year-old snatches a rattle and makes the baby cry, you need to show that you understand both their points of view,’ she explains.
‘It’s about finding solutions as opposed to asking whose fault it is.’ So instead of apportioning blame, she suggests, ‘Say, “Oh my goodness, it sounds like you two are having quite a hard time. I can see what’s going on – do you think that the baby wants his rattle back? I wonder if you can play with something else? I know it’s hard to wait. Come with me and I’ll help you.’” As children get older, Laura believes you’ll be amazed by how they will be willing to take more responsibility for their contribution to problems once they understand they won’t be blamed.
INTERVENE WITH PATIENCE
Sarah, mum to three-year-old twins Emily and Reuben, says it can be quite impossible knowing how to sort out argument after argument, and the naughty step can seem like the only option. ‘I constantly find myself putting one or both of them on the step – but if only it worked!’ Laura isn’t surprised. She says that, while it’s important to set up clear expectations for behaviour, punishment and time-outs actually create more sibling fighting.
‘Punishment may focus kids on avoiding more of it, but this is not the same thing as caring for others,’ she says. Instead she recommends empathy and coaching them to do the right thing, rather than forcing them to do it. If you think this sounds time-consuming, you’re right. But in the long term you’ll create less work for yourself as the children will be better at regulating their emotions and being kind to each other.
DON’T FORCE THEM TO SHARE
Jenny says her daughter Cara, three, wants everything her one-year-old brother Rex has, and will steal anything from him. ‘This was particularly problematic when he was in that phase of push ing walkers up and down the room. It was like one of those old Tango adverts – a hooligan running up to steal away an OAP’s walking frame and them face-planting as a result.’ May, mum to Esme, seven and Iris, five, has worked out her own solution to this, she buys two of everything for her daughters – hardly inexpensive.
A better answer, according to Laura, is to let each child have their fill of a toy before giving it to their siblings. ‘I call it self-regulated turns,’ she says. ‘Parents often say, “You’ve had the toy long enough, now it’s your sister’s turn.” But this doesn’t help them develop generosity, whereas allowing them to enjoy the toy then give it to the other child with an open heart does help.’ This works as a kind of reward system – one child gets to see how happy the other is when they freely give something to them. It makes sense. And instead of making your children share everything, she advises allowing children special toys that they don’t ever have to share. They can keep those in their own basket or in their bedroom.
RECOGNISE THEIR INDIVIDUALITY
I’ve always been aware of not making comparisons. I’d never say, ‘Why don’t you do your homework like your sister?’ or ‘Your sister can do this, why can’t you?’ because I feel this would pit them against each other. But according to Laura, it’s important to be aware of the subtle ways in which your children may feel compared anyway.
For instance, I often refer to my daughters as ‘the girls’ which apparently in itself can breed competition – not least because I’m not recognising them as individuals. ‘Having children is like being given seeds and not knowing how they’re going to come out,’ says Laura. ‘So it’s important to discover the wonderful things about each child and to celebrate them individually.’
SPEND TIME WITH EACH OF THEM
Five years on, Kerry’s children bicker a lot less than when her eldest was pulling out incubator wires, and she has learned that both of them thrive on having one-on-one time with her. ‘They behave brilliantly during these periods,’ she says. ‘They crave undivided time with me now and then, as it’s hard to properly talk in normal daily life when everyone is shouting over each other.’ Even something as simple as going to the supermarket together, then grabbing a hot chocolate, can show that you value time alone with them, and see them as separate beings rather than an amorphous thing such as ‘the children’.
Laura couldn’t agree more. ‘Every child needs individual time with their parents to maintain a close connection,’ she says. ‘When a child doesn’t have that closeness with their parents, there is more sibling rivalry and aggression.’ If you can, she recommends using the one-on-one time just to play with your child. ‘See yourselves as the child’s assistant – don’t take charge of the game, take them lead.’
LET THEM WORK THINGS OUT
Laura believes children learn more when they have to think about things. So instead of saying, ‘The baby needs feeding,’ ask, ‘What do you think the baby needs, is he upset because he can’t find his dummy?’ Even when they are older, she recommends intervening in a way that gets kids to ask questions, instead of lecturing them. If one child hits another, instead of telling them off she suggests saying, ‘Did you hit your brother? Jonathan, tell your brother why you don’t like that. Did you hear what he said? He doesn’t like it.’
As she explains, ‘It’s about teaching them the basics of civil behaviour and getting them to develop the skills to express their needs and stand up for themselves – and also listen to their siblings.’ And who wouldn’t want that?