The parental headache of sibling rivalry begins in childhood. It can carry far beyond those formative years and into adulthood with all kinds of problems years down the road, such as who gets to spend family holidays with the parents each year, family wars over parental estates and decades of competition over who is more successful.
The way to combat against sibling rivalry is to deal with it head on before your second child is even born. You head off the issue before it even begins, by helping them form loving and supportive relationships rather than competitive based relationships.
Helping children forage relationships that are unstoppable rivers of love and support is possible. Every parent dreams of their children having life long lasting relationships that are the greatest support system for one another. The reality is that this can happen, but parents must help facilitate these relationships early on and help the children build love, support, and comradery that can last for a lifetime.
Here are the top 10 tips on thwarting sibling rivalry and instead create loving sibling relationships.
1. Create a positive relationship before the second child is even born
If you had a pet before your first child was born, you probably recall worrying about how your pet would react to the baby. You may have even googled how to best help your dog or cat prepare for the baby to come.
We owned two dogs before our first child was born. I actually bought a book on how to prepare the pet for the new baby. I recall one tip was to have a blanket that the baby used at the hospital to be brought home for the dog to sniff and lay it in the dog’s bed, so the dog can become familiar with the new scent. We actually did this.
Parents go through great measures to make sure that even their pets get along with the new baby and take measures to help facilitate a good start in their relationships, so the family can be harmonious and happy. The same should apply with other children in the home.
When a new sibling is on the way, we need to do more than simply wish and hope that they love the new baby and don’t develop a jealousy complex. Deal with the issue before it even begins. There are some practical ways that you can help your child prepare for their new sibling so that they feel they are part of the process. You want the current child to welcome the new baby so warmly that they feel that the baby is theirs in a way that makes them want to be protective and caring for the new life that is coming into your home soon.
Here are some of those practical tips:
Help the child feel a part ownership of the new baby, much like you do as parents
Refer to baby as “our baby” or even “your baby”. We did this with our daughter when we were expecting our twins. She wasn’t quite two years old when they were born and now at six years old she still refers to the twins as hers. It was quite effective in helping her accept them from the start, because they were her babies, not just Mommy or Daddy’s babies.
Include the child in the physical process
Let your child touch your belly to feel the baby inside you. Also allow the child to go to ultrasounds where they can see the baby on a screen. It becomes more real and you can create excitement in this experience you have together.
Get some siblings books
Go to the library or shop for children’s books on the topic of babies and having a new sibling. These can help the child learn more about what Mommy is experiencing, as well as an explanation of what it will be like to have a new baby in the home after they are born.
Allow them to get involved in choosing names
If they’re old enough, ask for their suggestions, talk about the names you are narrowing it down to, and discuss these things as a family. What a powerful thing for a child to have been a part of the process of naming their new brother or sister! Again, it helps create a sense of ownership with their new sibling on the way.
Get them involved in preparing stuff for the baby
Allow the child to be a part of creating the nursery, or picking out toys and clothes for the new baby. The more you include them in this process, the more they are going to feel that they are a part of this baby’s new life and feel an ownership or responsibility toward the baby.
Talk with them about their feelings
It is normal to feel some apprehension or even jealousy. The parental attention is shifting. Babies require a lot of attention. This is why you want to include them in on everything as much as possible. That way they aren’t feel left out and ignored. Their feelings should be expressed in a healthy manner, so having a conversation on their eye level and allowing them to say what they are feeling is very important.
Make the child a helper and a part of everyday activities when the baby arrives
This way they are not separated from the baby and the new experiences that Mom and Dad are having. Instead they are “Second Mommy” as my daughter referred to herself after our twins were born. They were “her twins”, so she wanted to help change them, feed them, rock them, and entertain them.
Of course when young kids are trying to help, their “help” can create more work for the parents at times, but that’s ok. You are supporting good helper attitudes and behaviors that facilitate them connecting with the baby and the activity surrounding the baby all day long.
This will also foster a positive start to their sibling relationship, as they learn early that they are supposed to help one another. Baby can’t help just yet, but will eventually become old enough to some day help older siblings too and you can remind your child of this fact as well.
2. Treat children equitably
This does not mean that you do things same for every child in the home. Each child is different and will want different things, but will also need different treatment at times. The key is to maintain a balance of fairness so that the level of attention and monetary spending in equal among all of the children over time. The term for this is equitable. The dictionary defines equitable as:
Characterized by equity or fairness; just and right; fair; reasonable: equitable treatment of all citizens.
Our children need to be treated fairly, reasonably, and in a manner that provides for each of their needs and wants individual; without giving favor to one child over another. Kids don’t need the same gifts for holidays. Instead get the items that each child wants, but spending the same amount on each child. That way children know that even if the items are different, they are being treated fairly, as equals in the family.
There will be times when one child gets to do special things with a parent, the other children in the family may become jealous, so be prepared to explain in advance that their time will come too for this special time. Make sure you follow through and provide that special time for the other children, otherwise resentments can begin to form.
A good example of equitable treatment is bedtime. Children at different ages often require different bedtimes. You enforce the bedtimes equally and the bedtimes are fair for each of their ages. The times are however different because they need to be different for their ages and sleep needs. It is treating them the same even though their times are different.
Children understand fairness. It is innate to them. Keep things fair and you will be less likely to create growing resentments between kids when things aren’t equal. As long as each child is being treated fairly, they will respect your decisions in the long right. Maybe not right away, but over time they will. Fairness is wired into their brains, so try to be as fair as possible to prevent sibling rivalry.
3. Don’t play the favorites game
Don’t ever allow your children to think that you have a favorite. I know that many parents think it is sometimes humorous to joke about these things because you do have one child that is perhaps more compliant or certainly easier to parent than the other children.
However, you can’t allow yourself to ever say that you have a favorite because this term is interpreted as love. You child will think “because Daddy said that Charlotte is his favorite today, he loves her more.” That is sad to think your child will feel that they are less loved because of favoritism, but this is simply how they think.
Use the phrase “you are all my favorite” and stick to it permanently. Let them know that they are all loved equally and that your love for each of them is huge.
4. Celebrate individuality and differences
Minimize comparisons between your children. Each child is unique and special and they should be celebrated for their individuality. Don’t compare the children to one another, because they are simply too different for comparison.
I have twins, and even they can be as different as night and day. One is tender, empathic, and sensitive. The other one is affectionate physically and loves to give me hugs and cuddle. It’s great that they are different and show love and affection differently. I praise them for each of their individual attributes and abilities. It doesn’t make one more special over the other. They are simply different and each of their differences are praised.
Your girl may be the jock and your boy may be the theatre lover. That’s ok. Don’t try to make them something that they are not. They will only resent you for trying to make them something they are not. They will become resentful of their siblings if you try to compare them to their sibling and his/her abilities, passions, or talents.
The sooner you accept your child for who they are and can come alongside them to celebrate their uniqueness the sooner the sibling will also join in with celebrating and supporting their sibling in their interests, hobbies, and passions. The goal is to facilitate support within the family and it begins with the parents as examples first and foremost.
5. Foster encouragement and not competition
Help your children become each other’s greatest support and cheerleaders. If you have kids that compete in different sports and activities, then make the time to go as a family with the other sibling(s) who are not participating so that you can collectively support each child.
Teach them to support their sibling by encouraging them to say things to their sibling such as “I hope you play great today” or “I am cheering for you to score today”. These things can make such a difference in their lasting relationships when done consistently over time.
It may not come naturally to every child, which is why you may need to be prompting them with ways to help encourage and phrases to say. They will pick it up after a few times (or more) and will begin to encourage because they see that it’s well received by their sibling and it makes you happy as a parent. What you are creating is something even bigger; which is a relationship that is built on support and encouragement.
Friendly competition in the home is a good thing, but keep at just that: friendly. When games are played in the family, children need to be taught to congratulate one another and be of encouragement and not gloating when they are winning and their sibling is on the losing end. Keep reminding them, especially when little, that not everyone can win all the time, so we want to be good sports while winning and losing. When this message is constant in your household, your children will internalize it.
Be sure your children are internalizing the right messages, the ones that draw them into closer and more supportive relationships with their siblings instead of tearing them apart because they are tearing one another down.
6. Talk about their future relationships
I like to remind my kids that I have sisters and brothers that I grew up with and they are now my kids’ aunts and uncles. I talk about the good relationships we had as kids and how we supported one another, like my sister Rachel and I helping one another prepare and compete in scholarship pageants. We were one another’s greatest supporters. I let them know that I grew up with Rachel as my best friend and that she is still my best friend because we had such a good childhood relationship. I then talk to them about how they are so lucky to have one another. Some kids don’t get siblings. They are lucky that they get one another as siblings and best friends for life.
You may call it brainwashing. I call it good parenting. Indoctrinating them with the philosophy that their siblings will be with them to love and support from cradle to grave to love is a blessing over their life.
7. Teach them to apologize and forgive
In our household, apologies are not just “I’m sorry”. The offender needs to say why they are sorry. They need to go to the child they have hurt, say why they are sorry, ask forgiveness, and then give their sibling a hug. On top of that, after the other sibling says “I forgive you,” I make them both say to one another “you are my best friend”. Again, this is a helpful reminder to each or them that they more than just siblings, they are to be life long friends.
Apologizing for the small things as kids teaches them to be more willing to apologize and forgive when much bigger offenses occur when they are grown. If they don’t learn to willingly apologize as children, they won’t be good at apologies as adults. Teaching them this valuable skill will help them be able to mend their relationships when follies between siblings happen as adults.
8. Teach them to be there for one another
Parents do not need to be the ones providing all the help, direction, and guidance in the home. Older siblings can help younger siblings. There will be times when the younger siblings can pitch in and help with the older siblings as well.
Teach children to become more dependent on one another instead of running to Mom or Dad every time they need help. This habit of helping one another, when properly instilled in children, can carry forward into adulthood.
The next time one of your littles needs their laces tied or help with putting on their jacket, ask your older child to help the younger. Make it a habit of them helping one another, so eventually it becomes instinctual to them. If Mom or Dad isn’t within view, they will begin to look to their siblings for help.
Be sure to praise your children when they help one another. Letting them know that this is the way that things should be done in the household will help encourage them to continue with this helping behavior.
Make it a positive experience instead of a demand or something they despise. Use pleasant tones when asking them to help their sibling and overly praise them for their help when they first begin. They will come to find satisfaction in helping and the reward of knowing they are doing something good and meaningful for someone else in the household will keep them helping in the future. It will also give them a sense of confidence in their ability to help and a greater sense of belongingness in the family as they are needed by others.
9. Zero tolerance for hate language
Words can hurt to the core. They can do more damage than physical harm. Do not allow your children to get in the habit of calling one another names or picking on one another. It should be household rules that no warning is even needed when this rule is not followed. If a parent hears language that is hateful or tears down another in the family, there is immediate consequence. They will learn quickly that mean words are not tolerated in the home.
Start this policy when they are young, because the older they get the meaner and smarter they can get. Prevent it from escalating in the future to bigger, meaner, and more targeted hateful talk.
Teach them to talk to one another with positive and uplifting words. If they have a habit of saying mean things, then turn it around. Make dinner time an opportunity for everyone to go around the table and say a compliment about the person on their left and then to the person on their right. It helps to create kinder hearts and minds when positive words are spoken aloud to one another.
Make it happen, even if it has to be done as a planned activity around the dinner table or during a car ride. It will create a lasting effect on their heart to hear positive words from their siblings.
10. Teach them to resolve their own conflicts
If your kids come to you for every tiny infraction they inflict on one another, then they are not actively resolving their own conflicts. Teach them how to think about how they want to solve their problems with one another. They can learn to negotiate their sides and come to a fair resolution.
It won’t happen overnight, but with some parental help in getting them started in this process of conflict resolution thinking, they will soon learn to do it on their own. There are times when it is a safety issue and parental intervention is needed, but over time you will come to find that many of the small fights and arguments that your kids have all day long can be handled amongst themselves if they are properly instructed how to handle these situations.
Give them some practice help by providing options of two good ways to handle the situation and let them chose how to handle it between the two good options. This gives them the opportunity to think about the consequences and what resolution works best. For example, if my son comes to me and says his brother took his toy I can say, “how would you like to resolve the situation? Should we put the toy up for the rest of the day or should you take turns playing with the toy?”
Allowing them to decide the resolution will help prepare them for the next step which is thinking of their own possible solutions, which they can negotiate amongst themselves. It is a process of empowering your children to solve their conflicts with one another, so that you don’t have to be the go-between on every trivial matter in the household.
Someday you will be thankful you taught them to work things out for themselves, so that you aren’t getting calls to intervene in adult arguments because they don’t know how to deal with one another as adults because they never learned as kids.
Love is the key
Above all, teach your kids to love one another. Teach by example by showing love to everyone in the household.
Love is about respect, fairness, kindness, care, and commitment to being there for one another.
Teaching them to love one another before the second child is even born will create an environment of care and affection that can last a lifetime. It is never too late to start, so start these habits today to help facilitate lasting loving relationships between your kids.
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