how to avoid sibling rivalry

By Susan L. Pollet

Sibling rivalry is universal, and as ancient as Cain and Abel, brothers in the Bible. Experts believe that it comes from competition for parental attention, approval, and love. The closer together the children are in age, or if the same gender, especially brothers, the more it can become a problem. The literature provides that rates of sibling rivalry are lower in families where children feel they are treated equally by their parents and where their place in the family is respected and valued. It is never too late to forge a strong sibling relationship. Experts have provided suggestions to help parents prevent and deal with it from the time the mother becomes pregnant. Some of these ideas are provided below.   

How to deal with sibling rivalry during pregnancy and before birth        

  • Encourage your older child’s relationship with your partner or another significant person throughout the pregnancy so that once the baby is born, your child will be comfortable and secure about spending time away from the primary caretaking parent.
  • Prepare your child for the birth of the baby and encourage his/her connection to the baby. You want your child to feel “in the loop” which will promote feelings of security and make it easier to accept the new baby. Some ideas for fostering that relationship include referring to the baby as “our baby,” “your baby” or other terms connoting ownership; reading books about what happens during pregnancy and after the baby is born; taking him/her to the doctor to hear the baby’s heartbeat; letting your child feel your baby’s movements;  having him/her help you to organize and pick out items for the baby’s room; and packing a bag together for the hospital that contains a photograph of your child. If there is an opportunity to have the child spend time around a new baby before birth, it could be helpful preparation.
  • Try not to make any demands for new skills, such as weaning and toilet training, in the months preceding delivery, as your child will need time to adapt to new routines without associating them with the arrival of the baby. Praise your child for mature behavior, such as using the toilet, talking, feeding or dressing him or herself, and playing independently.
  • Try to keep changes to your child’s life to a minimum such as a new school or placing him/her in a different bed or room. Take care of the changes well in advance of the birth if possible. 
  • Let your child know that he has been, and will always be, a special member of the family. Go through the child’s baby pictures with him/her and talk about your child’s first year of life.
  • Talk to your child about what will happen when you go to the hospital, and who will take care of him/her.  Stress to your child that you will always come back. Prepare your child for the way the baby will look at the hospital. Make sure that you explain that the baby will not be a playmate right away, but will eat, sleep and cry for most of the day at first.

How to deal with sibling rivalry in the hospital after birth

  • Have your child visit you as quickly as possible after the baby is born. Let your child feel your joy at seeing him/her, rather than your preoccupation with the baby, and let your child hold the baby while you help to support the baby’s head. This will encourage your child to feel protective and fall in love with the baby. Take photographs of the siblings together to emphasize the importance of the relationship. Call your child daily from the hospital.
  • Ask family and visitors to give “big brother or sister” presents instead of “new baby” presents, and have a present from the new baby to the older sibling, which will make your child feel special and connected to the baby and the family. Let your older child unwrap the baby’s gifts.
  • Have your partner or other family members take your child on some special outings, for example, to the park, zoo or museum.

How to deal with sibling rivalry at home after the baby is born

  • Encourage your child to touch and play with the new baby when you are present. Do not leave your toddler child alone with your newborn, however. Toddlers will not understand and could take out frustration on the newborn without understanding the dangers.
  • Enlist your older child as a helper. Make your child see him or herself as a nurturer. Let your child help with baths, with drying the baby, getting a clean diaper, or finding toys or a pacifier. When the baby cries, have your child sing or talk gently. When your child wants to hold the baby, sit him/her in an armchair, well propped with pillows on either side. Then put the baby in the child’s lap and stay close by. Tell your child how much the baby likes him/her.
  • Give your older child some privileges and rewards for being the big sibling. The child will see some benefits to getting older and there will be less regression in behaviors. 
  • Accept that there will be some regressive behaviors, such as clinging, and do not criticize your child for them. If your child behaves aggressively toward the baby, do not hit him/her, but intervene promptly. Be a role model for proper behavior. Praise good behavior so that the child realizes that he/she gets more attention for behaving rather than acting out. Encourage your child to be kind to the baby.
  • Be careful not to put the needs of the baby ahead of the older sibling all of the time. It is important to be evenhanded, as the toddler will be sensitive. Try to give your child at least 15 minutes of exclusive, uninterrupted time each day.
  • Acknowledge the feelings the child has about the baby, and give him/her love, hugs, support and encouragement. Avoid blaming the baby for any negative changes in the household as that could encourage resentment. Explain to your child that he/she once needed a lot of special care too, and show him/her photographs from that time.
  • When you are nursing or bottle-feeding the baby, or when the baby is sleeping, read your child a story, play a game, or do a puzzle with him/her.

How to avoid ongoing sibling rivalry

  • Do not compare your children and treat your children as individuals. Praise each child equally for his or her unique skills. Each child’s interests should be supported by the parent(s) with an equal investment of enthusiasm and time. Talk about each child’s milestones without mentioning the other sibling, and never label them by saying such things as “he is the smart one,” or she is “the artistic one.” Children will come to believe they are locked into those traits.
  • Encourage each child to develop his/her own interests and friends independent of the interests and friends of their siblings. 
  • Limit the amount of caregiving expected of older siblings for younger ones. 
  • Praise your older child for being a good sibling.  Give attention to positive behavior.
  • Make certain your child feels included in the family as part of the team. 
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child every week.
  • Teach your child empathy by showing him how to put himself/herself in her sibling’s shoes and to imagine how the sibling feels.
  • As the children grow, they should be encouraged to settle their own disputes as much as possible. 
  • Encourage your children to cooperate and not to compete. Some ways to promote this are by having them work as a team, playing games that put them on the same side, and completing a task against the clock.
  • Teach that each child’s personal possessions and privacy are respected by the other children in the family 

While there are many factors which contribute to the amount of conflict from sibling rivalry, such as the personalities of the parents and children; the perception of the parents about the role of each child in the family, including their attitudes toward gender, birth order, and competition; and the number and spacing of children in the family, the parents can do much to promote healthy sibling relationships and to reduce sibling rivalry, as set forth above.

Read More: 
How-To Guide for Newborns 

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