6 steps to help reduce sibling competition in the family

“Parents often turn to me for help and answers, which will help siblings come to an agreement at home. Even if one minute the children agree, the next moment there may be tears, nicknames, and even fights. The hysteria and cries that arise on a daily basis can become difficult for parents to bear”, – notices a teacher at the Eureka Early Childhood Education School Justė Petkuvienė and shares her and specialists’ insights that will help solve the challenges of children’s competition at home.

According to J. Petkuvienė, there is a lot of relevant literature can be found, which analyzes the possible reasons for the competition of brothers and sisters and the ways to reduce it. For example, U.S. child psychologist Jennifer Scroff Pendley says sibling competition begins even before the second child is born. The elder child feels a lack of attention. Positive parenting expert Amy McCready agrees with J.S. Pendley and asks parents to empathize with the child’s situation. “Your eldest child was once your only centre of attention. His requests were answered immediately and he did not have to share his parents’ time or toys with anyone. Then his sister or brother appeared – a complete stranger to him. Now, mom puts a breakfast put in a little later because she is feeding the baby or the older one has to wait for Dad to finish changing the baby’s diapers before he can play lego.”. 

As they grow, children compete for the same toys. The young one becomes more independent, he/she feels tired when he/she is led by a big brother or sister. Because young children cannot express this frustration orally, they do so by misbehaving – refusing to share, starting to fight, pushing, shouting, and so on. “Although you cannot completely stop the competition between brothers and sisters, you can reduce the frequency of conflicts,” says teacher J. Petkuvienė.

Analyzing the insights of specialists, J. Petkuvienė marks out 6 steps that parents can take today to reduce children’s competition.


1. Forget labels

U.S. child psychologist Sylvia Rimm advises forgetting labels. We live in a society where people are thriving into categories – we want to know who is smart, popular, successful, sporty, musical, talented, and so on. Labels help to categorize things. But when it comes to our children, labels (intentionally or unintentionally) greatly increase competition between siblings. If we talk about our “sporty”, “smart” or “bad” child, we are intentionally or unintentionally comparing our children. For example, if we call one child “sporty,” the other child automatically thinks, “I’m not sporty, so why should I try to play sports at all?” 

“By sticking the labels on our children, we inadvertently give them one role or another and compare them,” notes J. Petkuvienė.

By giving up labels, we give our “non-athletic” child a chance to shine, even if he is not a superstar in sports. And we give a chance for a “bad child” to do the right thing. The most important thing is to be able to notice and be able to enjoy the positive qualities of children, such as teamwork, perseverance and kindness.


2. Qualitative focus

Teacher J. Petkuvienė always recommends to the parents to dedicate quality individual attention to each child and it really works! Quality time is a time without any extraneous disturbances. “Put the phone away, then reply to the emails later, turn off a TV. Your child is the centre of your universe for these 10 minutes, so it is very important that you fully spend time with him. And when you’re done, say: “I really enjoyed our special time! I am looking forward to doing it again tomorrow!”. It will be useful for your child to know that you are dedicated to spending time together, and you will also get a plus in your mind for a good time,”, – advises J. Petkuvienė. 

Positive parenting expert Amy McCready also agrees with the recommendation and says one of the main reasons why children are fighting is to get parents’ attention to themselves. In their eyes, even negative attention is better than nothing. To satisfy your children’s need for attention, give each child at least 10 to 15 minutes of conscious attention each day.

Short activities ideas:

  • Tea party: make a delicious tea, sit down at the table and talk. You can play the chat game “Mandarinas”. Each slice means one sentence, you need to say something before eating the slice. E.g. you can talk about your favourite things or events that happened today. Don’t avoid telling about your day at work; 
  • Lego building – Build lego buildings together, e.g. a recently visited museum or other famous places where the child was with the family when building, you can talk about it while you’re building;
  • Drawing with chalk – you can draw each other, the mother can draw the child, and the child can draw his/her mother. A fun activity where everyone draws a certain detail in a drawing in turn and together creates a complete drawing;
  • Listen to your favourite music – Let your child hear your favourite song, listen to your child’s favourite song. Sing together!

Giving each child this special time will increase the strength of their emotional connection and actively fill their desire for attention with positive attention. Then they will no longer have to fight with his/her sister or brother for your attention.


3. Get ready for peace

Researcher Jeniffer S. Pendley says: “When brothers and sisters fight, many parents separate children to dispel the situation. While sending children to separate corners can give them a chance to calm down, the time spent in the corner will not teach the child to deal with the conflict.”.

To teach children conflict resolution, positive parenting expert Amy McCready recommends playing role-playing games for everyone. According to Amy McCready, you can do some scenarios, which will help to develop conflict resolution skills:

1. Ask the children to take turns learning to say: “I’d like to play with you”, “Can I play with this toy?”.

2. Teach children to talk about their feelings: “I’m angry because you don’t share toys with me.”, “I feel sad when you took a lego detail from me.”, “I’m angry when Jonas doesn’t let me play with the car.”, or “I feel hurt when Ieva beats me …”. In calm situations, when it comes to feelings, children learn to express their anger and sadness in words. Children are not always ready to discuss their feelings immediately after a fight, so give them time until they are ready to talk – go, count to 10, take a deep breath. It won’t work right away, but after a while, the result will be really visible and the physical actions will be replaced verbally. 

“Although we don’t have siblings in the classes, there are also disputes over certain toys. We always encourage children to agree on the best method for them – agree on how long one kid will play and ask the teacher to give a signal when the time is up”, – teacher J. Petkuvienė shares her thoughts.

By giving your children the tools and strategies to resolve the conflict on their own, you will find that the disputes between siblings in your home have been significantly reduced.


4. Avoid quarrels

Researcher Jeniffer S. Pendley advises: “It may surprise you, but do you know what’s best to do? When disagreements start to develop and you are already able to resolve conflicts with children? Ignore it.” 

By not paying attention to the struggle, you are not rewarding the negative behaviour and, most importantly, giving them a chance to resolve it themselves.

If the fight escalates into physical contact or you really feel the need to intervene, you can do the other two actions.


5. Calm the conflict

Researcher Sylvia Rimm says parents may need to intervene if children are unable to come to an agreement or the conflict escalates. “Whatever you do, do not support either side. You may think you have heard or seen where the dispute started, but remain impartial. When everyone is calm, listen to each child’s version of what happened and encourage them to use the “I feel” statements when they tell their story.”, – notes S. Rimm.

“Ask the children to come up with some solutions together without blaming each other. If no one can come up with the right solution, suggest a few and help them agree on the right one.”, – advises J. Petkuvienė.


6. “Put the children in one boat”

Positive parenting expert Amy McCready says that if, after listening to both sides and trying to find a solution, the children still can’t agree, it’s time to put them “in one boat.” This means that everyone involved in the dispute has the same consequences.

The statement “in the same boat” means: “Either you can play the game alternately or I’ll postpone it for the next day.”

“It is likely that the children will start negotiating at first, but your children will soon realize that it is in their best interest to agree on a solution together before “being in the same boat.”, – says A. McCready.

In resolving conflicts between siblings, it is important for parents to be patient with their children. “Conflict resolution is a complex skill that requires effort even for adults.”, – notices J.Petkuvienė