Originally published in the Mind Body & Soul Magazine https://nefesh.org/MindBodyandSoul/when-siblings-fight.html
When we watch our own children tumbling on the floor, grabbing toys from one another, shouting, screaming, crying, we put our hands to our head and mumble “oh no, when will this ever end?”
Children will tell you the facts of the fight, “ he touched my stuff so I hit him”, but what is the psychological cause of sibling rivalry and competition? From an evolutionary perspective, there is a biological motivation for sibling competition. Siblings compete for the parent’s resources. Out in the wild, the child who had more resources and protection had a higher chance of survival.
In homes where parental resources are sparse because of work, chaotic relationships, or other stressors, it is easy to understand the children’s competition. Yet, in homes where parents seem to be present and available, children still fight. Because, children are not fighting for physical survival; they are competing for emotional survival. Parents are the source of love and attention. Studies have shown, children across the world desire emotional support, attention from parents, and physical needs (e.g. “buy me something I like”). When parsing out children’s fights, you find at the core the competition over who is loved more, and who gets more attention. Larry is crying that Abby hurt him. They are fighting over parental attention. Who will get more attention? Sally breaks Daisy’s doll she got from dad for her Birthday. They are fighting over love. Does Sally fear dad loves Daisy more since only Daisy got the doll?
Parents can perpetuate a negative or positive competitive cycle. Negative sibling competition consists of an aggressive need to win, to be able to “one-up” the other. These siblings see one another as a threat to their success. Positive sibling competition, are siblings who care about each other’s success and they see their behaviors as contributing to the family satisfaction as a whole.
Parents should be mindful that their actions could promote negative competition. Parents contribute to competition between children by being the judge of fights. If parents are the ones resolving the fights, then one child always feels like he or she won the parents attention. Sometimes, parents compare children to one another. A parent might say “Joy, eat as nicely as your brother.” Parents comparison between children can foster hate and envy rather than cooperative competition. Research indicates pitting children against each other hinders their ability to develop a self outside of “good” or “bad” child. Additionally, the “good” child develops a fear of ruining his or her image in the parent’s eyes. Causing the child to force him or self to remain the “good” child.
Healthy competition between children is essential for their development. The skills they learn from sibling rivalries are re-enacted later in life with co-workers, friends, and romantic partners. The goal for parents should be to facilitate healthy competition and to eliminate negative and destructive competition.
Family goals versus individual goals
It is important to create an environment where children are looking out for each other’s success instead of trying to defeat each other. Parents can emphasize tasks where family members contribute to collective family goals. For example, instead of having bedtime competitions of who gets into their pajamas first, the competition should be about siblings helping each other achieve the collective goal of getting into bed. There are various ways to turn bedtime into a family goal, for example, giving children tasks. One child is responsible for preparing the pajamas while the other child is responsible for reminding everyone to brush their teeth.
Children can resolve their own fights
Studies show, children are capable of resolving their own fights. Additionally, children can learn to negotiate, compromise, and set rules for the future. If the parents resolve the fight, children will fail to acquire lifelong skills of negotiating. (If children become physical parents should intervene.)
When a fight occurs parents can encourage discussion, communication, and compromise. Encouraging children to turn toward each other and not toward the parent. Aaron and Eli are fighting about using their trucks to play a game of “construction” or a game of “cops and robbers”. Mom encourages them to discuss, negotiate, and compromise on a game. If Aaron and Eli do not come to a resolution, mom takes away the trucks. The parent’s role is to facilitate the discussion and decision-making and to avoid being the one making the decision for the children. If siblings are unable to compromise, they both lose the privilege. This approach ensures none of the children feel like they lost. Additionally, children will learn, if they compromise they can achieve their goals.
Responsibility for the family
Parents should impart to children that they are each responsible for the success of their siblings and the family. Family responsibility can be achieved by focusing on all siblings rather than one specific child. One way to do this is through group discipline. Meaning, if one child misbehaves the entire family is punished. For example, one child refuses to eat his breakfast before leaving on the family trip. Instead of telling the child that he will need to stay behind, let the siblings know the family will wait until their brother eats his breakfast. A group discipline approach teaches children to encourage and promote positive behaviors in one another. Children learn their actions contribute positively and negatively to the family’s enjoyment.
Most importantly, convey to your children that they are unique and special. Every child is an integral part of the family and is valued by all the family members. Encourage your children to support and motivate the goals of their brothers and sisters and to respect and accept one another as individual people. Each child’s unique skills will contribute to the success of the family.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC