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Can siblings grow without rivalry? What are some helpful parenting tips?

People who grew up with siblings are familiar with both the joys and aches of  having a brother or sister. Apart from parents, siblings can provide a child’s need for attachment relationships. There can be a deep bond between siblings. But there can also be conflict in the form of sibling rivalry. 

Is sibling rivalry normal? 

Conflicts among family members are normal, and among siblings, it is completely expected, normal and even a healthy coping mechanism. 

According to psychology, in the presence of a new family member, a parent or caregiver’s attention is turned mostly to the new child. The older sibling, on the other hand, may feel threatened that the person to whom they are most attached to is paying less attention to them. This causes anxiety and stress to the older sibling. In a sense, parents have to expect and view this as a normal behavior.

Signs of rivalry 

These signs are usually seen in younger children and they happen at the first few months when the older child gets to know the new sibling and become familiar with the change in family dynamics. 

  1. Aggressive behavior. The child may show aggression towards the primary caregiver, the new sibling, other children, or to themselves. This is especially seen in toddlers. 
  2. Becoming unruly. When the caregiver is busy taking care of the baby, the older child may try to direct the attention to themselves by being naughty or not following family rules. 
  3. Becoming “overly” compliant. Some children become sensitive to the needs of the baby and do many things to take care of the new sibling and they engage in increasingly “good” behaviors. This is an effort to hide their fears of being replaced in the family and to suppress their anger. 
  4. Becoming more dependent than usual. Some children become clingy and suddenly more demanding of attention. They might experience difficulty in sleeping, going back to bedwetting, thumb sucking, or refusing to eat. 

However, there are also positive changes in a child’s behavior. Observed changes include older children becoming more independent, learning new skills to take care of themselves such as eating or dressing on their own, and skills to help take care of the baby. 

How can sibling rivalry be made more healthy in the home?

1. Avoid labeling. Sibling rivalry escalates to hostility when siblings feel the unfairness of being labeled in relation to one another. Labeling one as “the smart sibling”, the other “the pretty one”, “the athlete”, the “sensitive sibling” and such give the children the assumption that others are better than them in some way and others are more special. Parents need to avoid labels that polarize. Instead, differences are celebrated and appreciated without putting them into boxes. 

2. Allow children to resolve their own conflicts. When they are allowed to find solutions to their relationship problems, they develop their social and emotional intelligence. This translates to better problem-solving in the future. On the other hand, parents should also be vigilant if the conflicts result in aggression. 

3. Avoid sibling resentment through obvious and unfair show of favoritism. It is normal for parents to show some favoritism especially to younger children, and it is understandable. More time is spent on young ones. But as they grow older, other siblings might feel unloved and resent the “favorite child” because they are given more privileges, and they lack discipline from parents. Treat the children as the individuals that they are, loving them the way they prefer to receive love, but be as fair as possible.  

Instead, keep the home environment and family dynamic more cooperative and supportive. Competition among siblings is normal, but keep it friendly and fun. 

It is possible that unresolved sibling conflict and rivalry can even transcend to adulthood. Adults who had unhealthy relationships with their family members may suffer from low self esteem and have trouble forming good relationships with others. 

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Can siblings grow without rivalry? What are some helpful parenting tips?
Brandon Resasco