Siblings Without Rivalry

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were always fighting with each other. The parents were at their wits end as to what to do about their sons' rivalry. The mother had heard that a pastor in town had been successful in disciplining children in the past, so she asked her husband if he thought they should send the boys to speak with the pastor. The husband said, “We might as well. We need to do something before I really lose my temper!”

The pastor agreed to speak with the boys, but asked to see them individually. The 8-year-old went to meet with him first. The pastor sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy made no response, so the pastor repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?” Again the boy made no attempt to answer, so the pastor raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face, “WHERE IS GOD?” At that the boy bolted from the room and ran directly home slamming himself in his closet.

His older brother followed him into the closet and said, “What happened?”

The younger brother replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it!”

As the parent of two girls, I understand Cosby’s statement immediately. I’ve experienced the frustration that stems from the constant quarreling, bickering, arguing, and fighting between siblings. The good news is that sibling rivalry is both normal and inevitable, and usually declines as the kids become adults.

Why do siblings experience rivalry? According to the Children’s National Medical Center, the word “rivalry” comes from the Latin word rivalis, which means having the right to the same stream. Reasons for the conflict include a desire for a parent's complete attention, boredom, or a dislike for one another.

In response to the fighting, many parents react by yelling, making threats or accusations, taking sides, and solving children's problems for them. Unfortunately, these types of reactions only add fuel to the fire. In other words, when a parent reacts to hostility with hostility, they are inadvertently promoting sibling rivalry. So what can we do as parents to deal with this common problem?

  1. Instead of reacting to the fighting by intervening, parents should teach their children to settle things for themselves. Unless it cannot be ignored, such as when someone might get physically injured (hitting, kicking, biting), it’s best to stay clear of sibling conflicts. Stepping in may actually reinforce fighting as a way to get attention from mom or dad.
  2. If you choose to or need to intervene, instead of blaming either child or jumping to punishment, you may want to remove the source of conflict. For example, if your kids are fighting over a toy or the television, take the item away for a period of time.
  3. If conflict persists, separate the fighters by placing them in a “time-out.” At the buzzer, bring the kids together to work out a solution without your involvement. Remember, the point is to teach them how to resolve their own problems.
  4. Do not expect your children to play together or get along all the time. Instead, provide them with their own “spaces” throughout the day. If toys are used by all, have a box for each child that he or she can put three or so “special” toys in that no one else can use.
  5. Give each child individual attention throughout the day, as well as separate activities during the week. This special alone time lowers their need to “capture” their parents’ attention, recognizes their individual needs, and reassures them that their place is secure with you.
Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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