Tag Archives: sharing

Sibling Rivalry


Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Here is another question posed to me by a number of parents recently: How do you deal with sibling competition and aggression?

This problem is common and has a simple answer. That does not mean it is easy to “fix”; it just means that it is easy to understand. The answer has three parts: (1) create a comfortable and relatively stress-free family environment; (2) create routines that teach children skills in sharing, turn taking, and negotiating; (3) separate siblings who cannot be together without fighting and then create short, parent-facilitated times together that have maximum probability of successful outcome, and practice them.

I am going to start by answering #2, then #3, and leave #1 – perhaps the most complicated one – for the last.

(2) This answer is a mixture of two of my favorite recommendations for parents – routines and family values. The routines function to put into place and practice the family values of sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. Remember that the power of “family values” is that you can’t argue with them. That is, you could try to argue, but the answer is always unarguable – “That’s just the way we do things in this family.” For example, if one child calls the other child a name or makes an insulting remark that the parents consider unacceptable, the response is, “In our family, we don’t use names like that or say insulting things like that.” That cuts through the child’s argument that another kid said the same thing – even if the other kid was in the same family. Or, if one child insists that he always sit in a preferred seat in the car, the response is, “In our family, we share.” Then the routine that practices the family value is something like – on the way to school X gets to sit in that seat, and on the way home from school, Y gets to sit there, or something like that. Another common conflict between siblings is fighting over the same toy. In that case, the family value of sharing is implemented by a negotiating process that is taught beautifully by the teachers in the Cambridge Ellis School. The child who wants the toy is helped to ask the child holding the toy, “Are you finished with the toy?” If the child holding the toy says no, then the other child is helped to ask, “How many more minutes do you need before I can have a turn – 1, 2, or 3?” (For older children, the time period is usually longer.) This scaffolds both children’s agency in the situation and supports the child who ultimately has to give the toy up.

(3) The third answer is similar to what I have recommended for play dates. Although parents certainly need relief, play dates are not primarily intended to serve that purpose but instead are meant to provide the child with opportunities to learn how to have fun playing with other children and learn to get along with them, among other things. The same can be said for the time siblings spend together, although sibling relationships are of course much more meaningful and intense than peer relationships. If siblings are going through a period of not getting along (this can happen for many reasons, including one sibling in particular having a hard time and taking it out on his or her brother or sister) then the time they spend alone together should be minimized (I realize this is often difficult) and they should be given short periods of structured play time together with parents facilitating the interaction. For example, the parent might say, “Since you guys have been having a hard time getting along recently, then X is going on errands with me while Y stays home to do homework with Dad, and then later this afternoon we will all go to the park together. It is important for the siblings to have enough good times together for them to want to spend time together in the future, which will motivate them to behave well with each other. While they are together in the relatively short enjoyable times the parent is playing the role of the teacher (above), scaffolding the development of sharing and good negotiating skills, as well as the respect for family values.

(1) Create a comfortable, relatively stress-free family environment. Of course this is not at all easy to implement. The reason I include it as #1 is because it is so important and because parents often forget that a major source of sibling conflict is preexisting tension within the family. Sometimes the original source of tension is in the marriage or between separated parents. Sometimes the tension is related to problems with extended family members, or to financial worries or job dissatisfaction. Other times tension is generated by conflict between one particular child and a parent, and the parent holds the tension within him or herself in between actual times of conflict. Then, when a demand has to be made on that child, the parent anticipates noncompliance and approaches the request in a negative frame of mind. Sometimes this tension is communicated by the parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and abrupt gestures, and aggressive choice of words.
Regardless of the origin of the tension, the children in the family pick up the stress, and often they will express the stress they feel by fighting with each other. Partly, this fighting response emerges from the irritability the family stress causes in the children. Also, the children unconsciously may be distracting the parents from the original source of their tension by calling attention to the problem they are causing in the moment. Interestingly, that can make everyone feel “better” because at least they know what the problem is – “fighting kids” – instead of living in a situation in which the cause of the unhappiness is hidden or unacknowledged. The answer to this problem of tension in the family is to refocus attention on the parents’ need for support. Remember the old directive of what to do with the oxygen mask in the airplane. First put it on yourself and then put it on the child sitting next to you. That is because the child will need you to be alert and strong in order to take care of him or her. In some cases, this need for support means getting more help from extended family and friends, or hiring someone to help take care of the house or the children. In other cases, the parents need professional help to manage the trouble in their lives.

Read this blog in Spanish.

Play Dates

good friendsPlay dates are the current solution in the U.S. – at least in many urban centers – to the lack of the kind of neighborhood experience in which children could gather spontaneously in back yards and play together. I am not proposing that the neighborhood situation is always ideal. In fact, I am aware of many stories of how without adult supervision children’s play can turn into bullying, exclusion, or exploitation.  But that is not the rule, and it has great advantages. For one thing, children have the chance to negotiate a common agenda without the usual structure of school or even family routine, and without adult intervention. Children learn to deal with competitive conflict between and among themselves. Children also learn to manage “empty” time or boredom when usual playmates are busy, without holding their parents responsible, since typically they are in charge of initiating arrangements with playmates. Even more, “neighborhood” play often includes children of different ages, and can teach children how to accommodate differences in competency, size, and experience. Perhaps ironically, this neighborhood spontaneous play is often replicated in good institutional care, in children’s homes. At Love and Hope, it is not unusual to see a small group of children playing soccer on the roof playground, or clustering together searching for treasures in the gravel, or other similar activities. This is harder to manage in city environments, when busy streets separate families and playmates and parents juggle busy schedules, barely managing to get home in time to get food on the table before helping with homework or putting the little ones to bed.

Often playdates offer a good alternative. Playdates are especially felicitous in the case of children who have trouble making or keeping friends. That is because a parent or other caregiver is available to scaffold the play. I often coach parents on how to do this. These are my general guidelines (Remember that the main goal of the playdate is for your child to have a positive experience) :

(1) Put yourself in charge. Do not offer to take care of the other child for an indefinite period of time. That may result in your babysitting for the other child, and your child may become fatigued or need time alone while the other child is still present. One way of safeguarding the situation is to provide transportation – “Joanie would love Rachel to come over and play. I could pick up the girls at school and drop them off at your house at around 3:00.” If your child has any vulnerability at all in peer relationships, do not invite (or allow someone else to invite) two children. Three really is a crowd. It is often best to keep the playdate short, and some younger children who have a lot of difficulty sharing may do better if you get together away from home, such as at a playground or a museum.

(2) Discuss the playdate with your child ahead of time. Make it clear to your child that, whereas you are going to take his/her preferences into account, you insist on a variety of children. That will not only establish a policy of inclusion as opposed to exclusion, but it will also help stretch your child’s friendship pool; some children get stuck in one particular friendship that may not be the best to help them grow, and you want to help them move beyond that. Also talk about your “family values” regarding guests. These may include giving the friend first choice in picking an activity or a toy, for example. Such specific rules are often better than general ones such as “be kind to your guest” because young children may find it hard to apply them and they are harder to enforce. It is also wise to discuss a few potential activities with your child before the playdate. While spontaneous play is an ideal, it is often more challenging for some children, and you want to put your child and yourself at ease by being prepared. Finally, in the case of young children, help the child decide which favorite toys that the child will have a hard time sharing should be put out of sight, and in the case of older children, talk to the child about how much time – if any – is to be spent in screen time (t.v., video, or computer games).

(3) If your child has particular challenges feeling comfortable and successful in peer relationships, then – as mentioned above – prepare ahead with activities that your child enjoys and that the guest would also be expected to like, such as simple crafts or baking or a new game. Then, if your child starts to have trouble – become irritable and non-collaborative or isolate him/herself, you can suggest something different and appealing to do. Do not hesitate to move in, in as friendly and non-anxious manner as possible if the children start to fight and seem unable to resolve it themselves. Don’t scold or correct your child in the presence of his/her friend; that is shaming and will only cause things to go further down hill. Instead, just move in with a positive attitude and change the venue, the activity, something.

Remember that your first goal is to help your child have a good time with a friend. That will motivate him/her to practice the skills and capacities that make friendships possible and gratifying.