Sibling rivalry expert Dorothy Rowe often starts lectures by saying: "Hands up those who were the 'good' ones in their family while they were growing up. And now for the 'bad' ones." Most people instantly know which camp they fell into, she says. "It's classic for parents to label children and say things like, 'Why can't you be more like your sister?'," says Rowe, psychologist and author of My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds (Routledge). "The problem is it's a sure way of creating lasting sibling conflict."
All parents want their children to get on and when they don't, it can be stressful. The good news, says Rowe, is we play a huge part in determining the nature of our offsprings' relationship. The bad news is we often inadvertently wind up encouraging contention. "By far the most important factor influencing whether siblings get on throughout their lifespan is how parents deal with squabbles," says Rowe. "Where parents say things like, 'Now girls, we share in this family, we don't fight', children are far more likely to get on than those from families like mine, where my sister did all the mean, spiteful things that older sisters do, but neither of my parents said a thing."
If parents are unpleasant to one another when they're agitated or cross, this will also affect the sibling bond, she says. "I think parents underestimate how much children copy their behaviour. On the positive side, if children see their parents supporting one another in all sorts of ways, they get the idea this is normal behaviour."
In Western countries, 82 per cent of people have at least one sibling. Not only is this sibling the person you're likely to share the longest relationship of your life with, but the person you spend more time with during childhood than anyone else – including your parents. No wonder it's a complex bond; affected by variables ranging from personality to birth order and one that, according to various psychologists, is particularly intense when children are close in age and of the same gender, or where one child is gifted.
It all starts, of course, with the arrival of the second baby. "This is a huge adjustment for the older child, who can feel like the new baby is taking over their role in the family," says Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Parentline Plus. But despite them resorting to pinching or poking the baby, Todd encourages parents to think carefully about the way they react, as it may lead to them feeling even more resentful towards the baby. "Although you must explain clearly that they are not allowed to hurt the baby, tell them you know they are not meaning to be bad and they should tell you how they are feeling, rather than take it out on their brother or sister."
It is completely normal for older siblings to react this way or even to regress to "babyish" behaviour, says Todd. Providing the parents deal with it in an open and non-judgmental way, the jealousy should diminish over time. You can even reduce rivalry before the baby arrives by looking through old baby pictures of your first child with them, so they recognise they had the same attention and care the new baby is receiving. Put time aside to regularly be alone with your older child, so they don't constantly feel the need to compete for your attention. Allow your older child to help look after their baby brother or sister – perhaps by reading to them or helping change a nappy.
"Don't make major changes to your older child's routine," advises Judy Dunn, professor of development psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry. "In their attempts to keep the older child feeling included, many parents stop their daycare for a while after the baby's birth, but routines are imperative to children."
As they grow older, remember your children didn't choose to live together – they are stuck with each other, says Dunn. "They wind up knowing each other so well that they understand exactly what will annoy the other. Sometimes that can be just teasing, but it can turn more aggressive. The main thing for all parents to realise is how common this is." Siblings can be extremely argumentative in the early years, and things usually smooth out later on when they get friends outside the home and their lives are no longer dominated by this sibling.
Although it may not feel like it, sibling rivalry can be constructive, preparing them for important relationships when they are older, adds Dunn. "The idea of conciliation doesn't come naturally to many children, but, with their parents help when it comes to sibling squabbles, they can learn this skill. Sibling relationships teach children a huge amount about sharing, co-operating, empathy and communication, among other things."
Dunn advises watching out for common triggers to bickering. "Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights," she says. "Children who don't know the positive ways to get attention from their parents or haven't learned how to start playful activities with a sibling may be more likely to resort to picking a fight. These are things parents can do something about."
One of the main reasons brothers and sisters find it hard to get on is because differences in age mean they are at different stages of development. Introducing activities that everyone can participate in, such as trips to the park, where younger children play on the swings while older ones kick a ball about, avoids creating resentment. Don't forget praise when they play nicely, letting them know that you appreciate the effort they're making to get along.
The jury is out when it comes to the level of intervention required in squabbles. Some say siblings should sort out disagreements themselves, whereas experts like Rowe say intervention is the key to letting siblings know there's a better way to deal with the situation. If you opt for the latter, avoid taking sides and remain calm.
Chances are your children's relationship will become a close one. "In middle adulthood, siblings can be a real source of comfort, especially when breakdowns occur in adult relationships," says Dunn. Studies show 80 per cent of siblings over 60 enjoy close ties. "Mind you, my children are adults, but when I do a family roast, they still hover over me making sure one doesn't get more potatoes than the other."Reuse content