Toddlers at War: Sibling Rivalry

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“My eldest daughter stalks the younger one, trips her up, hits her, bites her, takes her toys, scratches and pushes her. Yesterday she put a pillow on her sister’s face and every time I jump to intervene, she tries to be nasty on a daily basis. Only my intervention or having them separately will prevent actual injuries,” my friend complained to me recently. Her daughters are two and one years old.

I, myself, have two boys under three, and scratching, biting, hitting and spitting are part of our daily routine at the moment. At times it gets so bad that I can’t even turn away my head; leaving the room was simply life-threatening for the baby.

Whose Fault Is It?

I wondered if we as parents could do something to stop the rivalry or even if it is our fault that our kids don’t feel loved enough. May be it is our behavior that sets the jealousy off and promotes rivalry among our children?

“No, absolutely not! Parents take too much on,” assured me Dr. Jane Nelsen, the founder of the Positive Discipline program, when I phoned her up. “You can’t control a child’s perceptions or what a child decides or what a child believes because two children can see the same event and make different decisions. So, that’s why we can’t take all the credit or blame.”

Parents can’t stop the rivalry from happening but they can do a lot to minimize its impact. “First of all when parents agree on how to parent, that creates an atmosphere of cooperation and energy. And when parents have opposite opinions, which they most of the time have, that increases the rivalry.”

Jane came up with a great example on how to handle rivalry in toddlers. At first I found it somewhat counterintuitive. “Let’s say a toddler takes a toy away from his younger sibling – what do most mothers do?”

“Well, they punish the older one, the aggressor,” I mumble, puzzled about what would be wrong with that approach.

“Exactly. So what you are doing when you swoop in and protect the younger and punish the older child? You are increasing sibling rivalry because you are doing bully-victim training. You are teaching the older one to be a bully by punishing him. So then he learns – oh I can punish someone who’s smaller than me and they are training the younger one to be a victim. That smart little guy or girl is going to learn so quickly: Oh the way to feel special around here, all I need to do is to annoy the older one so that mummy and daddy won’t see it and so they will always think it’s the others fault.”

Dr. Nelsen continued, “what helps a lot in improving behavior is when the older sees that they are both treated the same. It’s hard to do, I’m not saying it’s easy to do but it’s so important to do if we possibly can.”

The Importance of Siblings Rivalry

“I think that sibling rivalry is important,” Dr. Nelsen continues. “I don’t think we should try to eliminate all of it. But I think it is detrimental if parents are always jumping in and taking sides. Then it has long lasting negative effect on children’s’ relationship. If a parent intervenes to take the side of one and not the other, then that’s not a good socialization. But if they say, ‘I’ll take this toy until you guys can figure out a way to share or you can go to separate areas until you are ready to try it again,’ that’s great socialization.”

To finish our conversation, Jane gave me a great rule of thumb for the toddler years and beyond.

“Treat your kids the same. It is like you talk to both of them even if the youngest one can’t understand. They understand the energy. They understand the actions, even if they don’t understand the words”.


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Author: anastasia

Anastasia is a Russian mother of two boys (1 and 3) she is married to a lovely New Zealander and they recently relocated from the UK to Switzerland. Anastasia works fulltime as a Communications and Change manager for a large multinational company. She raises her bi-lingual children following the attachment parenting principles in as much as it is possible for a fulltime working mother. Recently she has started a Busy Parents Club on Facebook dedicated to parents across the world who are interested in raising securely attached children while working fulltime.

6 thoughts on “Toddlers at War: Sibling Rivalry”

  1. My kids are so different, treating them the same would not then be treating them according to their needs. I have three living children and I try to treat them fairly, but not equally – as they’re not equal. What I expect of each child depends on their personality, their age, their emotional state – and I relate to them accordingly. Children are ever so concerned about fairness – I think that to teach them that fair does not necessarily mean ‘the same’ is a valuable life-lesson.

    My concern with the advice to treat children the same is that this encourages comparisons.

    I made a promise to myself when I was pregnant with our second child. It is a promise that is hard to keep, and became harder still when our third child came along.

    I avowed to resist comparing our children with each other, not even in my head, and certainly never within earshot.

    I do not want our children to grow up with a sense of being ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ each other. I do not want them to define themselves against one another.

    It is inevitable that children in the same family will notice how they are the same and how they differ from other members of the family. Of course children will be aware of an older sibling who can run faster, or another sibling who sings beautifully. But actually, children are often so busy being themselves and seeing the world mainly from their own point of view, that they do not naturally infect their thinking with comparisons – not unless we teach them to.

    The trouble is that the parent brain, in attempting to make sense of things, naturally compares and ranks. From those rankings so easily come labels. And research shows that as soon as we ascribe labels to children, they will obligingly fulfil them. The child who is less meticulous than their sibling, and who is labelled careless or messy, will become ever more careless and messy. The child who is dreamy and less thoughtful than a sibling, if labelled thoughtless is more likely to give up trying to be considerate. The child who is energetic and passionate may become ever more boisterous and noisy if labelled so; while their more sedate, reflective sibling, if labelled lazy, may become so.

    Even in private, comparisons are not nice. A child who is quietly told that they are the most generous of their siblings now has a terrible burden to carry. Not only must they now out-give their siblings to keep their position, but they also feel a sense of ill-ease remembering all their ungenerous thoughts or acts, alongside knowing all the times when their siblings have been generous.

    We all want our children to feel good about themselves – but not by pitting them against those they love and live with, and not at the expense of their relationship with their siblings.

    Worse still for a child is to confide a favouritism. When an adult mis-exercises power by conferring a preference for one child over others, this encourages that child to base part of their sense of self on how they are perceived by that adult, and then invest energy in retaining that position. Although the adult’s misguided intention may be to bolster the child’s self-confidence, it in fact does the very opposite.

    If we want our children to be allies in the business of growing up in the particular family that they find themselves in, then we need to avoid comparing them and setting them up as rivals.

    I find it a discipline, but perfectly possible, to communicate with each child without reference to their siblings.

    “That was kind. You’re good at thinking of your friends.”
    rather than, “You’re the kind one in this family. No wonder you have so many friends.”

    “Hey, too loud! Take the volume down.”
    rather than, “Why do I have to keep telling you to quieten down. The others don’t need reminding.”

    I would love to be able to also say that I’ve resisted the temptation to compare our kids to other’s children. Sadly I must confess to boosting my parenting-esteem with thoughts along the lines of ‘Our kids don’t squabble like theirs’ or ‘Our kids aren’t rude like those.’ Don’t mistake the self-satisfied tone for true confidence, those thoughts usually come at times when I’m struggling with ‘our kids’ and wondering if I’m doing something wrong.

    It strikes me that I am guilty of comparing myself to other parents at these times. Perhaps I need to extend my promise to myself and my parenting. No comparing!

  2. I think her advice to ” treat kids the same” refers to in-the-moment discipline when there is an altercation. Rather than blaming one and sympathizing with the other – creating more rivalry- it is best to remain somewhat neutral to siblings when they are fighting over something. I have alwasy heard the advice to tend to the hurt child first and then try to problem solve.

    1. My mistake. You’re right. And I too have found it works well to attend to the ‘hurt child’ first, although it’s not always clear which one that really is. As they get older, once they’ve experienced the problem-solving approach to resolving differences, I usually find that I can just ask them to “sort it out” and they do! – often with great ingenuity and in ways I would never have come up with.

  3. I first saw how this work when my nanny did it once. At first I couldn’t belive what she was doing, it was so unusual and just “not the done thing” – but I was totally surprised how my toddler’s behaviur improved right that instant. And I also saw/could feel how calm and satistfied (in a positive way) he was inside. It also stoppped rivalry for at least a couple of hours – which at that stage was a great, nearly unbelivable achievment!

  4. This seems to be pretty common in families with two kids under 3. We have quite a few friends in the same situation and they all have a 1-2 year gap. It’s my opinion that 3-5 years is the ideal gap for two kids. Not only has the older child received at least 3 years of dedicated attention but they are old enough to understand what’s coming from day one of the pregnancy.

    Obviously this does not help those who are struggling with kids that are close in age but for those of us lucky enough to plan such things out it’s food for thought.

  5. You can’t plan for twins and the intense rivalry that comes w/ it. There is no older or younger child; they are in constant physical aggression. Demonstrate the proper way to get a toy from their sibling when they grab it. Don’t punish for toy-grabbing. Teach them how to empathize, they can understand taking turns with a toy, trading, and the other sibling really needing/wanting a turn, or being sad because he hasn’t had a turn yet. Teach them how to get what they want from each other in a kind way.

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