Sibling rivalry

It’s hard for kids to accept that they are no longer the sole centre of your universe and that they have to share the love with another sibling. Find out how you can prepare children for a sibling and how you can deal with rivalry, as they grow older.

Being a parent with more than one infant can increase the childcare workload exponentially. Not only do you have the additional demands of another person to cater for, you also will have to spend time and energy managing the relationship dynamics between your siblings, which can be a full-time job in itself. Sibling rivalry is not always a problem between younger family members, but when it is an issue, it can be a source of discord and stress and a very draining experience. Some children experience jealousy more than others when it comes to having to share their parents’ time and affection with a brother or sister.

When does sibling rivalry occur?

Sibling rivalry can occur at any time between same and opposite sex children, although the age gap is thought to play a part in the strength of feelings. It has been found that a gap of between two and four years results in more severe cases of jealousy whereas larger gaps (more than five years) or smaller (less than 18 months) tends to be less of an issue. Feelings of jealousy are entirely normal between siblings, but when this becomes the cause of deep-seated feelings of unhappiness or spills over into conflict, it can be damaging to the healthy development of the children involved. Taking appropriate measures to minimise sibling rivalry and to manage it when it occurs can prevent unnecessary distress and promote harmony within the family unit. Our tips below can help you with practical ways to prepare your child for a new brother or sister.

Before the birth

If you find that you are pregnant again, there is no way of knowing how your child will react to the news. Some may be pleased, others less happy. Some may have difficulty understanding at all. However, there are steps you can take to make the birth of your new baby a positive impact for your little one.

  • Ensure an honest approach during your pregnancy by telling your child that you are expecting another baby. If they are old enough to be talking, take time to listen to their questions, as there are bound to be many. Your child might have concerns that they are going to be replaced when the baby arrives, so make sure that you reassure them that you will always be their mother, that you love her and that this isn’t going to change.
  • Encourage your child to become friends with the new baby before birth. Let her talk to your baby through your bump and have her feel when he or she is kicking. You can show her any images you may have from one of your pregnancy scans to show that there is another little person inside you.
  • Spend time with your child going through your birth photographs from when they were born to help them understand that childbirth is natural and was the way that they arrived into the world themselves
  • Involve your child as much as possible in preparing for the birth. Let them feel important about their role in helping you pack your hospital bag or choose clothes and other essentials for your new baby.
  • As your pregnancy progresses, involve your husband and other family members more in the day-to-day care of your child. This will often be a natural process anyway, as the latter stages of your pregnancy mean you are likely to be less active, but it gets your child used to other carers and minimises the effects of the routine change when you go into hospital.

After the birth

Once your new baby has arrived, it’s perfectly normal for your child to feel confused, angry and upset. This is particularly the case with younger infants, as the concept of sharing is alien to a child under three and as the mother you are their most important “possession.” The following tips will help him or her adapt to the new family set up:

  • Encourage them to help with the baby where appropriate; for example by fetching the diaper when it comes to changing time. Praise them for their help, although you shouldn’t force them to become involved if they don’t want to.How to Win and Lose Graciously
  • Although you will have your hands full with your new arrival, you should find time to give your older child individual attention. If you are expressing milk or bottle feeding, your husband can become more involved at feed time. This not only allows them important bonding time with your newborn, it also gives you a chance to lavish your undivided attention on your older child.
  • Show to your older child that they have more choices than your baby, for example by allowing them to select their own clothes to wear. Let them stay up for a while after you have put your baby down for the evening and tell them that they are having special privileges that your baby isn’t.
  • Even though your friends and family are naturally going to be interested in your new baby, ask them to show attention to your older child as well and to involve him or her in their visits. Ask friends and family to show affection to your older child as well as your baby.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of your older child regressing with their behavioural development. This could be them wanting to return to bottle feeding, going backwards with their toilet training or wanting to leave their bed to sleep with you in yours. If this happens, you should make allowances for their behaviour and give them time to adjust.

Growing up as siblings

Sibling rivalry isn’t just restricted to an older child’s feelings of jealousy towards a newborn; it can manifest itself as the children grow up together. Older children can resent their younger sibling becoming more independent, particularly when they start helping themselves to their toys. Younger siblings can experience envy over the older child’s wider circle of activities, such as having children’s parties to go to, or starting school. There are some helpful guidelines that can help you deal with sibling rivalry as children grow together.

  • Promote empathy and sensitivity in your children by encouraging them to think how their behaviour is going to affect your other child. This is important for social skills as well as harmony in the family, as learning to live with a sibling is a child’s first lesson in getting along with other children. This valuable life skill will be carried over into adulthood.
  • Ensure that you don’t show favouritism towards a sibling. Children have an innate sense of justice and any perceived unfairness in your dealings with them can cause conflict and resentment towards both you and the child who is ‘getting the better deal.’ Try and ensure that you treat each of your children equally and with the same value criteria.
  • Minimise comparisons between your children, as each one will have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. Instead, praise each of your children for their personal achievements so that they feel special on their own account.
  • Intervene when you think one of your children is being bullied or victimized, either physically or verbally. Don’t allow this behaviour to go unchecked in the belief that it is ‘character building’ for the child who is being picked on. Research has shown that siblings with bad relationships are likely to grow into adults with bad relationships. The more they are allowed to fight as children, the more likely they are to fight as adults.
  • Stay positive throughout the inevitable ups and downs you will experience from the youngest members of your family. You may find your children go through stages; they may be great friends at one age and then fall out all the time at another. This is quite normal – sibling rivalry is a natural part of family dynamics. The relationship between your children is imbuing them with important social skills they need as they grow into adolescence and adulthood.

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