Imagine this …
Your husband comes home and with such pure joy and excitement, grabs your hand and says, “Guess what, babe. In nine months our family is going to get a new wife! You will be the Big Wife and she will be the Little Wife. Aren’t you so excited?”
Umm … crickets. Not so much.
Having a sibling is really hard, especially when we think about it in terms of attachment, which is how we are wired to connect and thrive. We all want to fit into our family system. We want to know our needs will be met, that we will be loved for our uniqueness and that we are safe to feel our wide spectrum of feelings without being shamed or blamed for them.
Now, add in a sibling. No longer are we merely looking inward to answer those questions, but outward to this other human who has now come into the home. This is especially challenging for firstborns as they are wired to have all of the attention, focus, and excitement on them.
Siblings are natural competitors for attachment, often wondering, “Does my sibling have more valued traits or get more attention than I do?” And thus, we see sibling rivalry. While our children can be playmates and friends, there is still this underlying bid for our love and attention. The more safe, connected, and powerful each child feels in their family system, the less they feel the need to compete.
3 Things To Stop
Here are three common parenting pitfalls that fan the flames of sibling competition:
1. Stop Forcing The Love
Our children often feel two things at once when it comes to their siblings: love and jealousy, appreciation and frustration, companionship and competition. These emotions are a mix of both warm and dark, and that’s totally normal.
Many times we say to our children, “You two are supposed to be best friends. I know you love each other. Stop it!” But when we say things like this, we send a message that any feeling beyond happiness, love, and gratitude towards their sibling isn’t safe to express. This means that any unpleasant feeling, in its attempt to come up and out of the body, manifests into meltdowns and challenging (sometimes aggressive) behaviors.
It is not our job as parents to make our children get along. You can’t. However, our role is to love them as the individuals they are and help them notice and manage their feelings surrounding their siblings. “I hear you saying you are really upset with your brother right now. Having a sibling is tricky. It is such a tug of war of emotions, huh. I am here and I am listening.”
In validating each child and creating space for all emotions (and setting boundaries around some behaviors), we give our children the opportunity to develop whatever relationship they choose to mutually create.
2. Stop Comparing
When we compare our children, either consciously or unconsciously, we teach them to look outward rather than inward, and their narrative becomes: When I think about who I am and what I need, I will look to my sibling to see what she does and gets. If I do it like that, I can be safe in my family system, too. When this becomes the ethos, competition is fueled, and sibling rivalry sparks.
Some ways we compare:
- “Your sister is so responsible. Why can’t you be responsible like her?”
- “Your brother always shares with you. Can’t you just share too?”
- “Look at your sister taking her plate to the sink.” - Inadvertently implying you wish the other child would also.
Instead, recognize each child’s needs and talk to them independently without involving the other sibling.
- Child: How come Jax doesn’t have to shower? That’s not fair!
- Parent: We aren’t talking about your brother. You both have different needs and right now I am focused on you. You played baseball today and it is time to take a shower.
3. Stop Making It Equal
Life isn’t fair. I know that we have the best intentions as parents when we attempt to make things fair for our kids, yet it is a disservice and can fuel comparison and competition.
A great definition for kids is that fairness does not mean everyone gets the exact same thing. It means each person has the same opportunity to get what they need.
Here are a few ways to help foster understanding of fairness:
- Start with “You’re telling me”
- Child: Zeke got 12 apple slices and I only got 10. I need two more, mom!
- Parent: Oh, you’re telling me you’re looking at your bowl of apple slices, and your body knows it wants two more. Is that what you’re telling me?
- Validate the wish under the complaint
- Child: You played with Sam yesterday and you didn’t play with me!
- Parent: You wish that you had some alone time with me? Is that what you are saying? Let’s plan some special time together!
3 Things To Do
Here are three tools to diffuse sibling competition:
1. Look to your birth order
Were you a firstborn child? Middle child? Or maybe the baby? Our birth order can influence which child we relate to most and this can influence our parenting. Notice your triggers around your children’s relationship and notice if you are allowing fear projections of the future to influence what is happening in the moment.
2. Shake Up Roles
Are your children locked into roles? One always shares and the other is the one to give up their needs? One is labeled generous, one labeled selfish? One is easy going, one strong-willed?
Our kids respond to the version of themselves that we reflect. And often, for our children with challenging behavior, we are reinforcing the undesired behavior without realizing it.
One way to shake up family roles is to shift perspective from fixing the problematic behavior to re-evaluating the family system as a whole.
So, if your daughter comes up to your son and demands the toy in his hand and he gives it up as he always does, you can pause and help each child with their lagging skill. This way, the whole family system adapts instead of just one child.
- For your daughter, perhaps you work on skills of being more flexible, impulse control, waiting, and emotional regulation.
- For your son, perhaps you focus on skills of setting boundaries, saying no, and expressing his feelings and thoughts.
3. Schedule Special Time
Research shows that 10 minutes of one-on-one time each day with your child greatly shifts the energy in your home. This is a time to put distractions away and join your child in their world without dictating the play or asking questions. Instead, mimic what they are doing and reflect on what you see and hear.
Making a chart for your child may help them process your time together because it is concrete, measurable, and tangible. To do this, grab a piece of paper and write your child’s name at the top (Ella’s Special Time), and write the days of the week down the left side of the page.
Each day, invite your child to choose an activity for your special time. After completing the day’s activity, place a sticker next to the corresponding day of the week. It is important to mention that this is not a reward or punishment - it isn’t ever given for being “good” or taken away for undesired behaviors - it happens every day, no matter what.
If you find that you are in a stage of life where being alone with one child (without the other) feels like an impossible task then focus on the time you do have. Borrow moments when one is napping or on the toilet or at school. Find smaller moments to connect and take time to honor your special connection.
When children can carve out their own worlds and be who they are with love and acceptance within the family system, their sibling becomes less competition because they know they are safe and valued just for being them. And isn’t that what we all want, to feel seen and heard and enough?