If you already have a child or children, when a new baby arrives so does the potential for sibling rivalry. As a parent, you can help minimize sibling rivalries by preparing before you bring the child home, by understanding the roots of sibling rivalry, and by helping your children learn conflict resolution skills.
Preparing For a New Sibling
The type and quantity of preparation a child needs to prepare for a new sibling depends on his or her age and personality. As a parent, you need to be in tune with each of your children's unique needs. Below are general ideas to help you prepare your child for a new brother or sister, to be adapted for each child:
- When your child asks questions about the new brother and sister, answer clearly in a way he or she can understand.
- Talk about the baby as a person. Describe how the baby is growing inside you and show pictures of fetal development. Let him feel the baby moving around, kicking, or hiccupping.
- Talk about your older child's birth. Most children like to hear stories about themselves.
- Read books together about siblings.
- Give your child a chance to interact with babies. If possible, visit friends and family who have new babies so he can see what real babies are like when they are happy or crying.
- Give your child experience with other caregivers, such as trusted friends and family. If she's never been cared for by someone other than you or your husband, it can be traumatic for her to be separated from you while you're at the hospital.
- Role play with your child. Use dolls to act out "Mom goes to the hospital and comes home with a baby."
- Have your child help decorate the new baby's room.
- Go on a hospital tour. This will help your child feel apart of the birth experience, even if he's not there when delivery time arrives.
- Minimize changes so that your child's environment and routines remain as stable as possible.
Bringing the New Baby Home
The first few weeks after bringing your baby home can be the most difficult. Because Mom is still recovering and is sleep-deprived from caring for the newborn, attention to older children usually diminishes for a time. Here are strategies to help you make the transition easier:
- While the baby is sleeping, read books with the older child.
- Whenever possible, pick up your older child from school without the baby.
- Try to find an hour or two each day when you can spend time alone with your older child.
- Keep a routine. Make daily life as normal as possible.
- Monitor visitors and limit them if needed. Preschoolers and toddlers might see a visitor as another person who's taking Mom or Dad's attention away.
- Let your older child help with the baby. Research shows that bringing the baby into the older child's life as much as possible increases the odds that siblings will get off to a friendly start.
- Be prepared for escalating demands. While caring for the baby, the older child might become more demanding. When nursing, give the older sibling a drink or a bottle, give him paper and crayons, or let him snuggle up to you. You might create a "nursing box" decorated with his favorite items. Place inside food, toys, crayons and other things to keep him occupied while you're nursing. Use the box only when you're nursing so that he sees it as special.
- Make an extra effort to praise your older child on accomplishments, such as using the bathroom independently.
- Ask your child to guess what the baby wants or needs, and then praise her for a job well done.
Finding the Root of Sibling Relationships
Many factors contribute to sibling rivalry, including gender, spacing, personality clashes, physical attributes, disabilities, birth order of parents, blended families, parental relationships, amount of contact with siblings, and even boredom (see the expanded article for more information on the roots of sibling rivalry).
Helping Children Share
Most siblings have trouble sharing. It's important for children to learn how to share, but it's also important for them to have things of their own. Here are ideas to help you minimize problems with sharing:
- Buy duplicate items if you can afford it.
- Provide each child with a special place to keep toys and possessions that is off limits to other siblings.
- As often as possible, let your child decide how and when to share.
- Don't pressure children to share their most prized possessions.
- Teach your children to take turns when playing a game, going down a slide, or having the first bath.
- Buy gifts meant for the entire family.
- Don't buy gifts for individual children that the whole family will want to play with.
Making Things Fair
Almost all children complain about things being unfair. Researchers think children make a big deal out of fairness because they resent having to share their parents' attention and because they learn quickly that accusing parents of unfairness gets a rise out of them. Below are ideas for handling unfairness issues:
- Respond to need, not equality. Instead of focusing on treating each child the same, focus on each child's individual needs. If you're always focusing on being equal, you risk not meeting the needs of one or more of your children.
- Avoid telling your children "life is unfair." Children don't understand this concept. When a child complains that something isn't fair, validate her feelings and let her know you understand how hard unfairness can be.
- Respond to the child's desire, not the complaint. Sometimes a child says something is unfair as a way of saying he wants more of something. It could be more food or more time from you.
- Allow your children to disagree about fairness. Your children won't always agree with every decision you make about fairness. Don't let them make the final decision on what is fair and what isn't. Make decisions based on your more developed judgment, even if your children disagree.
- Let your children help you to make things fair. The burden of fairness doesn't need to be completely on you. Allow your children to work out problems of fairness among themselves.
- Use humor.Just as with any conflict, humor can dispel tension that builds with fairness disputes.
- Don't focus on fairness. Parents don't need the extra pressure of trying to remember who took a bath first yesterday or who did the dishes last. When a child complains about something being unfair, try to find out what the child really needs. Maybe she just needs an extra hug or some undivided attention.
Handling Sibling Conflict
The biggest sibling concern on most parents' minds is, "What do I do when my children are fighting?" There is no simple answer. Every situation and each child is different. Factors such as the age of the children and the nature of the fighting are important.
Below are ideas for handling sibling conflict from several professionals. Not all suggestions will fit your situation. Remember that a technique that works with one child may not work with another. You may find that a combination of ideas works best.
- Let siblings work out problems on their own. As they do this, they'll develop negotiating and compromising skills. Guide them by saying things like, "How are you two going to solve this?" or "Can you find a solution that will work for both of you?" If they keep fighting, separate them until they're willing to work out a solution together. As you guide your children this way, you'll help them gain an important life skill.
- Use "break time."If the problem is extreme teasing, call a for "break time." Send each child to separate areas of the room or the house. When they've cooled down, have them come back together to work things out.
- Try role-playing or role reversal. Have the bickering children switch roles to help them see what it's like to be in the other person's shoes. Often role-playing brings the quarrel to an end in laughter.
- Remove the source of the conflict and distraction. If a particular item seems to be the cause of the conflict, remove it for a period of time. You can also use distraction to end conflict by saying things such as, "Who wants to go to the park?" or "Who wants to make cookies?" or "Who can guess when daddy is coming home?"
- Help children understand that their actions bring consequences. Consequences are an alternative to punishment. But don't confuse consequences with bribery (For more information on consequences, see the articles Guiding Your Children and Disciplining with Love on this website).
- Be clear in setting rules and limits. Instead of barking out commands, tell your children plainly and in terms they can understand what you expect of them Teach them the importance of politeness and consideration among siblings.
- Avoid labeling and comparing. It's harmful to give children labels such as clown, klutz, the athlete, the slob, the smart one, airhead, the anxious one, the fun one, or the crazy one. Labels also can cause jealousy, which leads to contention. Instead of comparing, praise each child for his or her unique abilities.
- Shield younger siblings from no-win situations. Younger children often want to compete with older siblings, which can be very disappointing when they keep losing.
- Ask your older children to help. You can help siblings develop a bond by having an older child teach the younger child new things. But don't require an older child to always let a younger sibling participate in his games or hang out with his friends. Make sure the older child gets some privacy.
- Set a good example for your children. Your children are watching how you handle disagreements and arguments with your spouse and your friends and extended family. They look to your example for how to work out their own problems.
Finding Good Counseling for Sibling Rivalry
If sibling conflict seems out of control, it may be wise to seek family counseling. When searching for a therapist, get referrals from friends, relatives, or your religious leader. Be careful in choosing a therapist. The quality of the relationship between you and your therapist is the biggest predictor of success in therapy. Make sure the therapist you choose specializes in helping families, respects your feelings, and respects your personal and religious values. When you interview a potential therapist, be prepared with questions such as the following:
- Are you licensed to practice in your field?
- How long have you been in practice?
- Wha tis your approach?
- Are you a member of the national organization in your discipline? (National organizations require therapists to meet certain ethical guidelines and to be adequately trained.)
- What percentage of your practice is with children and families?
Below are links to web sites that can help you locate therapists in your area:
Books for Parents
- Siblings without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 1997.
- "Mom, Jason's Breathing On Me!": The Solution to Sibling Bickering, by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., 2003.
- From One Child to Two: What to Expect, How to Cope, and How to Enjoy Your Growing Family, by Judy Dunn, 1995.
- Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate, by Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., 2000.
- Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings, by Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney, 1996.
Books for Young Children
- The New Baby, by Fred Rogers, 1995.
- The New Baby at Our House, by Joanna Cole, photographs by Margaret Miller, 1985.
- Brothers and Sister, by Maxine Rosenberg, photographs by George Ancona, 1991.
- "Why Do We Need Another Baby?": Helping Your Child Welcome the New Arrival with Love and Illustrations, by Cynthia MacGregor, illustrated by David Clark, 1996.
Written by Jeremy Boyle, Research Associate, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Borden, M. E. (2003). The baffled parents guide to sibling rivalry. New York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary.
- Cicirelli, V. G. (1995). Sibling relationships across the life span. New York: Plenum Press.
- Dunn, J. (1995). From one child to two: What to expect, how to cope, and how to enjoy your growing family. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
- Dunn, J. (2002). Sibling relationships. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of childhood social development (pp. 288-309). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
- Goldenthal, P. (1999). Beyond sibling rivalry: How to help your child become cooperative, caring, and compassionate. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- Landau, E. (1994). Sibling rivalry: Brothers and sisters at odds. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
- Samalin, N., & Whitney, C. (1996). Loving each one best: A caring and practical approach to raising siblings. New York: Bantam.
- Wolf, A. E. (2003). "Mom, Jason's breathing on me!": The solution to sibling bickering. New York: Ballantine Books.