Blog Child Raising

Sibling Rivalry

What is sibling rivalry? It’s jealousy, competition and fighting that occurs between brothers and sisters. But when you think about it, you’ll notice that jealousy, competition and fighting is not unique to siblings.

Rivalry occurs among all subgroups of the population:  relatives, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, competitors, political candidates, etc. Anywhere there are human beings, you’re likely to find varying degrees of rivalry with jealousy, competition and fighting. It’s part of human nature.

However, the more socially refined and mature a person is, the better they are at handling feelings that lead to the negative behavior associated with rivalries. Since children, because they are children, are not mature and have not had the opportunity to become socially refined, does that mean we are stuck with sibling rivalry?

No, absolutely not! We are not stuck with sibling rivalry. As a parent, the social refinement and maturity that YOU have attained will help YOU to handle the feelings your child could experience that lead to the negative behavior associated with rivalries. In fact, you can anticipate what your child might experience and prepare your child for a different experience and reaction.

A time most concerning to parents is the birth of a new sibling.

How do you care for your new baby without your older child feeling displaced and showing signs of sibling rivalry? Even if this topic doesn’t pose to be a problem for parents, it appears to be a deep concern of relatives, neighbors, friends and complete strangers.

As soon as parents have their second child they are peppered with the same question surrounding the birth of any baby:  Question: Is he/she sleeping through the night?
And now a second question is added:  Have you noticed any jealousy yet?

Both of these questions should have the same answer:  Of course not!

Wow, if parents of a newborn could safely have a full night of sleep every night, wouldn’t that be revolutionary! Sure, there are drugs and methodologies that promote the idea of a full night of sleep, but since I’m not convinced they are safe physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, I’ll stick to the wake-up calls, stay awake calls, all night rock-a-thons or whatever-name-to-call-it that wanders into the sleep deprived mind.

As to the second question: Have I noticed any jealousy yet? No, I have not, chiefly because I am not looking for it!  I’m looking for something else. I’m looking to see how the older child expresses love and care for the new baby. I’m noticing how big the older child looks, and how they arise to the occasion of having someone younger in the home. I’m noticing how the baby responds to the older child. How precious it is to see a newborn deliberately turn its face to the sound of an older child’s voice. In a few weeks, some of baby’s first and largest smiles will be bestowed on that child. Instead of looking for jealousy, appreciate the growth of your family…both in number and depth.

Wise parents anticipate what their child might experience and prepare that child for the reaction and behavior they, the parents, want to see.

Let’s face it, adding a new member to the family is a huge event. It’s a game changer. There will be adjustments to be made all around…by everyone. There are other factors, besides sibling rivalry, that can contribute to negative behavior. An interrupted schedule, change of routine, being hungry, being overtired and extra visitors can all add to the mix leading to crankiness and less than model behavior.

My mother-in-law talks about the doctor’s words to her, a 4-year-old, upon the birth of her baby sister. He told her that the baby was going to take her place. What a horrible thing to say to a child! The words went deep, and at the age of 91 she still repeats those words, adding that she’s waiting for it to happen. Do yourself a favor and try to keep your children away from these types of negative comments. But if these kinds of comments are heard, make sure you speak boldly to counteract the negativity, whether in the presence of the speaker or just in the presence of the hearer.

When expecting a baby, you get to choose how you prepare your older children for the birth of the new one.

Saying things like, “You’re going to have to share your room when the baby gets here,” is not a positive way to approach the introduction of a sibling. Who wants to have to give something up to the new arrival?

Choose your words carefully.

“The baby will sleep in my room when it is first born, and when it gets older, I will let the baby sleep in your room with you.” The second presentation of a shared room is much more positive and even presents the idea of being granted a privilege. As the child sees that you are willing to share your room, they can feel that they are becoming more adult like when it comes time for them to “get to” share with the baby. They have a distinctive role in being a part of the family…rather than a victim to the baby in an environment of scarcity.

As you prepare for the birth of your baby, let your children be a part of the preparation. My kids still talk about how exciting it was when we got the baby cradle out of the attic and cleaned it up. I would use a damp cloth to wipe down each nook, cranny and decorative slat on the cradle, while one, two or even three other cloths were busily dusting at the same time. Recalling their voices saying, “See Mama, I got this part all clean for the new baby,” still brings a smile to my face.

Of course, times like these lend to discussions about the sleeping habits of babies and how they can vary. This can be a great time to talk about their own sleeping habits when they were babies, contrasting that with how much bigger and more grown up they are now. Young toddlers may not understand these kinds of conversations, so remembering to notice their desired behavior, and speaking to them of what a “big girl” or “big boy” they are, will encourage them to act in that role.

Sad would be the home where the arrival of a baby means the older children are ignored and left to themselves. Although intensive physical care must be given to the newborn, be sure the other children are noticed and appreciated for who they are. Make sure you still have (make) time to cuddle, read stories and talk together.

This is a good reminder for Moms and Dads too.

Amid the diapers, laundry, uncompleted tasks, hungry tummies, varying hormones and sleep deprivation, remember what you’re doing all this for and with who you’re glad to share this journey. Take time for each other…to smile, listen, touch and connect. Take time to express your love for each other. It’s amazing what loving gestures can do to renew the spirit. Children sense when their parents’ love is healthy, and this provides them further security.

Here’s something people fail to talk about:

The love and bond that exists between siblings. It is an amazing thing. As parents, you can observe it, but you are not a part of it! A culture among your children as siblings is a culture in which you have a great influence, but is one in which you will never belong. Your children alone share this culture.

Don’t underestimate the love and grace that God gives to children for their siblings. I’ve witnessed a toddler who awoke at the sound of everything, sleep through the night pierced with the crying of a newborn. My little boys have gone out with Daddy, only to race through the house upon returning home, calling and searching for the baby to see that she was okay. Later, our first outing with six children found me receiving admonishment from all five older kids “not to forget the baby”…as if I could!

As to the newborn baby’s response to siblings…it can be beautiful. Look and listen carefully, and you will see it. When our five older children gathered to meet their new baby sister for the first time, she turned her head to look at whichever child was speaking. She already knew their voices. Point out the baby’s positive reactions, “Oh look, the baby hears your voice. He/She likes to listen to you speak so gently.”

I’ll never forget at incident that took place several months after our fifth child was born. The older three children were outside helping Daddy. The baby girl and our 2-year-old son were laying side by side on the bed while I sat with them. The baby was smiling and giggling as they interacted with each other. All of the sudden, I noticed her face was full of loving admiration as she looked at her older brother. I turned to look at the toddler with new eyes. Nobody in the family had ever looked up to this child before, and now here she was full of awe. And here he was, completely admired. It was a very special moment.

Not all is a bed of roses. A home of perfection never existed. A home is comprised of imperfect people. When you do see inappropriate behavior in your children, it’s because your children are human. It’s just a fact. The good news is that you’re not stuck with inappropriate behavior or sibling rivalry if you don’t want to be!

As always, correcting the behavior is more easily done when it is first displayed than waiting for that behavior to be reinforced and become a habit.  Instructing a child, modeling appropriate behavior, redirecting a child and loving discipline can all be employed to guide a child in overcoming their human weaknesses towards inappropriate and selfish behavior. This should be a part of regular childhood training. A child who has siblings, has a very natural environment for learning the skills and habits that will help him/her to get along with others throughout their life.

As with all child training, think of what you want for your children and what you expect from your children.

  • Do you want them to get along with others?
  • Do you want them to speak kindly to others?
  • Do you want them to be concerned about and interested in others?

If so, it’s up to you to set the tone and create the environment to allow your children to grow into those expectations.

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