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Friends And Foes: Navigating Sibling Relationships

Friends And Foes: Navigating Sibling Relationships

When baby number 2 was still in the womb, you may have daydreamed about what your children’s relationship would look like: “Will my oldest help get diapers for his baby brother?” Or “Will my youngest daughter dance like her older sister? Maybe they will perform in recitals together!”

Flash forward to present day, and now your children are arguing over an imaginary plate of cookies.

Just as each child is unique, so is every sibling relationship—and this relationship can change from day to day, even hour to hour. But if you find that your children are spending more time having conflicts than they are getting along, here are some methods that can help ease sibling tensions.

Understanding your child’s perspective

It’s important to look at the various reasons your children feel the way they do about their older/younger sibling.

Your older child:

  • Concerned feelings can arise even before baby brother or sister is born. Suddenly mom, dad, and family are talking about the “new baby” and buying him or her “presents.” This can be a fearful and confusing time for young children. You can soothe their worries by:
    • Letting your child feel the baby kick and put their head to your belly to sing or talk to the baby.
    • Talking with your child about all the excitement there was when they first arrived. Show them their baby photos. Tell them the story of their birth, and how happy you were to meet them.
  • Competition for attention. Your oldest had you all to themselves for X amount of years. It’s hard, especially for toddlers, to share mom or dad.
  • Developmentally, children between 2 and 3 are starting to assert themselves by expressing their own ideas and desires, but remember they still need to know you are there for them. Think of yourself as always providing them with open arms: to let them explore, and to welcome them back into your arms.
  • Sharing: You may notice more bickering by the time your youngest can grab for toys or get into older sister’s belongings. Siblings seem to fight over everything—and always seem to want what the other one has. The step they can learn before they learn to share is taking turns. Sharing, whether it’s toys or attention, is a learned skill that takes time and patience. Along the way, there are going to be some tears and meltdowns.
  • Fairness: Elementary-school aged children are very interested in the concept of fairness. They notice when little bro gets treated differently or isn’t expected to follow the same house rules that the rest of the family follows.

Your youngest child:

For a variety of reasons, the sibling dynamic shifts quite a bit when your youngest enters toddlerhood:

  • Protectiveness: Toddlers are very—VERY—protective of their belongings, whether it’s a toy, a shirt, or even a piece of string. Think of the toddler’s rules of possession; the world belongs to them. That includes everything they could possibly want, see, or touch.
  • Assertiveness: At this age, toddlers are learning and practicing their assertiveness on the “safe” people in their lives, including you and their siblings. You may be hearing a lot of “Mine!” and “No!” at this stage.  These are opportunities to help them learn to take turns.
  • Reactions: Toddlers enjoy getting reactions from people. If your toddler knows that big brother will have a big reaction if his block tower gets knocked over, he will enjoy knocking it over. The trick is to give big reactions when you see your children playing side by side.
  • Remember that toddlers need lots of attention, and most parents want to grow polite children. With consistency and patience you can teach your toddler to tap you or lay their hands on your arm until you can give them attention.

Ways to minimize fighting

No matter how you parent, conflicts will happen, but here are some ideas you may want to consider to set up your family for a more peaceful life together.

  • Make special time for each of your children each day that caters to their individual interests. For example, if your oldest loves video games, spend 20 minutes playing her favorite game together.
  • Encourage your children to take turns with toys, books, a room or more.
  • Set limits and ground rules: “Hands to ourselves,” “no name calling.” Be consistent with reminders.
  • Have fun together as a family. This will build positive and bonded relationships.
  • Notice when your children need time apart and find healthy ways to give them their own space.
  • Kids fight more when they are bored or confined (at a restaurant, for example). When possible, have activities on hand to keep your children entertained, such as travel bingo cards, activity or sticker books, or small toys.

For shared rooms: Next to a parent’s attention, “sharing space” tops the list of reasons siblings are arguing. If your children share a room:

  •  Let each child express their unique personality. Let them pick their own bedding and décor.
  • Together, make a list of “room rules” regarding how toys are treated, etc.
  • Some children benefit from clear delineation of space so they can feel safe.

Through thick and thin

At the end of the (very long) day, family is family. While daily bickering is stressful on the whole family, it’s not permanent. Many siblings who struggled to get along as children grow up to have strong, healthy relationships with each other.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now is passionate about happy, healthy families. 


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