Helping Our Children Love Each Other Well

Written by Nell Bush
Published on February 21, 2020

As parents, most of us are seeking to love our children well. This is a challenging task, but not nearly as challenging as trying to teach our children how to love each other well, especially when it comes to their siblings

If you have more than one child in your family, then you know that sibling conflict is a fact of life. As we listen to our kids argue about who gets the front seat, or who has the biggest ice cream cone or the best Christmas gift, or which Netflix show to watch, we sometimes wonder if our children have even the slightest bit of love or appreciation for each other! 

In reality, having a brother or sister can be one of the best things that ever happens to a child. 

According to developmental research, when children have siblings, they learn how to make friends more easily and to handle conflict more effectively. They provide support and comfort to each other during times of crisis or change. 

So, why is it that sibling conflict is so prevalent? 

Why sibling rivalry is common

Let’s consider some findings from child development research:

  • Most children do feel displaced when a new baby enters the family. Feelings of anger, envy, and competition are to be expected.
  • Children spaced twenty to thirty months apart are often the most competitive, especially when they are the same gender. In contrast, when there are three or more years between children, the younger sibling often idealizes the older rather than competing with them.
  • Sibling conflict is usually more intense between first- and second-born children, particularly of the same gender.
  • Older children may regress to earlier forms of behavior (whining, thumb-sucking, bed-wetting) in order to feel like a baby again, but, at the same time, some older siblings have a positive, nurturing instinct toward the younger sibling.
  • Most sibling conflict centers around power and possessions, but its root cause is usually wanting time and attention from parents.
  • Sibling conflict is the normal day-to-day bickering between children who have to live together and share their parents’ attention. Sibling rivalry is an enduring, deep-seated resentment and jealousy, often resulting from alliances (or favoritism) between a parent and a certain child.

10 ways to minimize sibling rivalry

With all of this in mind, what can we as parents do on a day-to-day basis to minimize sibling conflict and rivalry?

1. Be aware of (and avoid!) alignments and favoritism toward any child. 

On a daily basis, show each child through hugs and kisses, words and deeds, that he or she holds a special place in your affections.

2. Promote individuality among siblings by acknowledging unique skills and accomplishments. 

But avoid comparisons and general labels such as “the smart one,” “the artist,” “the athlete,” “the tough one,” or “the shy one.” Encourage your kids to believe they can succeed in any way they choose.

3. Avoid situations that create sibling conflict.

For example: spending too much time in the car or over-scheduling activities.

4. Teach/model empathy and compassion.

Do this primarily by showing kindness and respect in our marriages. (Yikes, that’s convicting).

5. Acknowledge the emotion behind children’s words and actions, then teach appropriate expression of feelings.

For example: “I see that you’re angry with your sister right now, but it’s not okay to pull her hair. Let’s think of another way to handle this.”

6. Teach simple problem-solving skills, then encourage kids to work things out on their own. 

Preschoolers will need parental intervention (you’ve probably figured that out!), but, as children get older, allow them to negotiate. For example: “You have five minutes to work out a solution acceptable to you both. If you can’t agree, the TV goes off.” 

7. Avoid making judgments about who is at fault if no one actually witnessed the situation.

And remember that tattling gets reinforced when we act on the tattler’s behalf by always disciplining the other child. 

8. Establish clear limits for unacceptable behaviors.

Such behaviors include physical aggression, a rude tone of voice, name-calling, or disrespecting property. (If you have more than one boy, you might as well allow for some rough-housing and wrestling. It’s like breathing to them! Maybe set limits on which body parts they can’t punch.)

9. Follow through with consequences when they cross the established boundaries. 

Some effective, logical consequences for sibling conflict are:

  • Both siblings lose a turn with whatever they’re arguing about and/or have time away from each other
  • They lose time with friends for a week (e.g., “If you can’t respect your sibling, then how can I trust you to respect your friends?”)
  • Require them to work together on chores or a task, such as picking up a jar full of spilled pennies or running a few laps in the backyard.
  • Cleaning each others’ room for a few days.
  • Hugging each other for thirty seconds (great one to use in public!)

10. Maximize the “good times.” 

Be aware of those time—even if they are few and far between—when your children seem to get along and have fun together. Try to create more opportunities for these moments. 

Finally, take heart! 

Arguing now doesn’t necessarily mean arguing for life. God created siblings, and he brought good out of some of the most strained relationships (think Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers).

As long as we keep seeking to love our children well, through God’s grace and mercy our children are also learning to love well—even their stinky siblings!

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Nell Bush

Dr. Nell Bush is a Child Development Specialist who speaks to parenting groups and conducts teacher-training workshops throughout North Texas. She has her doctorate in Child Development from the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught undergraduate family and marriage courses for several years. After moving to Dallas, she served as a parenting consultant at the Family Life Counseling Center. She also has served as an educational consultant for the children’s video series, “Boz the Bear”; and co-authored The Parenting Survival Guide. She has served on the Boards of ChildCareGroup and National Charity League, Inc. First and foremost she enjoys spending time with her husband, Shelby, and their four almost-grown children.

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