How To Prevent Sibling RivalryJan 17, 2024
This week, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Racial equality is supremely important, and in fact, I'm working on a very special post on the topic of helping to teach your children racial equality. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to another crucial aspect of equality within families - sibling equality. Just as racial equality is paramount in society, it is equally vital for children to feel equally loved, valued, and treated similarly to their siblings. In this blog, we will explore the significance of sibling equality, the consequences of not achieving it, and practical ways parents can promote equality in their parenting.
I will review three key reasons why it’s important to focus on sibling equality in your family and give you ten practical tips to help you take action with your family today. We’ll wrap up with a discussion of what to do if more than age separates your kids due to developmental delay, disability, or neurodivergence.
Stay tuned to the end, where I’ll tell you more about a helpful resource I created to take the bickering out of family weekend activities. It’s closely aligned with this concept of equality across siblings. You can snag your copy here.
The Importance of Sibling Equality
Sibling equality goes beyond fair treatment; it encompasses creating an environment where each child feels equally cherished and respected. When children perceive inequality in parental treatment, it can lead to various negative outcomes. These include:
- Resentment and damaged parent-child relationships: Unequal treatment can breed resentment in children who feel less favored. This resentment can strain the parent-child bond, eroding trust and communication. It is crucial for parents to recognize and address any disparities in their interactions with their children to maintain healthy relationships.
- Jealousy and strained sibling relationships: When one child consistently receives preferential treatment, it can create jealousy and animosity among siblings. This can lead to strained relationships and hinder the development of strong sibling bonds. By promoting equality, parents can nurture a sense of unity and cooperation among siblings, enhancing their overall well-being.
- Internalized feelings of unfairness: Unequal treatment can create a sense of injustice and inequality in children. This may result in diminished self-confidence, limiting their overall success and happiness in life. By treating each child equally, parents can instill a sense of fairness and self-worth in their children, empowering them to thrive in various aspects of their lives.
Promoting Sibling Equality
To foster sibling equality, parents can adopt mindful practices that ensure each child feels equally valued and supported. We will cover ten key tips for promoting sibling equality next:
- Establish consistent schedules: Maintaining consistent schedules across children's ages can help promote a sense of fairness. Bedtimes are a hot topic for kids to make comparisons across siblings, so let’s focus on that aspect of family schedules. You can consistently adjust bedtimes to ensure younger children are treated similarly to their older siblings. For example, let’s say your first child's bedtime is 7:30 pm at six years old and gradually moves to 8:00 pm by the time they are eight years old. Their younger sibling's bedtime may remain earlier than theirs (because they are younger), but it, too, will gradually move back by 30 minutes during that same time period (i.e., when the younger sibling is four years old, they will go to bed at 7:00 pm, and when they are six years old, bedtime will be 7:30 pm). This consistency reinforces the notion that each child's needs and development are equally important. Additionally, consistent meal times, homework routines, and screen time schedules can contribute to a sense of equality among siblings.
- Maintain consistent age milestones: Setting consistent age milestones for certain privileges or responsibilities can help avoid feelings of inequality. For example, if one child is allowed to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 12 or 13, it is important to maintain that age threshold for younger siblings as well. This approach ensures fairness and avoids any perception of favoritism. Similarly, consistent age milestones for activities such as getting a cell phone or participating in extracurricular activities can help create a sense of equality among siblings. My first child got a cell phone for Christmas during their 7th grade, so my second child just got a cell phone for Christmas during their 7th grade year. My third and fourth children will also have to wait until then.
- Assign chores at the same age: Equally distributing age-appropriate chores among siblings can promote a sense of shared responsibility and equality. Assigning chores based on age ensures that each child contributes to the family's well-being and learns valuable life skills at the same pace. It is essential to communicate the importance of each child's contribution and recognize their efforts equally. This practice not only promotes fairness but also prepares children for future responsibilities and independence.
- Attend to children similarly following sibling disagreements: Be intentional about taking the time to focus on each child’s story of what happened. Avoid jumping to conclusions - even if you’re pretty sure you know who was in the wrong. Focus on attending to each child’s feelings in addition to helping them resolve the issue.
- Consistently apply consequences: When it comes to discipline and consequences, it is crucial to apply them consistently across all children. Any punishments or disciplinary measures should be the same for each child or comparable, given the child's age. This ensures that no child feels unfairly targeted or receives preferential treatment. Consistency in discipline helps establish clear boundaries and expectations for behavior, promoting a sense of fairness and equality among siblings. For example, if you knock over a block tower your sibling is building, you must offer to help them rebuild it - whether it’s the younger child who destroyed the tower or the older child.
- Start using Family Weekend Picks: This tip is one that I find particularly useful. Do your kids ever complain about things like, “Johnny always gets to pick what type of restaurant we go to when we eat out,” or “We always have to watch dinosaur shows because that’s what Debra, like.” If that rings true for you, you’re going to love learning about the strategy our family uses for taking the bickering out of family time on the weekends. Check out my free download called “Take Control of Your Family’s Weekend Schedule” to learn a simple system you can start implementing this weekend that will a) solve sibling bickering over family activities, b) help you restructure your weekend schedule to focus on important family bonding time, and c) get parents involved in this equality issue too so that your preferences are not constantly overlooked when navigating the myriad of child-focussed activities every weekend. Download that freebie now.
- Don’t ever compare siblings to each other. “Why can’t you be more calm like your sister?” “Why don’t you just do your homework right after school like your brother?” “Your room is always such a mess; can’t you just keep it tidier like your sister?” Each child has a unique personality that will affect their daily experiences. You want them to feel like an important element in your family and form a cohesive bond between siblings. Comparisons tear people down and promote jealousy, leading to strained sibling relationships. Never play favorites. We actually have a little joke in our family where if the kids ever try to prod favoritism out of us, we’ll respond with something like, “You are my favorite daughter” with a smirk since we only have one girl or “You are the best 8-year-old boy in the world right now” (substitute whatever age the child is at the time which is different than his siblings because we don’t have any twins/multiples).
- Never blame the other sibling for you not being able to help them or play with them: Let’s say your child asks you to play with them or wants to show you something, but you have to change the baby’s diaper or help his brother with his homework. Don’t say, “Oh, sorry, I can’t because I have to change the baby’s diaper,” or “Not now, I’m in the middle of helping your brother with his homework.” Instead, respond with something like, “That sounds great. I just need five minutes to change the baby’s diaper, then I’d love to play with you,” or “I can’t wait to see that. I’m helping your brother with his homework for a few more minutes. Is it something you could bring here to show me, or should I plan to head there right after this?” See how a simple change of wording reframes that from my sibling is keeping Mom or Dad from me to support and even building more excitement by looking forward to the activity in the near future?
- Avoid speaking about one child when the other is listening - for example, when you are at a play date and chatting with another parent. If you’re saying positive things about their sibling, the child listening may feel jealous, so be sure to follow up with a positive thing about the child listening, too. If you’re saying negative things about their sibling, this might fuel rivalry between the children, adding kindling to the next sibling altercation. On this topic, a fun thing to do for your kids is to let them hear you saying positive things about them when they think you don’t know they’re listening. Use these opportunities that pop up when chatting at play dates to boost your child’s mood, sense of self, and their connection with you.
- Encourage open communication: Creating an environment where siblings can openly express their feelings and concerns is crucial for promoting equality. Encourage regular family meetings (click here to learn more) or one-on-one conversations with each child to address any perceived inequalities or conflicts. Actively listen to their perspectives and validate their emotions. By encouraging open communication, parents can address any issues promptly and work towards resolving them in a fair and equitable manner.
How to Manage Developmental Delays, Disabilities, or Neurodivergence
Promoting sibling equality can present unique challenges when one or more of our children have developmental delays or disabilities or are neurodivergent. If that’s a new term for you, neurodivergent refers to natural variations in neurological development and functioning across individuals. Neurodivergent individuals may have unique ways of thinking, learning, and experiencing the world that differ from the neurotypical population. It is important to recognize and respect neurodiversity, understanding that these differences are not inherently negative or inferior but rather contribute to the rich diversity of human experiences and perspectives. For example, in our house, one of my kids has some ADHD features. One thing I say in response to sibling concerns about fair treatment is, “His brain works a little differently than yours, so I do treat him a little differently with regard to (insert whatever behavior has been tricky to manage lately, from bouncing on the furniture to completing homework) - just as you sometimes put too much pressure on yourself to do well in school, so I treat you a little differently with regard to homework discussions.”
It is essential to approach sibling equality with an understanding of each child's individual needs and abilities. Recognizing and embracing neurodiversity within the family can foster an environment of acceptance and inclusivity. Parents can adapt strategies to accommodate the specific challenges and strengths of each child, ensuring that they feel equally valued and supported. This may involve providing additional support or accommodations, such as creating visual schedules, implementing sensory-friendly routines, or offering specialized therapies. It is crucial to communicate openly with all children, explaining any differences in a way that promotes understanding and empathy. By creating an environment of acceptance and celebrating the unique qualities of each child, parents can promote sibling equality and create a strong foundation for an inclusive family dynamic.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and reflect on the importance of racial equality, let us also remember the significance of sibling equality within our families. Treating children equally, valuing their individuality, and fostering a sense of fairness can nurture strong sibling relationships and contribute to their overall well-being. By applying the ten tips above, from establishing consistent schedules and maintaining age milestones to avoiding sibling comparisons and encouraging open communication, parents can create an environment where each child feels equally loved, valued, and supported.
The underlying principle that you want your kids to understand is that you love them both and want to support them both as best you can as they develop. You might say, “You are different people with different needs from us as parents, but for the most part, we treat you comparably. Each child’s situation in this family is a little different. Because one of you is older than the other (or different in any other way), your experience is, by default, going to be different. When you were two years old, you didn’t have a younger sibling needing some of my attention, but your brother/sister will never know that circumstance. I can’t parent them exactly as I parented you at that age because they are so fortunate to have you as a big brother/sister. Not everything can be equal, but we strive to make it comparable to love and support you both.”
Embracing sibling equality not only benefits our children but also lays the foundation for a harmonious and inclusive family dynamic. Avoid sibling rivalry escalating into long-term animosity, strained family dynamics, and strained sibling relationships using these actionable parenting tips. As a bonus perk, kids who feel more equality in their family may be less prone to fighting, so you can spend less time feeling like a referee and feel more confident that your kids are forming a close, long-term bond. Let’s strive to promote equality in all aspects of our lives, starting with our own families. How can you use the situations discussed today and the specific recommendations above to increase sibling equality in your home this week?
Sibling equality spans across several of the categories of my 5 C’s parenting framework. Click here to see the 5 C’s in action. Dive deeper into each of the 5 C’s using the category search menu on the right of your screen. Thanks for joining me to fill your parenting toolbox with psychology-based tools to feel more confident and capable in your parenting. Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!
P.S. Be sure to learn more about Family Weekend Picks and how they can promote sibling equality with my free download.