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  • MSCP

Siblings and Rivalry

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

Written by Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Clinical Psychologist and Founding President of the MSCP

Siblings play a major part in our growing-up years and we share many memories with them. Siblings are usually our first friends, but they can also be our first rivals. In fact, this rivalry may start as early as their birth. First-borns may feel threatened or abandoned as their parents shift their focus to the newborn.

Welcoming the newcomer

It is good to prepare your child for the new arrival, so that he will be more accepting of his new sibling.

  • Tell him about the baby in advance and share your excitement with him.

  • Get him involved, e.g. bring him during pregnancy check- ups or let him hold the baby.

  • Let him help you, e.g. ask him to hand you diapers while cleaning the baby.

  • Don’t forget to talk and listen to him, so that he knows he still has your attention.

Positive rivalry

This sense of competition is natural as children seek for their parents’ attention and acknowledgement. Competition or quarrels between siblings are common due to differences in characters and evolving needs, which can be seen in sports, games, their studies, and other activities as they grow older.

Depending on how parents nurture their children, sibling rivalry can be a positive thing and actually help each other to develop better skills. Healthy competition can help children to develop emotionally and enhance social skills, while the opposite may lead to household problems, such as aggression and mental health issues.

To cultivate positive sibling rivalry, parents should emphasise on problem-solving competency and mastery of the subject of competition. Focusing solely on winning or losing may create an unhealthy competition and nurture selfish behaviour and self-entitlement in a child. Conflicts such as fighting for TV channels should be treated as a problem to be solved and a way to learn to compromise. At school, focus more on their personal improvements than their class ranking.

Parents should foster the spirit of cooperation, mutual support, being a good sport, and fair play in their children, even when they are competing with each other. While preparing for the final exam or sports day, let them encourage each other to do the best. Teach them the ethics of competition: be humble when winning, accept defeat with grace, and strive harder the next time.

Resolving conflicts

A clash of interest usually leads to conflict. The way parents handle conflicts can affect the relationship between their children. Here are some tips to resolve conflicts between siblings.

  • Set ground rules and agree on consequences of breaking them. While you set rules that say, “Do not”, remember to also emphasise the “Do”.

  • Don’t choose sides. If they can calm down, let them settle it on their own. Do not focus too much on figuring out who is at fault.

  • Reinforce good behaviours. Reward them when they follow rules, cooperate, and agree to share. A simple ‘thank you’ and hug can make a difference.

  • Enforce consequences. Reprimand them with warnings or take away their privileges if they continue to break any rule. Time-outs can give them a little space and time away from each other to cool down.

  • Teach them to compromise. Ask them to find a ‘win-win’ solution, where both sides can be satisfied. If they cannot reach an agreement, offer your solution, otherwise leave it and move on to other activities for the time being and revisit the problem later.

  • Fair does not mean equal. Children of different ages or conditions may have more privileges or require more attention. Make sure that other siblings understand this and acknowledge them for their understanding and cooperation.

Positive rivalry or competition between siblings can teach children about self- understanding, empathy, ethics as well as respect, resulting in a well-rounded individual. All family members have a role in creating an adaptive atmosphere and building a healthy relationship environment. All children are unique in their own way; see them for who they are, not for whatever number they get in a class or contest.

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