Q: My kids are 12 and 14 and do not get along. They bicker all the time and sometimes it gets physical. They’ve always been this way and I’ve never found a good way to make it stop for long. It’s incredibly frustrating but also sad – I had hoped they would be good friends like my older sister and I are. Is there anything I can do to help them not just get along better but actually like each other more?
A: Sibling rivalry is common enough but when it’s bad it can affect the whole family. Pat yourself on the back for wondering what you can do to change the dynamic, rather than just try to make the kids change. The fact is, there is often a lot we can do – or stop doing – to improve our children’s relationship. It starts with understanding the premise behind sibling rivalry.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people are motivated by their desire to get their needs met. We must meet the most basic needs before we can move on to the next level of needs. Survival needs are first, followed by Safety needs, Love and Belonging needs, Esteem needs, and finally Self-Actualization. Anything that might keep us from getting our needs met is a threat. So in a way we are hard-wired to resent that sibling who might not only eat the last of the Cocoa Krispies but also get all of Mom and Dad’s love. Cries of “MINE!” through households and across schoolyards are common because kids innately want some, most, or better yet all of something that meets their needs.
For those of us with kids who really struggle with sibling rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish provide help in their book Siblings Without Rivalry. They share the many ways we good-meaning parents might be contributing to sibling rivalry, and what to do instead:
- Don’t compare siblings to each other. Sometimes it’s obvious when we do it (“Why can’t you be more like your sister!”), but we might be doing it unintentionally when we praise one child in front of the other: “A+ in algebra! You’re a math whiz! I’m so proud of you!” can easily be heard by the sibling who got a B as, “You are better in math than your brother, so I am proud of you and not proud of him.” This hits on needs for Love and for Esteem all in one swoop, which can trigger a deep fear of loss of Safety and Survival since children are dependent on their parents. The authors suggest that instead of comparing, describe what you notice, “I see shoes on the couch” and “I see you put your clean clothes away.” Give praise in privacy.
- Parents tend to worry about making things equal between their kids (“If we get him a bike for Christmas we have to get her one, too.”). But since kids aren’t all the same, making things equal won’t necessarily be meeting their needs. Instead, assess what each individual child needs and strive to meet it. One child might go through a period where they need more of your time than your other child does, or more reassurance, or more help with confidence, etc.
- Allow each child to be their whole self. Don’t get pulled into labels (this child is the Smart One, that child is the Social One) because it can discourage a child from pursuing something that is his sibling’s “thing.”
- Faber and Mazlish strongly encourage parents not to interfere with siblings’ squabbles and to let kids work out solutions themselves, remembering that it is up to parents to model empathy and problem-solving skills. When things get physical, keep everyone safe and help them figure things out in a family meeting. The authors also suggest that if kids are constantly irritating each other, not to force togetherness since it can damage the relationship further.
It’s tough when siblings don’t get along. After hours or years of bickering, your goal might be to just stop the argument and move on as quickly as possible. Remember that your child’s distress is an important time to try to connect with them. Here is more on that topic. Also, don’t assume that your kids will never get along. Whether it’s sibling rivalry or just clashing personalities, relationships often get better with age and physical space.