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Playing referee: Why sibling rivalry strikes - and how to handle it

The reality of being a parent is that sometimes you’re stuck in the middle, writes Ciara McDonnell.

Image: Shutterstock/MNStudio

MY SISTER IS my best friend. We talk three times a day on the phone and comb through the minutiae of our daily lives, constantly reassuring the other that we are doing a good job at life.

She is also the first person I remember feeling strongly jealous of.

I know I’m not alone in feeling envious of a sibling. Even my own two sons jostle constantly for their parents’ attention, but their rivalry is more about a sense of injustice – who has had more one-on-one time with Dad, or who got to lick the bowl the last time we made buns – than any kind of deep seated envy.

Mind the (age) gap

I have to wonder why some children feel that rivalry more strongly than others. Does birth order play a part? Not necessarily – but age certainly does, says clinical psychologist Joanna Fortune.

There are plenty of variables that define one person’s behaviour within a broader family dynamic, in particular age, if the gap is within a certain range.

Different age gaps can have different outcomes, as Joanna explains:

“With an age gap of 18 – 24 months between children we tend to see stronger sibling rivalry, in part because the children are within developmental reach of each other and as a result tend to compete more.”

Longer age gaps mean children are generally at different stages developmentally, which results in less rivalrous behaviour.

Additionally, Joanna notes, if your children are born within 18 months of one another, you can usually expect a relatively harmonious relationship “perhaps because the first child never has you to themselves long enough for a new sibling to have the same impact.”

Mum of four Avril, who has four kids under six, agrees. “We had our kids close together, so none of them had time to catch their breath, or even think about being jealous,” she says of her close-knit brood.

My kids don’t have a memory of being on their own with us, so life in a crowd is normal for them.

How to react when siblings clash

Even though we may want our kids to get along, sometimes personalities clash, and Joanna advocates a few parenting rules to get you through the maelstrom of sibling rivalry.

“Stay out of their way as much as possible. You are parent not a referee,” she advises. “Getting involved will result in one or both children accusing you of ‘always’ siding with the other.”

Distraction is an age-old tactic for those times that turning a blind eye won’t work, of course. Fortune suggests allocating “sensory tasks” like helping prepare dinner to difuse a temper explosion.

Above all, teaching your children kindness, empathy and the art of compromise will give you and your family the tools you need to navigate the waters of sibling rivalry, as Joanna emphasises:

 You want them to know that it is okay to feel angry with each other – but also that there are other ways to deal with their anger than to shout or be nasty.

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