Sibling rivalry is normal. The kids usually move on quickly, but it often leaves us adults unhinged. What can we do to help diffuse those tense moments, and maybe even build some mutual respect?
In the spring we shared an episode about bringing home a new baby sibling. In today’s episode, we are following up with Lovevery expert Gabrielle Felman on sibling dynamics. We look at how to handle jealousy, possessiveness, fighting, as well as best practices around intervening, modeling resolutions, and incorporating one-on-one time. Gabrielle is an Early Childhood Development Expert based in New York.
[1:46] When you are praising one of your children, is it necessary to compliment the other?
[5:39] What is the best way to approach having special time with each of your children? How do you manage the other child’s emotions?
[7:14] When do parents need to step in when it looks like a fight is brewing?
[9:59] How can you help your children work together to come to a resolution?
[14:25] How should parents handle children’s possessiveness over things?
[17:04] What’s the best way to explain fairness and inequality?
[19:01] What to do when your younger child wants a later bedtime like their sibling.
[20:41] What is one thing that parents can do to foster better sibling relationships?
[21:35] Jessica shares her takeaways from the conversation with Gabrielle.
Jessica: Welcome, it’s so great to have you here with us, Gabby.
Gabrielle: I’m so happy to be here and to be back.
Jessica: So let’s start with jealousy. When I compliment my older child about something that they’re doing, do I need to compliment or praise the other child so they don’t feel left out? I just… It doesn’t feel genuine, but I don’t really know how to strike this balance.
Gabrielle: It is such a tricky balance. I often use a phrase to parents to think about that fair is not everything being equal, fair is giving each child what they need in that moment of time and needs shift, so there’s going to be one child that may need a bit more encouragement, a bit more time, a bit more narration and compliment, when your other child doesn’t really need it at that moment. And so if you’re… Let’s say you compliment your one-year-old or notice what they’re doing and say, Oh, you are working so hard to balance. Your legs are so strong. And your toddler says, Look at me, look at me. You can say, Yes, you’re really noticing I was encouraging so and so, I’m noticing that you’re this, so you want to bring it back to what they’re doing, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a compliment. And then you can even go further and say, Can you notice what your brother is doing? He’s working really hard on standing. You had to work really hard on standing once too, so you bring it back to the child at hand and not necessarily make it equal in terms of compliments that you’re giving out.
Jessica: Yeah. And I was thinking about one of the antidotes is special time, is quality time, like with that one-on-one time that you can give to each of your children. And I’ve often struggled to implement it in the “right way.” And I think that oftentimes when I do spend quality time, and I’ve really tried to set it up appropriately. Like, I’m having special time with Thatcher right now. Bea, you’re going to go play with Leland and Daddy. I find that there’s still a lot of jealousy. And even if you were sort of pretty organized on when Bea is going to get her time, and we talked about that in advance, it doesn’t always pan out. So how can I get through this feeling of special time that comes with also ignoring the other child who’s being left out, and sometimes they can want to get in on the mix, and it’s just really awkward.
Gabrielle: Yeah, no, it is. There’s not necessarily a right way to do it because kids have different temperaments and different needs. So Bea might not say, You know what, mommy? That is an incredible idea. I’m just going to like tootle over here and play by myself. Over time when she realizes that that boundary is set, and that she gets her special time, the dynamic will start to shift. But it also goes back to talking about those emotions. I think you’re feeling a little bit jealous that I’m spending time with Thatcher, with Leland, and that’s totally normal. But it is so important for mommy to get one-on-one time with each of you and with you all together. And our one-on-one time is going to be after dinner.
And sort of you’re taking the emotion out of it a little bit. And if you can make it structured, that’s amazing. So that she sort of knows when her one-to-one time is each day or each weekend. But to reiterate, what helps build your relationship and get to know each of your kids is to spend that quality time together. And you do that one-on-one, and then you do that as a family.
Jessica: Now, let’s talk about fighting. So fighting and those big feelings that come with it. My kids will start out doing some kind of physical play fight, like maybe some wrestling, but then I swear that every single time they start with the wrestle, it usually ends up with some kind of somebody getting hurt, something not going great, that my boys will just take it too far. When do you step in? When do you allow them to kind of be playful, wrestle, kind of fight a little bit? And when do you let them sort it out, and when do you step in?
Gabrielle: So I think that this sort of changes as children get older and more sturdy. But rough housing and physical play is really healthy for sibling dynamic and development. If your children are a little bit older, I often say to stay close by and to let them do it. And really learn to modulate what feels okay and what doesn’t in terms of that play, as long as they’re like not playing on the stairs, like they’re not… There’s no imminent safety threat. And then what tends to happen is it goes too far, or someone gets hurt. And they’re looking for… They either tattle, or they’re looking for you to take a side. And that’s when you sit down and have… what I call a family meeting. And I say, Pause. I noticed you both wanted to play this game and it got really exciting. And I think that it went a little bit far. Huh, at what point did it not feel good to you? At what point did it not feel good to you? I wonder what we can do next time? So you can really start doing that with a model with kids that are three, four, five, and older.
I think with younger children, the rough house play is not going to be as common. But what you’ll see happen with younger children is toys will get grabbed, children will push them over if they’re coming too far. So that’s like the beginning of that rough house play. And with young children, grownups really do need to step in, and sort of help model turn-taking or help model how to get through those rougher moments. But with older children, it’s really helpful for them to learn how to sort of articulate their needs, and come to you if they need help with that articulation, so you can help them navigate through what had happened and what they may be able to do differently next time. So as long they’re relatively safe, I let parents know, this is really healthy for them to figure out how they are going to… What their limits are with this sort of play.
Coming to a resolution
Jessica: Yeah, and so you mentioned this kind of, you bring them to you and you have this family meeting, if you will, or family connection… We call it a peace talk in our family, when the kids argue because they really want me to take a side and then it never goes well when I take a side, and so I try to let them talk to each other. We’ve had successes and we’ve had failures related to this. How… What are the best practices here? How can you help your children work together to come to a resolution?
Gabrielle: So some of it’s modeling, some of it’s listening, and some of it’s allowing for space, so if you’re… I love the peace talk, that is a beautiful way to talk about like, let’s be positive, and we can be hurt and angry, but we can move past this. And if you’re finding that the conversation, or you’re trying to get everybody to sort of regulate a little bit down and it’s not working, to say, You know what, everyone’s feelings are really big, now. We’re all going to get a glass of water, we’re all going to sit in our rooms or upstairs or quiet or in another room, or take a walk, and then we’re going to come back and talk about it when our feelings are a little less heightened. Because sometimes you can’t talk about it right away.
And you might think your kids are too young to formulate a meeting or mediate of what might happen, but it’s about building perspective, so you might say to your three-year-old, wow, you worked so hard on that building and you got so angry when it knocked down that you hit your brother and now he’s crying.
And he was so interested in your building and doesn’t yet know how to build, and so the way he wanted to play with it was to knock it down, and we need to figure out what do you think we can do next time so that doesn’t happen, because you worked really hard. So you’re giving perspective about sort of where the baby is, you’re validating the feelings of where the older child is, and then you’re going to be a person that helps promote a solution. So it could be that you say, You know what, let’s move the blocks to your room so that you have private space to build and they don’t get knocked down, or you say, You know what, we’re going to build while your brother is napping and we will take pictures of all your buildings so that we can keep track, so you start to promote resolutions to conflicts that happen. As your children get older, you can continue on with that perspective taking. What we want to try to do… Not do, is really take a side even if one side probably did a more appropriate thing, we really want to help children… Understand what happened and move forward by taking perspective and finding a solution. Children get… They get defensive when they feel like they’re going to get in trouble — you want to help bring them back by articulating exactly what you see rather than making assumptions.
Jessica: Yeah, I get caught every single time I make an assumption, I’m like, Oh, there was more to the story. [laughter] It’s such a good reminder.
Gabrielle: There usually is, think about like, you might yell at your husband for something like so simple, and it really had nothing to do with that, you had a bad day work. There’s so much that happens in our lives, and it’s the same for children.
Fighting over toys
Jessica: Yeah. So what about stuff? So let’s imagine we have a two and a five-year-old and the kids are just really each very territorial about their stuff. Almost like everything in the house becomes a land grab, like, This is mine, no it’s mine, and it’s like they have to state claim on every last little thing, and it’s weird because these are oftentimes that they’re universal toys for the family. How do you handle this?
Gabrielle: This is so common. And a couple of things, I often let each child pick four or five things that are super special and not shareable, and they go in either a special cubby or they go on a shelf in their room, or they go in a labeled basket in a play room but it’s like the untouchable things where you have to ask before you play, and then the rest of the toys in the house are communal. That can feel hard to sort of choose, but what tends to happen if lots of piles of things go in that basket or on that shelf they become super duper precious, you can go through with your… At least with your older child and say, this basket is getting really full, is there something that can go back into our communal play room. With lovies or special items that stay on a bed or in a crib, those don’t often count, and we often see… It’s usually the older child, the five-year-old, the four-year-old, the five-year-old, the six-year-old, even a three-year-old that will start to become very possessive of that’s mine; a two-year-old that’s mine, it’s less about the object being special and more about the developmental phase they’re in, so you’re going to somewhat choose those special things for the two-year-old, so that the five-year-old understands that just because they’re older, they don’t get access to everything.
Because even when a new baby comes who’s six or seven or eight months old, everything in the world is going to become special to that older sibling. A toy they haven’t played with in five years is going to be the most remarkable thing they’ve ever seen, so it’s about creating space for remarkable special things and creating space for communal things. And every time there’s a birthday or a holiday or they get something special, you can have a conversation about this, is this something that’s shareable or is this something that’s really precious that is going to go in a special spot? I even see this with play dates, because we see some rivalry there that if your child is having a play date, to say, Let’s put two or three things that are just not an option for this play date so that you don’t feel worried during the time that your friend is over, and that’s a great tip for siblings, and it’s a great tip for friends.
Fair doesn’t mean equal
Jessica: And what about… Okay, let’s get to fairness because that’s just such a hot button topic also. I just… I feel like I want… I want things to be fair sort of, but they’re not, and how do you explain that not everything is always going to be fair.
Gabrielle: So I go back to the mantra, I might have said it before, that fair in a family dynamic doesn’t mean equal, fair means everyone getting their needs met, and that each of your children, I would say like to Marin and Nora, you both are unique individuals that need different things and love different things and want different things, and that Mommy and Daddy have to help you for who you are, and that might be different than what your sister needs, and if that is your mantra throughout situations, it helps you articulate why things can’t be fair. So for instance, I get a lot of questions, it’s so and so’s birthday, should the other sibling get a present? And while that is really a personal choice, I often say, You know what, this is a special day for that child and that other sibling is going to have a special day, a different day, or if it’s a cup of grapes or blueberries and your one-year-old has four blue berries and your four-year-old has a couple of blueberries, the four-year-old might say, I have more than you, and you can say, You do, your body is bigger and needs more food, and her body is smaller and needs less food, but if either of you are still hungry, you’re welcome to more.
So you start to normalize and deflate when there is quantity comparisons because of the concreteness of the situation. But with that sort of mantra over and over again to your kids and a concrete explanation of why there’s a difference, they start to learn like, oh, they can be taken care of, even if they’re not getting the exact same thing.
Jessica: And then do you… Let’s just zero in on bedtime, so what do you do when the older one gets to go to bed later than the younger one, or frankly, you have them both going to bed at the same time because that’s what works, and then the older one is like, Wait, but I’m older and it’s not fair, I should be able to stay up later.
Gabrielle: This happens a lot. I go back to using age and using time. So for instance, if your kids are going to bed at the same time, you might say, everybody’s going to go into bed at 7 o’clock, but when you’re five-years-old, you can have some quiet books in your bed, but it’s going to be quiet time and rest time to you and I’m going to help, so I’m going to read and help so and so fall sleep because their body needs to go to bed at 7:00, so I tend to use age a lot for these types of things, I’ll use another… Even gum as an example. Your five-year-old wants gum, your three-year-old wants gum, when you’re five, you can have this, when you’re three, these are your options.
And so I often tell parents to do that at bedtime. What happens is a child will have big feelings and those… That’s what we have to maintain, they’re pushing up against a limit and they’re feeling disappointed, but if your answer remains the same and your answer is consistent, when you’re three, you go to bed at when the clock is 7:00, and then you show them the clock. When you’re five, you can go to bed at 7:30, so your sister is going to go to bed a little later, and that feels really disappointing, I’m going to come and read you your books, and your body needs to grow. So we’re going to get a good night’s sleep. So it’s just about managing the feelings that come from the boundary, which can feel hard for parents, especially at the end of the day, when you’ve been sort of having mental gymnastics all day, navigating the worlds of parenting.
Fostering good sibling relationships
Jessica: Yeah, and if you had to boil it down to one thing that parents could do to foster good with sibling relationship from day one, what would that be?
Gabrielle: Narrating perspective and allowing your child to not feel like they have to love and be best friends with their sibling, it is an evolving relationship that is going to evolve over a long period of time. And we want to teach skills about being a good friend, being someone who can listen, being someone who appreciates differences, and if they learn to do that with others, they’ll often learn to do that with their sibling, but it needs to be modeled by the parent.
Jessica: Well, this is going to be so great because I have Bea and Thatcher this weekend, and there’s a lot of rivalry happening with them, and it’s just me, and so I got this inspiration to get through the weekend, so Gabby it’s been so great to have you with us. Thank you.
Gabrielle: Thank you for having me again.
Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Gabby:
- Fair is not everything being equal; fair is giving each child what they need in that moment in time. Instead of offering empty compliments all around, try complimenting one child, and encouraging the other to recognize that their sibling is working really hard at something. Or maybe the older child has certain privileges that the other doesn’t. Use language like: “When you’re 5 you can have gum; when you’re 3, these are your options…”
- Make an effort to normalize and deflate the situation when there are quantity comparisons: “Yes, you have more because your body is bigger and needs more.” It embeds appreciation that everyone gets what they need.
- 1:1 time is important for your relationship with your children. If one child expresses jealousy, validate their feelings and then make it clear when they will have their turn at undivided attention from a parent.
- Rough housing and physical play is really healthy for the sibling dynamic. As long as there is no safety issue, stay close and help them modulate what feels OK to everyone involved. When it goes too far and they look for you to take a side, sit them down and say, “Let’s pause, at what point did this not feel good to you? And you? What can we do next time?”
- Modeling, listening, and allowing for space are the essential pieces of your role as a parent when working towards resolution of sibling differences. Say to your child, “You really want me to say who was in the wrong, but there are two sides to every story.” Help them gain perspective.
- “That’s mine!” What to do when your kids are staking claim to everything in the house? Allow each child to pick 4-5 things that are special and not sharable. They go on a special shelf that goes untouched unless they have permission. Everything else can be communal.