As siblings, Tope and Tayo never saw eye-to-eye, and as toddlers they had countless fights over who should do things first in the family. It was almost as if Tope felt that since he was older, he was entitled to the best things in the house; while Tayo’s take was that she was entitled to some pampering since she was younger.
Even as adults, they have had several fights over who will be heir to their father’s business. Tope thinks he has the sole right to succeed his father as the chairman of the company, while it is customary for him to pretend his younger sister does not have as much right has he does because she is a female and younger.
While many children are lucky enough to become the best of friends with their siblings, it is not uncommon for siblings to fight, or swing back and forth between adoring and detesting one another.
Most often, it has been observed, sibling rivalry starts after the second child is born, and continues as the children grow and compete for everything from toys to attention. As children reach different stages of development, their evolving needs can significantly affect how they relate to one another.
For many parents, it can be frustrating and upsetting to watch their children fight with one another. A household that’s full of conflict is stressful for everyone, especially when it is hard to know how to stop the conflict, or even whether or not one should get involved at all.
“Many different things can cause siblings to fight. Most brothers and sisters experience some degree of jealousy or competition, and this can flare into squabbles and bickering,” says Bose Olaogun, a psychologist. “But other factors also might influence how often children fight and how severe the fighting gets.”
Olaogun also observes that evolving needs is a factor that could stir up rivalry among children: “It is natural for children’ changing needs, anxieties, and identities to affect how they relate to one another. For example, toddlers are naturally protective of their toys and belongings, and are learning to assert their will, which they’ll do at every turn. So, if a baby brother or sister picks up the toddler’s toy, the older child may react aggressively.”
According to her, school-age children often have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so they may not understand why siblings of other ages are treated differently or feel like one child gets preferential treatment. Teenagers, on the other hand, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together. All of these differences can influence the way children fight with one another.
“Individual temperament is also a cause of sibling rivalry,” observes Nnnena Obiajulu, a counsellor. “Your children’ individual temperaments including mood, disposition and adaptability, and their unique personalities play a large role in how well they get along. For example, if one child is laid back and another is easily rattled, they may often get into it. Similarly, a child who is especially clingy and drawn to parents for comfort and love might be resented by siblings who see this and want the same amount of attention.”
Family experts, on their part, say the way parents resolve problems and disagreements sets a strong example for the children. Hence, if they work through conflicts in a way that’s respectful, productive, and not aggressive, they will increase the chances of their children adopting those tactics when they run into problems with one another. “If children see you routinely shout, slam doors, and loudly argue when you have problems, they’re likely to pick up those bad habits themselves,” adds Obiajulu.
While it may be common for brothers and sisters to fight, it is certainly not pleasant for anyone in the house. And a family can only tolerate a certain amount of conflict.
“Whenever possible, parents should not get involved. Step in only if there is a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, you risk creating other problems. The children may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue, rather than learning to work out the problems on their own.
“If you’re concerned by the language used or name-calling, it’s appropriate to ‘coach’ children through what they’re feeling by using appropriate words. This is different from intervening or stepping in and separating them. Even then, encourage them to resolve the crisis themselves. If you do step in, try to resolve problems with your children,” she advises.