So your kids are at war, the rivalry erupting into a huge battle in the back seat of the car. Before you raise your voice or threaten to put them out on the side of the road, though, have you thought that what they're doing might be good for them? I'm stretching the truth a little here, as unrelenting sibling rivalry - especially in the form of bullying or vicious attacks - is never good. But we're also aware that a limited amount of sibling rivalry can actually be good for young kids. 'How can this be?', you might ask.
The reality is that limited sibling rivalry helps children to learn how to resolve squabbles it can help kids express feelings, rather than suppressing all their emotions. They also begin to learn how to stand up for themselves and learn important lessons in resilience. We also know that kids who are never allowed to fight or to passionately express their emotions are more at risk of having emotional problems down the track, including depression. They may even be more likely to engage in self-harm behaviour. In simple terms, it's better for kids to express their emotions, rather than bottle them up and pretend to be a perfect, happy sibling.
All together now
While people in public might unfairly frown on sibling squabbles, be reassured that sibling rivalry is a perfectly normal part of development (and family dynamics). Battling tots are experimenting with their control, testing boundaries, finding out about themselves and developing assertiveness. These are good developmental processes that toddlers need to engage in, and the skills learnt will serve them well in later stages, such as when it comes to negotiating the playground at big school. While some parents may suggest they never have sibling rivalry problems in their homes, sibling spats are common in almost all families. For example, a younger toddler will normally reach a developmental stage of rejecting help or support from her older sibling. Similarly, older siblings will often try to 'parent' a younger sibling, which can lead to battles.
Rules of play
While rivalry between siblings may be normal, a firm rule is that it can't involve abuse, such as emotionally, verbally or physically hurting a sibling repeatedly. Further, as a parent, you do have to intervene to set limits, such as affirming when 'enough is enough'. The first rule of handling sibling rivalry is to be a role model in demonstrating good conflict resolution and anger management skills yourself, and to show appropriate ways of expressing frustration. We can't expect our little ones to work through rivalry battles if we resort to constantly screaming or yelling ourselves!
The next step is to try to get your kids to work out problems themselves, rather than racing in to discipline, punish or totally separate then. Sibling rivalry can only be a positive if you help and guide your children towards finding the right solutions. As younger tots will have limited skills in this regard, you'll still need to offer guidance, such as suggesting taking turns if a fight has erupted over a toy. Also be sure to give lots of praise and positive recognition as soon as your kids look like they're getting on better.
All's fair in love and war
A golden rule when dealing with sibling fights is never to take sides and to avoid 'refereeing' as much as possible. Unless you've seen every element of the incident, it's best not to apportion blame, otherwise sibling rivalry tends to work for one child over the other. Instead, try to deal with both kids equally, wherever possible. For example, if they simply can't agree to take turns, then they both aren't allowed to play with the toy or have to leave the playroom for a brief period of time. Keeping it short is key - aim to have them both return to have another go at working it out nicely once they've cooled down a bit.
It's also important not to always expect more mature, controlled behaviour from older siblings. This can give your younger child too much opportunity to 'play the victim', or set up battles and then run for attention or protection. Sibling rivalry quite often develops when there is less structure or routine. Establishing consistent rules, setting up chore charts and the like can help reduce the likelihood of sibling battles over whose turn it is to help with the dishwasher, or whose turn it is to choose the television program.
Lastly, but most importantly, more is always achieved through positive encouragement and recognition, rather than through punishment or harsh discipline. Try to look out for and constantly encourage, recognise and reward co-operative play, sharing and being kind.