Preventing Sibling Rivalry
By Karen Alonge
I'm at the kitchen table writing on my laptop while my ten year old
son tackles and pins the six year old neighbor girl in the living
room. It's a wrestling match. When the kitchen timer rings, the next
round will be my seven year old daughter against the eleven year old
neighbor boy. Sometimes they do tag team.
To the casual observer I may look negligent, but I'm actually quite
conscious of every move. My laissez-faire style has developed from
countless hours spent observing such altercations from a quietly
attentive eye in the back of my head. This group of kids has always
displayed an underlying concern for each other. They've earned the
privilege of holding wrestling matches. Despite the many thumps,
thuds and crashes, no one has ever been hurt.
The big ones somehow control their bodies so as not to hurt the
little ones. It is really an amazing thing to witness ... I'm not
quite sure how they do it. They're like puppies. They feel where
each person stops and starts, they sense the line between play and
abuse, and they really don't want to cross it. They just need and
want to get physical in their play together.
Parents are often concerned about physical interactions between
kids. We feel the urge to rush in and protect the little ones. We
set down all kinds of rules designed to keep things safe -- no
hitting, no pushing, sometimes even no name-calling (I'll tackle
that one in another article). But these rules are not necessary for
the kids. They are for us, so that we feel like watchful and
responsible parents. In most cases, kids do not want to hurt each
other. Even when they are fighting for real, not just wrestling.
They simply want to defend their own bodies, possessions and
For example, if one child grabs a toy that another child was already
using, the natural reaction will be to grab it back, push the
offender away, and then go back to playing. Rarely will the one who
was using the toy put it down in order to pursue or punish the
offender. And rarely will the offender persist more than once or
twice when met with this kind of resistance.
It is only when we grownups interfere with this natural feedback
loop that things can get out of control. This is because often we
ask the one who was violated to use his or her words to get the toy
back. Guess what, folks? This hardly ever works with young children!
They are physical, not verbal. I know, we think we are teaching them
to be civilized and all that. But to take away a child's natural and
appropriate defense against a violation and substitute one that is
usually ineffective leaves the child with no way to protect himself.
At which point he becomes an enticing victim, and as he is violated
again and again and not allowed to defend himself effectively he
gets angry. And when we aren't looking he really wallops the other
I first observed this dynamic when my daughter was about a year old.
She would just grab a toy out of her 3 year old brother's hand and
run away. I had taught him that under no circumstances was he to hit
his sister. She totally ignored his civilized request that the toy
be returned. So unless he came and got me and asked me to intervene,
he lost his toy!
My rule had disempowered him and set him up to be victimized. It
also made me the enforcer, and involved me in almost every one of
their interactions. If I was too busy to help, he lost. When I got
interrupted repeatedly from whatever I was doing to be the toy
police, I lost!
It didn't take long for me to see that this was just not going to
work. I was annoyed from the constant interruptions. My baby
daughter was well on her way to becoming a bully. And
coincidentally, right around that same time something strange
happened to our hallway. It must have become a lot narrower, because
suddenly it seemed impossible for them to pass each other in
opposite directions without his elbow making contact with her chest
and knocking her over. (and we wonder about the roots of sibling
So I taught him that he was allowed to take back whatever she
grabbed, using words accompanied by force if necessary. And he was
also allowed to hold her arms down to her sides when she started
hitting him. In this way balance was restored. She learned that
there were unpleasant consequences to grabbing and hitting. He
learned how to defend his space without becoming overly angry or
aggressive. I was relieved to see that they could really work things
out on their own without my constant intervention. And as an added
bonus, our hallway returned to its normal size.
A key part to this strategy is that the one who is enforcing their
boundaries is not allowed to use any more force than is necessary to
stop the attack. So if my son were to grab the toy back and then
chase her around the house hitting her over the head with it, I'd
need to intervene.
When I encouraged this intuitive balancing, conditions became very
conducive to forgiveness. Anger did not build up to the level of a
grudge. A violation occurred, it was corrected, and they got right
back to the business of playing, which was all they wanted to do in
the first place.
I wonder what a child raised in this way would have to say about the
current world situation? Maybe that people must not be allowed to
hurt other people, violate boundaries, or threaten the safety of
others. So we will use only exactly as much force as is necessary to
protect ourselves and others from violation. And then as soon as
possible we'll get back to the business of living together as
stewards of this planet.
Karen Alonge is an intuitive life coach and parenting consultant with 20 years of experience helping families with
all types of challenges. She offers consultations by phone, email, and IM. Clients often notice dramatic changes in
their daily experience after only one session. Please visit
http://www.karenalonge.com for more information.