Nip sibling rivalry in the bud


A mother of a Primary 2 pupil came to see me in exasperation and said: "Mrs Yeo, I don't know what to do, the only thing I can think of is to transfer Taylor to another school."

I advised her to take a step back and suggested that we find the root of the problem.

She was at her wit's end, having been called to school nearly every day for her son's problematic behaviour, such as being disruptive in class and even punching his classmate.

When I found out she had given birth to her second child recently, I immediately suspected that Taylor's behaviour was due to his struggle with this change.

Sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters, which usually starts right after, or even before, the arrival of a sibling.

The older child often becomes aggressive, "acts out" or regresses when he feels that he is getting an unequal amount of attention and responsiveness from his parents.

Dr Becky A. Bailey, an expert in childhood education and developmental psychology, wrote in her book Easy To Love, Difficult To Discipline that children of schoolgoing age often complain about being unfairly treated.

In this case, Taylor felt that his mother was more responsive and attentive to the baby and felt threatened.

Dr Bailey said "the best kind of help you can offer is empathy".

For example, Taylor might not know a positive way to get attention, so he picks a fight and shows his anger at the younger sibling. His mother could acknowledge his frustration and express care and understanding by saying that "sometimes, being a big brother is difficult" or "it's hard to share".

When he acts up or behaves aggressively, she could say "you can ask for my attention and I will give it to you".

I recommended that Taylor's mother make a conscious effort to pay more attention to him, while we do the same in school.

The teachers were briefed and I appealed to them to think of different ways of managing his behaviour, rather than with constant punishment.

A year passed.

Not only did Taylor stay in the school, he became known for being a talented presenter. Whenever the school received visitors such as officials from other countries, he would accompany them and explain the school's programmes.

Many were impressed with such a well-behaved and confident child.

By giving him this role, we effectively channelled his energy and focus into more constructive activities. Teachers gave him more attention by helping him prepare for his presentations.

His outstanding performance earned him praise and attention, this time in a good way.

Taylor thrived and graduated with excellent results.

Now, he is studying the life sciences at the National University of Singapore and is passionate about marathons and mountain trekking.

He also gets along very well with his younger sibling, so much so that they went on a trip to South Korea - just the two of them.

Recently, I had lunch with this fine young man and asked him what he remembered of his primary school days.

"The little token I made for you when I graduated from primary school sums it all up," he said with a sheepish grin. The message on the token said: "Thank you for keeping me despite all my nonsense, (and) also for the uncountable chances and opportunities given to me."

Sibling rivalry can be destructive when not dealt with properly, so if you want your bundles of joy to get along happily, help your older children adjust when you are expecting another baby.

The way parents treat their children and react to conflict has a big impact on how well siblings will get along, which in turn impacts how a child interacts with his friends in school, as well as how he learns.

Here are some tips on tackling sibling rivalry from an article from the University of Michigan:

  • Favouritism is a huge no-no.
  • Each child is an individual, let them be who they are and enjoy their different gifts.
  • Help them learn to co-operate (as opposed to compete) and respect each other.
  • Teach them positive ways to get each other's attention, like how to approach each other to play and share their toys.
  • Be fair; this is not the same as being equal. Explain how the treatment for older and younger children is different according to their unique needs, and reassure them that you will do your best to meet them.
  • Plan family activities that everyone enjoys.

Dr Bailey said: "When siblings are close together in age, their need for parental attention increases, so too do acts of sibling rivalry and bickering. When squabbling between children intensifies, read this as a signal to devote extra time to each child individually."

So, counter-intuitive as it might be, one of the most effective ways to manage sibling rivalry is actually for parents to spend time alone with each child. Listen carefully to them so you know what they care about and how they feel about what is happening in the family.

Always remember to let each one of them know that they are special in their own way.

When conflicts arise, pay attention to them. Yelling or lecturing will not help.

First and foremost, calm them down, then help them to develop the skills to work out conflicts.

Teach them about respect, compromise and fairness.

Reinforce these values by giving reminders and warnings, encouraging win-win situations and holding them equally responsible when ground rules are broken. Clear and consistent consequences will help prevent many conflicts.

Demonstrate good conflict resolution skills yourself because your children will mirror how you manage dispute.

Helping your children to love, respect and care for each other is achievable when you set your mind to work with them on it.

You can do it!

This article was first published on Feb 1, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.