Why sibling rivalry is a good thing

By Linda Blair

If sibling rivalry is natural and inevitable, how might parents use it to advantage? Photo / Getty
If sibling rivalry is natural and inevitable, how might parents use it to advantage? Photo / Getty

We're often told that sibling rivalry is a "bad thing", and that we should try to prevent it at all costs.

This is a shame, primarily because sibling rivalry is inevitable, so it follows that if parents think they should prevent it happening, sooner or later they're going to feel they have failed. It is also a shame because if you simply stop your children arguing, you deprive them of an opportunity to learn invaluable social skills.

Why do I say that sibling rivalry is inevitable, when many experts suggest that it is not? Let us look at life from a child's point of view.

At birth, humans are virtually helpless. It takes at least a decade before a newborn becomes sufficiently mature to survive independently. Completing much of our maturation after birth makes us the most adaptable creature on Earth - we learn to speak the language we hear around us, thrive on the foods available, and adjust to local cultural norms.

However, the downside of this adaptability is that while we're growing and learning, we must depend entirely on others to look after us.

Our most precious resource is, therefore, the loving attention of our carers. The more we have, the more likely we are to survive.

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It follows that if a new baby joins the family, that baby represents, quite literally, a threat to the wellbeing of their existing sibling(s). It is easy to see why rivalry among siblings, rather than sharing, is the "natural" response.

If sibling rivalry is, therefore, natural and inevitable, how might parents use it to advantage? Almost certainly, if you hear shouting, it means the rivals are dealing with each other emotionally rather than logically, so a fair solution for all is unlikely.

Therefore, the first step is to be a good role model. Rather than shouting, adopt a calm, reasonable approach. Ask your children to speak rather than shout, and if they refuse, separate them until they can do so. When tensions have eased, ask each child in turn to explain why they are angry, and demand firmly but calmly that each listens to the other.

Then ask each of them to describe how they think their sibling is feeling. This helps to develop empathy, an invaluable skill when negotiating.

Next, ask each to suggest at least three ways they could solve this argument. This introduces them to brainstorming, a necessary tool when problem-solving. During this process, they are also learning to listen carefully and to show respect to an antagonist, even while disagreeing. Both of these are priceless skills when, later, they will need to sort out disagreements with friends or colleagues. Keep the suggestions coming until an acceptable agreement is found.

Obviously, this approach takes more time than simply commanding your children to stop fighting. The result, however, is that you'll give them two precious gifts: the ability to solve problems and the confidence to find compromise in the midst of disagreement.

• Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm (Hodder & Stoughton)

- Daily Telegraph UK

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