Sibling Rivalry

Q: We have three lovely kids — two girls ages 6 and 3, and one boy of 4 months. The girls are best friends and can play beautifully together. They love each other and think about each other; for example, if one gets a nosh, she always asks for another snack for her sister.

But there is a lot of jealousy between them. They fight a lot — hit, pull hair, bite, etc. We also get lots of tantrums and screaming if one gets something but not the other. I would have thought that with their age gap, competition would be less of an issue.

We try to praise their good behavior, give compliments and prizes, and make sure they get to bed early, but somehow I still feel we live in a battlefield.

How can we reduce this behavior? It really hurts me to watch my two kids fight like that. We hope you can help us find peace in our home again!

A: There are a myriad of reasons why children fight. Tantrums, even though they seem to be directed towards siblings, can actually reflect uncomfortable social situations that your children are experiencing with peers (not necessarily sibling-related). Or, children who seem “perfect” in school can let out their frustrations at home after a stressful day at school. Children who have learning problems can never feel “good enough,” and they, too, can be set off by minor occurrences at home. If parents possess limited communication skills, their children’s fighting can mirror the parents’ arguments, as their role models for negotiation skills are poor.

This being said, it would be presumptuous of me to venture a guess as to the cause of your daughters’ fighting. However, there are ways to respond to the children in terms of attempting to create a sense of teamwork in your home.

If you have worked with positive reinforcement techniques, you can extend this idea to the area of vatranus. The sibling who compromises, or allows the other to have the toy first, can be given stickers (which are appreciated by 3- and 6-year-olds).

Reinforcing the identity of each child as a “giver,” in tangible form, helps to naturally improve their relationship. (This concept is seen in Michtav MeEliyahu in the section “Koach Haneseenah.”) A child can receive a sticker for complimenting her sister or being kind in other ways. Comment on their good middos in phone conversations with extended family members while your daughters are within earshot. Printing out “Great Middos Certificates” can be appreciated even by 3-year-olds, depending upon their maturity level.

Another concrete example of working towards an improved relationship is that of creating an “activity goal” for both of them. This goal can be going to a local kiddy entertainment center together if they both work on decreasing their fighting. Older children can have goals of going to an amusement park together or eating out in a restaurant by themselves as a reward for improved behavior.

Most sibling fights have no beginning or end; one child may be getting back at the other for what was done days ago. The trail of “who started” is based upon each one’s subjective reality.

Creating a joint goal is a way to get past “who started,” “who got the better gift,” “who has more friends,” etc. In general, teamwork and the goal of a “higher good/goal” helps people go beyond their temporary subjective reactions to life.