When Ms Sharon Tay gave birth to her second baby, it was as if two new children were being introduced to her family at once.
“My boy, who was four years old then, never had any problems in play school before. But he started behaving aggressively for seemingly no reason,” she recalls.
Ms Tay figured then that was the boy’s way of trying to get attention at a time when everybody seemed to be focusing on his baby sister.
Ms Tay is a perceptive parent who can read her child’s behaviour and understands that sibling rivalry can be expressed in many ways —apart from the common scenarios of fighting over possessions and demanding attention. Yet it is important to not only be able to identify behaviours triggered by sibling rivalry, but also know how to handle them appropriately.
When it comes to her four children aged three to 11, Ms Tracey Or has identified three common triggers for sibling rivalry: perceived unfairness in treatment, insecurity within the child, and failure to give each other space and respect each other's boundaries.
And although the common reaction in tackling sibling rivalry is to ensure fairness in the form of “equality”, Ms Or’s strategy is to teach her children right from the beginning to recognise that everybody is different.
“My husband and I don't believe in the ‘equality’ principle. But we do believe in giving to each child in accordance to his or her needs. We teach our children from young that they need to trust mum and dad to make a decision as fairly as we can, to the best we know how.
“For example, if we decide to buy a book for one of the kids, it doesn't mean we buy one each for all. But we will look for ways to gift our other children in ways that are meaningful to them but not necessarily similar. This dissipates tension and tantrums and reduces any sense of entitlement children will have if we are not careful.”
SET GROUND RULES
Ms Or also finds setting ground rules on expected attitudes and behaviour an effective way to stem sibling rivalry. She clearly states what each child should do his best to comply with and the consequences that will follow should he disobeys — such as taking turns, being a good loser rather than a sore one, looking out for each other, and no name calling during a game.
“The children are thus responsible for their own actions and [these ground rules] prevent tiring negotiations of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Everyone tries to work towards shared enjoyment that benefits all.”
SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY
Indeed discipline and behaviour management by the parent can help to keep sibling rivalry in check. Sometimes, however, it takes a little more. Ms Tay took extra effort to spend time with her son during her confinement months at home so as to allay his fear of “losing” his parents’ attention. Ms Tay also got him to play his big brother role with tasks such as reading and in helping to take care of the new baby, so that he would feel more involved. Doing so also affirmed to her son that he is an important part of the family.
WORK WITH THE PRE-SCHOOL EDUCATORS
She also credits the teachers at her son’s pre-school in helping to ease his anxiety.
“We discussed his change in behaviour and how it might be an expression of sibling rivalry. His teachers did their best to inculcate the understanding that he didn’t have to resort to aggression to get attention; they made a conscious effort to notice and praise his good behaviour.”
Every child is different and every family has its own dynamics, so there are no magic bullet solutions to sibling rivalry. Ms Or, for one, does not subscribe to the method of spending quality one-on-one time with each child.
“With a large family, it's not possible. We prefer a shared family dynamic for now,” she says.
For Ms Tay, following tips on how to introduce a new baby to the family — such as talking to her elder child about shifts in the family routine — still did not help her sensitive son cope with the changes when they became reality.
“I thought we were prepared, having gone through all the steps recommended by books and Internet resources — we even got him to help with picking out baby clothes and toys. I suppose he was excited about being a big brother without really understanding what it meant.”
Adults would like to think that a child’s life is carefree, but they too have stressors — and what might seem a small matter to us might be a huge devastation in their little world, causing them to behave out of character. The key to managing sibling rivalry thus really lies in communicating with your child and understanding the reasons behind his or her behaviour, in order to pin-point the triggers and alleviate their fears and insecurities.