Ahhhh, bed. Mmmm, sleep. That thing you seldom get very much of as a parent, but when you do, it's magical. Just as you think you might finally get some rest after the sleepless stage of a new baby, think again… If you have older kiddos, prepare yourself now for the “sibling drama” phase of their little lives.
Having a baby and two little girls myself, instead of being shocked out of a deep sleep from one baby screaming, I found myself jumping out of bed more frequently than I’d like to admit to the sound of two kiddos screaming at each other. If you’ve been here before, you know that your sole mission at that point has changed from meditation to mediation. Out the door you go to intervene (tripping over a shoe, a half-eaten rice cake, a headless doll and countless other doo dads on the floor). Your goal? Get between the ball, food, plate, cup, you-name-it-object flying through the air from the hand of one kid to the face of the other. Darn! The rice cake slowed you down! Just as that [insert flying object here] hits the tip of your 6-year-old’s nose, she starts spiraling into a flailing fit about all the things her sister has done wrong since birth ('cause she’s always the innocent one, right?). Sound familiar? Welcome to what we so lovingly refer to as the “sibling rivalry.”
Rarely, if ever, do I hear of siblings close in age getting along. From the one or two miraculous cases I’ve heard in my life, I’m still not sure how it happens. 🤔 Do these kids live in a bubble? Do they ever talk to each other? Parents of these angel children, please tell me your secrets!
Know this certainly isn’t the norm though and you’re not alone if you’re going through it! Sibling rivalry is thought to stem from an evolutionary survival mechanism, where siblings try to compete for limited resources such as food and parental attention. In today’s world this can translate to toys and other “nice to haves” that aren’t necessary for survival. (1) It’s also a reflection of trying to take control over one’s environment and assert one’s will and independence in a critical developmental stage. (2) I certainly have two independent little women on my hands!
After dealing with sibling rivalry for the past year, since Skyla turned 1.5 and Divinaka 5 years old, I’ve mustered a few tricks to bring calm to the chaos… sometimes. And I’ll take those “some” “times” as often as I can! Suffice it to say I have not found a solution, only interventions that I must use EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY FIGHT (which is still sometimes multiple times a day). To be frank, it drives me nuts, makes me want to pull my hair out and is completely draining, but I get through it knowing (hoping) that one day they will be best friends and have that sacred sister bond I’ve always hoped and envisioned for them. THEY WILL HAVE THAT. Mark my words. But for now, I’m constantly having to use the following tactics to get them to make up and play calmly with each other for at least a little while until they go at it again.
1. Hold Hands
If they start to fight, get them to hug or hold hands. This breaks up the tension, reminds them that they really do love each other and gets them into a different headspace. Imagine if your partner or friend came up and held your hand or gave you a hug if you were “fighting” (hopefully the exception rather than the norm 😳). What would you do? You’d be little surprised, yeah? Wouldn’t it calm you down and remind you that you care about that person? It works the same way for kids, even if just for a few minutes to put a pause on the drama.
2. Distract Them
You’ll hear me use this one a lot, but it’s because it WORKS.
Works almost every time 😉 You can also physically change locations and change up the environment. For example, if they are fighting in the living room, bring them outside to play!
3. Talk it Out
Sit down with them and talk it out. I find this works with little ones 2 years and older. I will literally sit down on the floor with my two and half and six-year-old and ask them what’s going on and reflect back to them what I heard them say, all while using a calm voice (tone is everything).
Divinaka: “Skyla took my bowl without asking! Wahhhhhh!”
I tell them I understand it’s hard to share sometimes, and I let Divinaka know that Skyla doesn’t understand yet to ask for things before taking them. Sometimes this strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. If it’s one of those days that it doesn’t, revert to option 2!
Trying to talk it out and rationalize it only works if you have the right tone of voice. If you are flustered and try to reason with them, don’t even go there. It will make things worse. An energetic tone and higher pitches will raise the adrenaline that’s already pumping. Remember to use soft, deeper voices for a calming effect.
4. Give Them Space
Separate them. This works the best when I’m at my whit’s end and know that I need a break. Taking a break is an important skill for them to learn as well, however, doing this consistently will not teach them how to work things out, which is also a very important life skill. When the situation calls for separation, I will give one kiddo a book and have the other do something else such as go ride her bike or color.
These interventions work for some time, until they are inevitably at it again. It’s just enough time to regenerate all that energy you need to calmly break up the next fight. Sometimes nothing works and it’s usually when they’re tired, hungry, have a reaction to a certain food, etc. Those times, we just need to grin and bear it. All the hard work will pay off though. They won’t be doing it forever and you will look back and be grateful you took the time to teach them conflict resolution skills. And remember, behind every awesome kid is a mother that worried herself like crazy wondering if she was doing it all wrong. You got this.
- Abuhatoum S, Howe N. Power in sibling conflict during early and middle childhood. Social Development 2013;22:738-754.
Cassandra Curtis, Co-founder + Chief Innovation Officer, Once Upon a Farm
Cassandra is a mother of 3 girls. She lives in San Diego with her husband, daughters, 2 cats and a dog. Cassandra works full time as co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Once Upon a Farm and as a mom. In the rare free time that she does get, she loves to do Yoga (she's a certified yoga teacher!), cook healthy meals, run, travel and spend time with friends and family.