Sibling rivalry is a conflict between brothers and sisters that go beyond simple disagreements between two or more parties because of individual differences and different opinions on a subject. Starting from as early as the birth of the second child, sibling rivalry usually involves jealousy and competition between siblings which can show up as fighting on a frequent or routine basis. It is usually frustrating and stressful for parents who do not understand human psychology or the basis behind relationship conflicts. They are often at a loss as to how to respond to the ongoing conflict between their children.
Since sibling rivalry often shows up from early childhood, the following forms of sibling rivalry behaviour are often displayed in response to each other:
challenging a belief,
simply looking at each other (with the intent of intimidation)
breaking something that belongs to the other one,
throwing something at the other one,
hiding something that is important to the other person.
Reasons for sibling rivalry:
Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby. They were the centre’ of their parents’ attention until the new baby arrived. Now the new arrival is seen as a competitor for the parent’s attention.
Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of a parent’s attention, discipline, and responsiveness. Their sense of value is measured based on their evaluation of their parent’s attention to them. So they compete to be favoured.
Children who struggle to differentiate and individuate as unique individuals do not yet recognize their personal power except through conflict and competition with each other. It shows up as a power struggle.
Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead.
Children’s developmental stages affect how mature they are and how well they can share a parent’s attention and get along with one another. The less mature sibling may be more likely to want their parents’ attention as an all-or-nothing need focused on them and not their siblings. This immaturity is expressed as an either-or view instead of being able to adopt the view of both-and (ie., both being important). As such, their level of emotional maturity is showing in their attempts to resolve their attempts to negotiate with each other to resolve their conflict.
Each child feels the need to compete with each other to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they may uncover their own talents, activities, and interests. Sibling rivalry shows up as their struggle to separate, differentiate or individuate from their siblings while feeling inferior or superior along the way in contrast to their sibling.
Stress in children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
Stress in the parents’ lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this resentment may subconsciously be projected on their child to influence how the parent treats that child so that the child is regarded as, eg. the ‘black sheep’ or ‘the problem child’ vs. the idealized. The problem-child view can be accepted by the other siblings from the parents and then be regarded accordingly. Similarly, if a parent simply has a favourite child among their children, maybe because the child is regarded as more socially, academically or physically attractive among the children, this can foster jealousy, resentment and competition between the children.
How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings are normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict. The absence of an emotional bond between the children can increase the likelihood of conflict.
Other factors that influence sibling rivalry:
Birth order: for example, it is common that the oldest and youngest child often receive the most attention while the middle children often feel overlooked (eg. the oldest being celebrated by the parents or extended family as the first-born; the youngest being celebrated as the ‘baby’ of the family).
Spacing between the children: when spaced further apart, there is usually less competition; when spaced more closely, there tends to be more.
Temperamental differences: temperamentally easy babies tend to be liked more while more difficult ones are experienced as more annoying.
If parents choose as a favourite or respond differently to their children, this can also spur more jealousy and competition or intensify competition between them.
Gender: in some families, a child of one sex is preferred over the other.
Physical influences: children who share a room may argue more due to being in constant close proximity with each other; a child who received more attention due to an illness or physical disability may leave siblings feeling neglected or ignored.
Parenting style or approach: Children with very permissive and overly harsh parents tend to fight more –permissive parents may not operate with adequate rules so children feel they have to settle their conflicts by themselves without guidance; overly harsh parents who are strict or harsh tend to model aggression to their children to get their needs met. The best outcomes show up with parents who have acquired what has been described as the authoritative approach.
Age of the children: as children mature and reach later developmental stages, sibling rivalry tends to decrease.
Transitional times: sibling rivalry tends to intensify when there are changes in the family, eg. the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage.
How to respond as parents?
With this knowledge already outlined, parents can lookout for ways to parent more intentionally. Firstly, they have to desire for their children to get along or be positive or loving with each other in the family. Interventions can then be planned for. They can be preventative or when conflicts occur, facilitate to address the identified need or help resolve the conflict between the children. For example, understanding how the birth order could raise the possibility of jealousy between siblings, or the prospect of one child being favoured over another, the importance for each child to be valued and appreciated as unique is an important practice. Also, parents need to watch how they manage their own conflicts as their children view them as role models for life learning. At the same time, they can remain optimistic when they realize that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside. The younger they are, the more parents are called on to be a referee. Probably the most help needed to be directive with the children is 4 years or younger. Here are some useful strategies to help children manage their conflicts:
Communicate the basic message that includes:
Acknowledgement that they both want their way by arguing with each other rather than to cooperate.
Hitting each other, calling each other names or bullying is not going to work.
They both have needs in the situation and they have to find out how they can both be acknowledged and met but without fighting.
Find out how to do this by themselves of you will decide on their behalf in a way they may not like.
Establish rules for managing the conflict.
Having rules in place is a way of communicating your family values. So the parent needs to decide what behaviours are important and what they wish to enforce. This is an effective preventive strategy.
Handling conflicts and anger “No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
Family Values/morals “We treat each other with respect.”
Parents’ role when there is conflict “If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
Hurt or property is damaged “Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
Personal possessions and boundaries “We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
Complaining “No complaining to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sibling just entered his room without permission.
Cooperation “Work it out between you two or if I get involved, neither of you might like what I decide.”
Conflict Resolution Sibling rivalry highlights the need for children to be taught the skill of conflict resolution. When they are young, the parent will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own. In summary, this process involves each child learning to express his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it. It encourages listening for and the expression of feelings to understand each other to discern what they both need. In this practice, it fosters the development of the sense of mutuality, and promotes the practice of collaboration and cooperation. This skill helps your children to navigate current and future relationships with their peers. It is useful throughout their life. It can equip them to be emotionally and relationally competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems in relationships without fighting. But in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed. The parent also has to model for their children when it comes to handling conflict. The lesson is obviously more powerful when the parents practise this themselves. Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
Listening well: seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to seek to understand, we must first learn to listen (Stephen Covey’s 5th habit of highly effective people).
Attitudes and additional strategies that help to encourage health sibling relationships:
Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
Do not show favouritism.
Stay calm and objective.
Recognizing the need is important in discussing ‘fairness.’
Don’t look for someone to blame or punish. Take personal responsibility to communicate well with each other.
Don’t get in long discussions about what happened (it can act as a reward for their arguments)
Establish basic relational rules: encourage communication, listening and understanding of feelings with empathy, taking turns.
Reinforce and remind them of a list of basic rules: “You can express your feelings to communicate clearly without having to be hurtful;” ”Use your words and not your fists;” “Speak to them in the way you would like to be spoken to.”
Encourage the children to solve their problems: be creative to find out “What would work for you both?”
Be aware of developmental stages: very young children find it hard to share as they need to have a sense of possession before they can share.
Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
Do not allow your children to pit one parent against the other. Discuss privately and directly between parents if they disagree with a parenting decision made by the other.
Do not bemoan to the children that they “fight all the time” (or they will live up to this pronouncement).
Reward them verbally for their efforts at collaboration to promote a loving or positive connection between themselves. Valuing them verbally models for them to value each other. This also promotes both their self-esteem.
These attitudes are commonly practised by parents who embrace an authoritative approach to parenting. But when the conflicts get out of control and do not stop, get professional help. The relational skills children learn in childhood is what they practice with as adults. The ability to be effective in relationships is crucial to personal success later when children grow up to marry, have families of their own or at work.
Play is a critical part of a child’s development from birth. It boosts healthy brain development that is conducive for physical, cognitive, and emotional growth. It encourages imagination and creativity, and improves social skills and confidence. It is therefore not surprising that psychologists realised its power and tapped into it as an instrument of healing.
Challenges are a part of life. But in childhood, they can be harsher as children haven’t developed the capability to understand or deal with what they are going through. In their tender minds, loss or pain could be something as small (to an adult) as a broken favourite toy and range up to a major loss in the forms of death, separation from a loved one, hospitalization, abuse or other personal/family crises. While some children might manage to some extent by voicing their displeasure or through negative behaviours, others might just suppress their emotions. If the setbacks are beyond the coping skills of the child, the trauma can manifest as psychological or emotional disorders.
Parents often ask how they can know if their child needs counselling. Some signs could be that the child is being more angry, nervous, defiant, sad, or withdrawn than usual, or than is reasonable. The child could also be showing changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a decrease in school grades or reduced interest in previously favoured activities. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution and seek help.
Play therapy is one of the prominent forms of therapy for children and is practised by a variety of mental health professionals, like counsellors, psychotherapists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. It is an intervention which allows children who are experiencing emotional or behavioural issues to open up their emotions in the safe space of the ‘playroom’. They are given toys to play with, and the children play as they wish, without feeling interrogated or threatened. For the children themselves, play (therapy) is familiar and fun and they are thus able to work out their undesirable experiences and resolve their emotional and behavioural difficulties. What materials the child chooses to play with and how they play all have meaning. The therapist watches their play to get an insight into their emotional or mental health problems.
Depending on the issues faced by the child and their own training, therapists conduct non-directed or directed play therapy and provide play materials accordingly. Non directed play therapy is free-play and very similar to the free association of adult psychodynamic therapy. While in the latter adult clients are allowed to talk and ventilate to gain insight and resolve their problems, free play with limited conditions and guidelines, allows the child to express their feelings just through their play. Their verbal expression might or might not be as important.
Directed play therapy includes more structure and guidance by the therapist and several techniques are used to purposefully engage the child. These could be engaging in play with the child themselves or suggesting new topics, themes for play. Parents might or might not be included in the sessions. Materials may include art and craft materials, sand and water, clay, dolls, toys, blocks, a family of dolls, miniature figures, animals, musical instruments, puppets and books. While traditionally Play therapy is considered to be beneficial for children ages 3 to 12, it has been modified and customised by researchers and therapists to help adolescents and adults also, and some mental health practitioners have started including video games as therapeutic tools. Apart from being used at counselling centres, play therapy is also being used at critical-incident settings, such as hospitals and domestic violence shelters to help children deal with deep issues.
In regular lives, parents can encourage their kids to play indoors and outdoors and especially in nature. Lawrence J. Cohen has created an approach called ‘Playful Parenting’, in which parents are encouraged to connect playfully with their children through silliness, laughter, and roughhousing to enhance relationships and general well being.
Challenges are a part of life. While the purpose of therapy is to solve problems, playing for the sake of fun can prevent them. This can be applied not only for children but for the inner child in every individual to make life happier and more meaningful. As the proverb goes – All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Vasantham (Mediacorp’s Tamil & Hindi TV Channel) studios reached out to Promises Healthcare’s Senior Clinical Psychologist, S C Anbarasu, in the name of bringing greater mental health awareness to the Indian community in Singapore.
In En Ullae S2 episode 9, we are introduced to an exuberant boy, who upon closer inspection is revealed to suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Is he beset by developmental issues, or is there a more benign explanation? Senior Clinical Psychologist S.C. Anbarasu opens the episode with a parsimonious explanation of ADHD – simply, people with ADHD are distinguished by a lack of ability to pay attention, and appear to have vast amounts of energy, hence, ‘hyperactivity’.
In a dramatisation, the boy’s mother wears an expression of bemused exasperation – the problems began even before his birth. Prolonged labour (which occurs after 18 – 24 hours), and a possible Caesarean section heralded the coming of a “problem child”. Anusha Venkat then recalls how, at the age of 2 or 3, she came to the realisation that her son’s inability to focus was far more prevalent than what she observed in other children. Even a couple of seconds of concentration seemed to be a hard ask. He couldn’t remain placated long enough to complete any task. At the childcare, teachers baulked at how he pinged from corner to corner of the room.
Anusha reveals how a serendipitous discovery that Carnatic music could calm him down enough to remain in one spot for more than 10 minutes. A breakthrough! Anbarasu explains that while a child suffering from ADHD can disrupt classroom proceedings, it is pointless to use force to discipline them. ADHD can make someone feel like they are “constrained within a container” if they are impelled to do a task in which they have no interest. Instead, they expend their energy reserves by indulging in some other activity – like running around and being a little menace. For parents who are unaware of ADHD as a mental health condition, seeing their child act out can be scary. In fact, Seelan (the boy protagonist) went undiagnosed at age 3 – doctors merely offered that most children are, well, rambunctious tots at that age. It takes a diligent parent to make a reasoned conclusion that their child may suffer from ADHD. Seelan was given assorted tasks to complete, with his attention span closely watched, even who he liked or disliked in class was logged.
However, Anbarasu recommends that care must be taken to conduct a diagnosis per the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5). First, the test must be conducted on children below the age of 12. While school-going children come with a larger raft of observable behaviours due to differences in environment (home, school, etc), Anbarasu admits that is is not easy to chalk up roughhousing or rowdiness to ADHD when those are developmentally appropriate behaviours for a child. Apparently, six or seven are ages when an accurate diagnosis is reached easiest.
Aside from Carnatic music, Seelan’s attention span was helped by repetitive menial tasks like peeling potatoes, chopping ladies’ fingers and carrots. Anbarasu acknowledges that dealing with ADHD in children is a time-consuming task because they aren’t able to complete tasks as quickly as their peers. He calls on parents to pick up the slack – strategising holistic ways to help their child, both at home and in school. It’s a collaborative effort between teachers and parents to then carry out an agreed-upon strategy.
All is not doom and gloom, however. Seelan is observed to play with Lego building blocks for hours on end, despite not performing in the classroom. Anbarasu calls this ‘hyper-focus’. It is a state of mind wherein the mind eliminates noise that potentially distracts them from the task at hand, a sort of “perk” if you will. We are cautioned that encroaching upon this state of hyper-focus can exacerbate emotional issues and precipitate anger. People with ADHD are victim to ‘emotional dysregulation’, which may manifest from frustration in perceived inability to complete tasks satisfactorily. Seelan was unable to appreciate the benefits of delayed gratification, getting restless and upset if things didn’t go his way. Anbarasu explains that this results from emotional dysregulation as well.
At some point, Seelan faces potential expulsion from his class due to the complaints of other children’s parents. Especially in Singapore, where grades are paramount, a poor academic performance which results from an inability to work with a child’s ADHD can be distressing to parents. The teeth-gnashing frustration can make parents feel helpless, and Anbarasu suggests that these situations call for a consultation with a professional therapist who will elucidate the behavioural issues at hand. This gives parents more information to plan future steps. Parents of children with ADHD also attract stinging criticism from other parents. They might feel inadequate in their roles as nurturers and mentors. Anusha has accepted this to be a part of life, chortling as she muses that “you can’t change people”. Whatever the case, it isn’t fair to fault parents for a child’s ADHD. Or the child. Anbarasu clarifies that ADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder – in other words, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Blame should not be apportioned. Anusha recalls how Seelan used to behave like an attention hog – in its absence, tantrums would be the order of the day. According to Anusha, dealing with instances of emotional dysregulation like this is challenging, especially if you have to deal with the needs of your child while observing social propriety.
Every child’s circumstances are different, so Anbarasu recommends that care be taken to evaluate if danger is imminent. Shouting for a little is perfectly OK. Deal with them after they have thrown their fits because anger is not conducive to receptiveness to advice. Anbarasu is careful to eschew the notion of a “cure” for ADHD. Rather, he says that it is “treatable”. Whether with medication or psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.
Children with ‘combined-type’ ADHD are challenged in a triune of areas – attention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. For these cases, neuropharmacological support is required, to aid concentration and retention of information in class. If the ADHD is not as pronounced, therapy alone could manage the condition. For parents who are especially harrowed by their child’s condition, they should know that there is ample evidence in favour of managing ADHD through the concurrent administration of medication and therapy. On top of psychiatric interventions, there are support groups inside and outside the classroom for parents who are overly stressed.
The episode closes with the narrator speaking over clips of Seelan looking positively cherubic. The viewer is called on to spare the snide remarks, replacing them with positivity, understanding, and “plenty of support”.
Bullying can be manifested in many forms, and children and youth can be involved in many ways in it. However, with 1 in 4 children in Singapore reporting that they have experienced bullying a few times a month, bullying might be closer to home than you think.
Bullying is done with the intent to hurt and is repeated or persistent. Often, the target of bullying finds it difficult to stop it or stand up for himself / herself. This is different from peer conflicts or quarrels which typically involve incidents where children mutually hurt each other. As parents and caregivers, how do we support our children as they navigate the complexities of relationship-building, and what are some warning signs that indicate that they are involved in bullying?
Broadly, there are three different types of bullying
Relational: When hurtful actions are made with the intention to shame a person and damage the forming of healthy relationships and friendships. This can take the form of leaving someone out of a group, teasing, name-calling, expressing negative thoughts or feelings about a person, and even intimidating them to do things against their will.
Physical: When harm has been inflicted on a person or their belongings. This can take the form of hitting, punching, kicking, inappropriate touching and persistent damaging or stealing of belongings.
Cyber-bullying: Occurs on the internet, through mobile phones, computers, video-game systems and other forms of technology. Both relational and physical bullying can occur on this platform. For example, digital technology can be used to gossip and spread rumours or hostile messages, or game accounts can be hacked and items stolen.
How do I identify if my child is involved in bullying?
Recognising these warning signs is the first step in stemming bullying.
Warning signs of being a target of bullying:
has unexplainable cuts, bruises, scratches or other injuries
comes home with lost, torn, damaged, or destroyed clothing, books, stationeries or other belongings
is unusually hungry after returning from school
seems fearful of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers, and often finds or makes up excuses (e.g. faking illness) as to why he/she cannot go to school
has declining grades, lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school
experiences a loss of appetite, or has changes in eating habits like skipping meals or binge eating
reports sleeping difficulty (e.g. trouble falling and staying asleep, frequent bad dreams, etc)
complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches or other physical ailments
suddenly stops talking about friends and has few, if any, friends, with whom he or she spends time with during recess or after school
is withdrawn and stammers
continually ‘loses’ money or starts stealing
appears anxious, sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he or she comes home and suffers from low self-esteem
self-harms or talks about suicide
becomes aggressive and unreasonable
refuses to talk about what is wrong
begins to target siblings
Emotional and Behavioural signs
Warning signs of engaging in bullying:
gets into verbal or physical fights
suddenly possesses unexplained extra money or new belongings
often reacts aggressively towards others
has friends who bully others
may be excessively worried about their popularity and reputation
can be competitive
has received many disciplinary warnings and actions
refuses to accept responsibility for their actions
What should I do if I think my child is involved in bullying?
It is important to talk with children who show signs of being bullied or bullying others. The safety and mental health of our children should remain an utmost concern. It’s painful to think of your child receiving or inflicting harm on other kids, but bullying is a serious issue for both the targeted and the aggressor. According to research, a vast majority of bullies have also been the targets of bullying, and less than 1% of primary school children are “true bullies” – those who were not bullied by their peers.
Bear these three C’s in mind when relating with your child: Communicate, Consult and Connect
Communicate If you hear from a teacher or another parent that your child involved in a bullying situation, the first thing you should do is talk to your child about the situation. Be direct about the issue, but make it clear that you are open to hearing your child’s side of the story. Stay calm and say something like, “Your teacher called to tell me that you were involved in some bullying. I’m really concerned about this, and we need to talk about it. Please tell me what happened.”Avoid prejudging the situation and reacting based on emotions. It can be tempting to immediately blame the other party, criticise parenting, or condemn the school system, but it is also worth taking time to look inward and reflect on whether your own actions may be influencing your child’s. Some children may be modelling their interpersonal style based on the behaviour they have observed. If so, it is important to start fostering a positive home environment, where members of the family treat one another with kindness and respect, creating a safe space for children to share their worries and failures.
Consult Talking through the situation with your child can help you understand why the bullying is happening, and what steps need to be taken in order to stop it. For example, you may find that your child has incredibly low self-esteem and bullying helped him/her feel powerful and able to control something. He/she might prefer being known as ‘the worst kid in school’ and interacting with other children in the process, rather than not being noticed at all and having no friends. Or perhaps your child might accept being the target of bullying with the mistaken belief that such behaviours are acceptable between friends. Some children may not be able to articulate their feelings. This is especially true of children who are struggling with anxiety, trauma, or another mental health issue. If you are having trouble, consider consulting a child psychologist or psychiatrist who has a lot of experience evaluating kids’ behaviours. Your child might need a therapist’s help to work through underlying issues, investigate the root of the problem and guide you and your child in tackling the specific challenges that your child faces in his/her social interactions.
Connect Ultimately, it is about building a close and lasting connection with your child. Connecting with your child about his/her day-to-day life will put you in a better position to recognise signs of bullying and trouble. Start with asking your child a few open-ended questions on a daily basis. For example, ask him/her to share about one really great thing that happened that day, and one not-so-great thing. It can be tough to get started, but children who are regularly encouraged to share details of their lives with their parents tend to be more comfortable with continuing to do so when they are in their adolescence. Listening to your child in a supportive, non-judgmental way helps them feel connected to your presence and love in their lives, and makes them more receptive to opening up to you about their problems as well as accepting the advice that you give to them. It is always better to handle challenging issues like bullying together so that your child will be able to walk out of the shadow of the bullying with confidence and courage.