Early Childhood, Mental Health, Parenting

Preventing Sibling Rivalry During Early Childhood


Early childhood relationships such as (parent, sibling, grandparents, etc.) can serve as a template for all future adult relationships. Through these early childhood interactions, a child learns about boundaries, safety, sharing, and the foundations of forming attachments.  These relationship models provide us with learning opportunities. A child may observe their parent’s behavior across several social settings. Through observation and trial and error they may learn how to create and maintain those relationships.

Parents with multiple children often wonder how to go about guiding children through developing a strong sibling bond. The biggest challenge for parents during early childhood is how to nurture that sibling bond when the children are too young to understand the concept of sharing, have limited language and limited ways of expression.  Every child is different and not every parenting tip and advice can fit the parenting need.  I often like to look at parenting tips as a new tool to utilize that may fit the particular situation.  Even if that tool was not successful I won’t throw it away but rather store it for a future situation. The more parenting tips and tricks the more there is to work with.

The most important thing in applying any type of modification or parenting technique is consistency.  Recognizing from my own experiences that this is easier said than done.  A parent with multiple children is faced with identifying and understanding the multiple needs while balancing the many roles and responsibilities. It is difficult but not impossible.  It is also important to reflect upon your parenting style and notice the parenting style you have adopted from your own upbringing and adult relationships.  Here are some tips for nurturing healthy sibling relationships and breaking away from toxic patterns of sibling rivalry.

  1. Don’t compare children to each other.  (this may make the child feel inferior than the other)
  2. Avoid the traps of good vs. bad.  Telling children “they are a bad boy/girl” internalizes their behavior affecting their self- esteem.  The child is not “bad” early childhood is a time to learn socially acceptable behaviors and norms.
  3. Show your love equally! If one child is more curious and more active than the other they will naturally receive more attention. Find an equal balance to the attention you are providing each child.
  4. Examine the indirect messages you are giving siblings of different genders.  Do males get more privileges than females? Are females treated as weak or vulnerable when compared to their male siblings?
  5. Demolish favoritism! Favoritism within the parent child relationships creates tension and a competitive environment amongst siblings leading to toxic sibling interactions.
  6. Have 1-on-1 quality time with each child. It’s not about the quantity of time spent, but rather the quality of time spent with the child. Allow each child the opportunity to have that alone time with a parent(s).
  7. Find creative ways to express your love to each child using their love languages. Gary Chapman talks about the Five Love Languages in his book, “The five love languages of Children”

How does a parent identify the multiple needs arising at once? A good starting point is maintaining calm and collected. Children need to feel safe when learning new behaviors and learn how to self-regulate by observing their parent’s own way of regulating their own emotions.  Self-regulation can look very different for each child and depending on their developmental stage and abilities.  For example, one child may need a lot of reassurance through physical touch (hand on his back, hugs etc). While the other child may require less physical affection and more personal space.  Once the individual needs are met both siblings may be more open to learning a new behavior that can strengthen the sibling relationship.  Hitting is a common behavior amongst siblings especially in early childhood. When children do not have sufficient language they may experiment with hitting their sibling to get their point across.  The timing of when the parent intervenes is crucial because it creates an opportunity to learn and shape the behavior.  In order for the parent to identify the immediate need they must attempt to look through the eyes of their children and meet the need as quickly as possible.  When children do not have the words to fully express the need it takes some practice and lots of patience for the parent to facilitate the learning experience. The next step in identifying the need is putting on those mommy/ daddy goggles.  Every parent has one of these in his or her toolbox of parenting.  Once the goggles are on one can see that the child that has been hit may need to feel safe so removing the object/person that has just struck him/her.  They need to feel that they are no longer in danger and that what just happened is not normal and should not continue to happen.  The child hitting should immediately be taught that their way of expressing through violence is not ok.  This is why utilizing spanking and yelling is not a recommended form of punishment.  Trying to correct violence with utilizing violence shifts the focus to fear of punishment rather than learning the behavior that needs to be corrected.  The child who has committed the act of hitting now needs a new skill to replace the unwanted behavior of hitting.  That behavior may be utilizing their words. The parent can verbalize simple phrases for the child like “I’m not done” “not yet” etc. depending on the reason which fueled the behavior of hitting.  Another new behavior is to have the child that has just hit their sibling offer an apology to their sibling for their choice of expression by either hugging or kissing their sibling or saying “I’m sorry”.  With younger children the parent must make this a routine. Creating this process, a routine the child can become familiar with the multiple steps that are needed in establishing safety again and correcting their behavior.  The parent must be that strong figure for their child to help them make the right decision in choosing the desirable behavior.  In early childhood it may be teaching those desired outcomes of sharing and respecting personal space, which are transferred to many skills that they will need to learn throughout their development. This process requires a lot of love, patience and understanding in strengthening the parent to child relationship. Below are behavioral modification techniques that can be a good way to re direct behavior. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Registered Play Therapist, Sarah Harris points out the importance of recognizing that every behavior serves a purpose and behind every negative behavior is an unmet need. She emphasizes the importance of validating a child’s feelings before implementing limits and consequences. Below are some behavioral modification techniques to utilize once the child’s needs are identified and met.

 Catch them being good

This is a term that is often used in behavioral modification techniques.  In order to replace the un-wanted behavior the time energy and focus has to be shifted to the desirable behavior.  I noticed that arguing amongst my children usually increased when I was in the kitchen preparing a meal.  Even though it’s steps away and without any walls to separate us they were protesting that shift in focus and were letting me know by bringing back the focus on them usually in a negative way such as fighting. I attempted a different approach, which would break away from the usual pattern and began reflecting back the positive behaviors. “Good sharing, you guys are playing so nicely, I see your playing together” the focus was now on their good behavior and we were not falling back to the game of bring back mom from the kitchen.  Another time I tried putting their favorite music or bringing out a toy they had not seen in a while to bring their focus on something that captured their attention.  I provide these examples to illustrate the concept of identifying the negative patterns we can often get into in parenting.  In order to not get stuck in these interactions one must first identify the negative patterns and find their own technique to break up the negative interactions.  If you want siblings who will respect, love and tolerate each other these skills must be nurtured together in the parent child relationship at an early age.

Time out techniques

Many parents have found time out helpful at different times of their child’s development.  Time out may not be the only solution and should be used in addition to other parenting techniques.  Time out is another tool for parents to utilize that can be effective when utilized correctly.  If Time out hasn’t worked for your children reflecting on why it hasn’t worked can be beneficial.  Here are some things to consider: Is your child understanding what time out is and why they are on time out?  Is the timeout time long enough or too long depending on their age?  Where is the location of time out- is it so far removed that the child does not receive the support from their parent on helping them regulate their emotions? Or is it too close to their play environment in which they are stimulated and it becomes a game? In early childhood utilizing time out for one specific behavior and being consistent on this being the consequence when the behavior occurs.  Instead of using time out for all negative behaviors it can be utilized for only one behavior such as eliminating hitting.  Especially with younger children this can help the child see the direct consequence to hitting and prevent the child from always being on time out. . An great book that teaches the correct way to do time-out is “1,2,3, Magic” Below is an example of one way to do time out. These are tool and a parent can decide if this is a tool they would want to use.

The counting method…

The “new toy” argument is a common argument amongst siblings, especially in early childhood.  Utilizing the counting technique teaches taking turns at an early age and provides structure to an event they may not understand or want to participate in.  Sharing is not a young child’s priorities and sharing with the other person who they have to share their parent’s attention with, is even less of a priority but it is a skill that every child must learn at their own pace.  In order to teach this skill during early childhood a parent must find the balance between teaching children that they can say “No, I’m not done” and learning how to share.  It is a balance between teaching children how to “own their own space” and be willing to give up what they have and share with others when they are ready to share.  The counting method works like this:

One child holds the new toy for a limited time.  Parent counts out loud the seconds the child gets to hold and play with the toy and then has to give up their toy to their sibling and the sibling gets the same amount of time with the toy.  The time each child gets to hold the toy will depend on the intensity of the argument between the siblings.  If the intensity is higher then start off with 3-5 seconds and switch a couple of times increasing the time as the intensity of the argument decreases. This creates structure and teaches young children the skill of sharing their toy with their sibling.  Once they understand the concept the counting can be eliminated.

Having a strong support system in general is important and it is especially important when parenting through the early childhood years. Every stage in a child’s life can have its challenges. A support network can be family, friends, mommy/daddy playgroups, co-workers and social media support groups. All type of support offers different levels of support. There are many parenting tips out there but many times talking with others that are going through similar struggles or can provide ideas can be very beneficial to overcoming obstacles in parenting. Parenting is never an easy process if the parents are in situations of high stress and limited support.  Seeking the support of mental health practitioner can be done as a preventative measure if the parent feels they have exhausted all resources and needing additional guidance and support. Mental health clinicians can also be a support when a child’s behavioral or abilities are interfering with academic and social success.


1 thought on “Preventing Sibling Rivalry During Early Childhood”

  1. I love this blog! It’s so helpful all of your tips are respectful and conscientious of the siblings personal lotus!


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