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Sibling rivalry intensifies in close quarters

Two brothers, baby and toddler, playing on the floor.

Recently, I was sitting at my friend’s house while she was working from home. The mother of two young children, she sat on the couch with a laptop, surrounded by everything that would have normally been on her desk at work.

“Honey, can you hand Mommy her phone on the counter?” She pointed and asked her older toddler. Just then, a flash of color flew by.

“Me get!” screamed her younger toddler, as she ran toward the counter.  

With that, the war began. Pulling, name calling, crying and yelling all ensued in a matter of seconds.

Sibling rivalry has always been a real thing, but rivalry in times of COVID-19 and close quarters has turned many parents’ living rooms into a battlefield. With kids at home full-time, parents at home working and the heat outside soaring higher and higher, stress for parents is at an all-time high. I know. I’ve been in the trenches. So here are a few tips to help keep the rivals at bay.

Attention
When little ones fight with their siblings, it’s often over your attention. It’s hard to imagine that in this time of quarantine, when you’re locked up together for 24 hours a day, your children would need more attention, but it’s true. The best way to show each of them they are important is to spend some time with them individually, one-on-one. Some extra time cuddling in the morning, a game of Go Fish in the afternoon, or a special story time at night are just a few options for catching some quality time. These little spurts of your undivided attention will reduce their need to go to battle.

Good ol’ routines
There are a lot of changes going on for all members of the house. Little ones may be going to bed later and napping at different times depending on your schedule. Mealtimes may be ever changing depending on when things can be fit in with the running of the house. Kids get more agitated when they are tired and hungry, and fighting with their siblings increases. Although it may be hard, try and plan a daily routine, even if it is just for when to eat and sleep. Give them a five-minute warning when things are coming up. This will go a long way in your children feeling more settled and less combative.

Stay neutral
Remember, you’re Switzerland. When the rivalry begins, your first instinct as a parent is usually to rush in and break things up. Keep in mind that kids having verbal tiffs with their siblings helps to teach them essential social skills. Before jumping in, let them try and work it out and come to a peaceful conclusion. They may not be able to solve every rift on their own, but the ones they do will help them learn and grow.

Distraction
The art of distraction is a key tool in parenting toddlers. The same works when siblings are brawling. More than shouting, “it’s snack time!” or putting on a favorite movie, the best way to distract is to have a few pre-planned ideas of things to do when your kids go at it. Think of things the kids can work on together, like crafts or a puzzle. Changing the mood from disagreeing to working together may seem like a punishment at first, but it teaches them better ways to communicate, and that’s an important skill for them learn.

Sibling rivalry is not something parents can avoid. My friend ended the war like the perfect commander. She waited a beat until the phone was being used as a tug-o-war device. Then, she stepped in, took the phone and thanked them both for wanting to help. During times like these, make sure you are praising and reinforcing all the great things about getting to spend so much time together. That’s important to keep in mind, for your children and yourself as well.

Nicole Yezzi is an executive staff assistant at First Things First. You can reach her at nyezzi@firstthingsfirst.org

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