Family Fighting

Sibling rivalry is part of the process of individuation, says counsellor Alicia Boo. "It can be healthy. But only if there are boundaries set." Photo by phawellness on Flickr.

Marking territory (“Mine! All mine!”). Squabbles that escalate to fist fights. Quarrels that end in tears.

As long as there is more than one child in the household, there is a possibility of sibling rivalry.

Said Focus on the Family Singapore principal counsellor, Alicia Boo: “Sibling rivalry may become more obvious around the age of three because at that age children start to have a better grasp of social rules and family dynamics.

“It usually peaks around adolescence. However, infants as early as six months old can already get jealous and react when they lose their mother’s attention.”

In fact, “research shows that siblings can argue more than three times an hour”, says Boo. “Younger children fight even more, as often as once every six to 10 minutes.”

If sibling rivalry is going to happen and if it is going to happen frequently, what can parents do to convey to our children that, despite their differences, they are equally loved and equally valued?

Salt&Light gleans some useful tips from Boo and parents who have grappled with sibling rivalry in the home.

Different families, same issues

Nathanael and Elsa Lim: Parents of a 2-year-old and 7-month-old

Nathanael Lim, 35, and his wife Elsa, 31, are parents to two sons – Andrew, who is two; and Matthew, who is seven months old.

The couple plan to have more children.

“I want to have as many children as I can. I think if we have the resources, we should have more children. The more the merrier,” said Nathanael.

“He used to hate sitting in the stroller. But when we put di di in it, now he says it’s his.”

Probe a little further and he tells Salt&Light that maybe seven is a good number.

Said Elsa: “Seven was never on the table! I’ve agreed to four. I’m still on four.”

For now, their sons are too young to engage in much power play.

“Now, we have it easy because one is only half aware and the other is entirely unaware,” said Elsa.

“At the most, Andrew tries to claim things as his. Toys are suddenly ‘mine’. He used to hate sitting in the stroller. But when we say we want to put di di (younger brother) in it, now he says it’s his.”

The couple comes from considerably bigger families – Nathanael is the oldest of four children and Elsa has twin younger brothers – and are prepared to manage a large brood.

Christine Ong & Lai Chee Kit: Parents of 5, from 6 months to 13 years

Christine Ong and her husband Lai Chee Kit, both 46, are parents to five children aged six months to 13 years.

“We like kids and don’t mind having more,” said Ong.

“Number Two and Number Three fight about every single thing.”

But after her third child, Ong suffered two miscarriages and thought three were all she would be having.

“Then, after five years, Number Four came along. The fifth one was unexpected. I didn’t know I was expecting him.

Ong is familiar with sibling rivalry because “Number Two and Number Three fight about every single thing”.

“Number Three is mischievous. If you say ‘no’, he will do it. My second one wants to do the right thing. So, when he sees Number Three not doing the right thing, he will correct him and tell him off.

“As the older brother, he wants to discipline him as well. So, he will hit his brother and then they will get into a fight.”

Esther Tien & Laurens Lim: Parents of 3, aged 6, 9 & 11

Esther Tien, 41, and her husband Laurens Lim, 45, have two daughters aged 11 and six, and a son aged nine.

“Children are a gift from God. We will welcome them if there are more. We let nature take its course,” said Tien.

“We got a gift on behalf of the baby to jie jie and a gift from jie jie to the baby.”

To prepare their oldest for the new baby, they instituted a gift exchange. “We got a gift on behalf of the baby to jie jie (older sister) and a gift from jie jie to the baby.

“And we made sure she knew that we still love her and that there is no less love when there is a new brother or sister.”

By the time their youngest child arrived, their oldest daughter was five and old enough to be included in preparing for the new arrival.

“We got her to help me with packing the baby’s clothes and kept the two children informed about the pregnancy at every stage.

“You know, ‘Put your hands to mummy’s tummy. This is how the baby moves.’ It got them very excited and it made them look forward to the new baby.”

7 tips for struggling parents

1. Accept that sibling rivalry can be healthy

Sibling rivalry is a natural part of a child discovering his place in the family and trying to be separate from his siblings, said Boo.

“Children can learn important life skills through arguing with their siblings.”

Accepting this can help parents have a proper perspective of the competitiveness.  

Said Boo, mapping out the benefits of sibling rivalry: “This is the process of individuation – they try to find their own talents, activities and interests. Children can learn important life skills through arguing with their siblings.

“It’s a safe space to deal with power struggles, manage conflict and resolve differences, be assertive and stand up for their position and negotiate and compromise.”

2. Don’t compare

But sibling rivalry is only healthy if there are boundaries set, cautioned Boo. One of those boundaries is to ensure that there are no comparisons that can affect self-worth and identity, or cause interactions at home to become toxic.

“Kids are meant to be different. We need to give them the grace to be themselves and not make them feel like they have to fit into another’s mould.

“Avoid creating a performance-based system at home by celebrating every child’s effort, not just their results.

“Teach your children to celebrate each other so they don’t feel like when someone else wins or does well, it means there’s less of the pie left for them,” said Boo.

“Avoid creating a performance-based system at home by celebrating every child’s effort, not just their results.”

Tien is especially aware of this because she grew up feeling like she was being compared to her younger sister.

“She was better than me in school. It didn’t help that my parents were not very encouraging of me. They would say, ‘Wah, mei mei (little sister) is so smart’.

“It was very subtle but it can make you feel very down. In my heart of hearts, I felt very sad, ‘Why am I so slow, not so smart compared to my sister?’.”

Not comparing the children does not come always come easily.

“Sometimes, without realising it, I praise one child and say to her brother, ‘How come you are like that?’

“Then, when I reflect on it, I realise I shouldn’t have done that because, as a child, I went through the same thing. And I apologise to them.”

3. Spend time with each child

“Be intentional in sowing quality time with each child. One-on-one time is very powerful and helps every child know they are seen and heard by their parents,” said Boo.

It need not be long stretches of time – sometimes just 10 minutes will do – but it has to be regular and uninterrupted.

When Ong’s fifth child came along, she made sure her fourth child, who had been the baby of the family till then, did not feel displaced.

Tien notices that, when each child has had time alone with each parent, they tend to fight less with each other.

“When Number Four comes back from childcare and he wants me to bathe him, I will. It makes him happier.”

She has dinner with her oldest child, 11. This is their mother-daughter time. “She will wait for me to have dinner with her.”

Such times alone with each child can stave off the middle-child syndrome that arises from the middle child feeling neglected.

During those times with each child, Boo said, it is also important to ask them about their impression or feelings about the family situation and then to listen.

Agreed Tien: “When we are alone, they will tell me, ‘Mummy, I feel sad when you say this. I feel not loved.’ So, I apologise and tell them I will do better next time.

“Or they will complain about their siblings. I listen and, before I do anything, I validate their feelings.”

She told Salt&Light that just that morning, her older two children had gotten into a disagreement that escalated to “kicking jie jie (older sister) and tears from my boy”.

The siblings had been walking home when her son needed to use the bathroom. Though he had told his sister, she was walking too far ahead of him and did not stop. By the time the two got home, there was yelling and accusations.

“I punished him because we do not tolerate physical violence or name-calling. But I also validated his feelings, let him fry it out and offered hugs.”

Tien notices that, when each child has had time alone with each parent, they tend to fight less with each other.

Another thing she does is to speak their love language. “For the youngest, I pick her up from school. That is our one-on-one time and then we have a snack or read a book in the afternoon.

“For her brother, his love language is physical touch. So, I will hug him, kiss him. He likes it very much and feels that mummy hasn’t forgotten him.

“For the oldest, her love language is affirmation. So, sometimes, I will write her a note and secretly stash it in her pencil case so that when she goes to school the next day, she can read it.”   

4. Create individual space

Just as individual time is vital, so is individual space.

After dinner time is when Tien’s children have their alone time that their siblings cannot interrupt. “I tell the youngest, ‘You cannot force people to play with you. Everyone needs some time to wind down.’

“They already share a room. So, I have to carve out some kind of boundaries, even if it is limited.”

Boo marks out space on a shared table so each of her children has a zone to themselves.

“Our daughter, who grows up with three brothers, often goes into her demarcated zone to play with her own toys that her brothers are not interested in, or work on her bead crafts.”

5. Build bonds

Siblings need time together, too. Boo suggested family activities that everyone can be involved in such as game time or outdoor fun.

“If our children chalk up good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they enter into conflict.  It’s easier to work things out with someone we share positive memories with,” she said.

Ong lets her children play together at the playground in the afternoon when they are done with school work.

“If our children chalk up good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they enter into conflict.”

In the evenings, the family gather for family devotions. “Daddy leads these devotions. During those times, we try to stress God’s commandments to love and we stress that it starts with the family.”  

The Lims – Nathanael and Elsa – encourage their children to play together as well.

“Even though Matt is still a baby, we try to let them spend time with each other. We try not to segregate them too much,” said Elsa.

Nathanael, who is the oldest of four children, has fond memories of playing with his own siblings.

“We would do things like have pillow fights, which I would always win, but we found it very funny. We all enjoyed playing together.”

The bonds built have endured. Though two of his siblings now live abroad, they are still close. When his youngest sister came home from Australia with her boyfriend for a holiday, big brother Nathanael played host.

6. Make house rules clear

Setting clear rules helps to quell cries of “not fair”. There are rules that have to be uniformly applied but there must be room for age-differentiated ones as well.

“Parents have to define what “fair” means from an early age. We have to help them understand that fairness is more than getting the same thing.

There must be room for age-differentiated rules as well.

“Every individual is different and what’s good for one may not be as good for another. Part of parenting is learning how to call out the unique good and skills in every child and helping them see that it’s okay that they are not the same as their brother or sister.

“Teaching them this also frees them to be their unique self and celebrate others’ uniqueness,” said Boo.

Tien learnt also to revise rules that did not work.

“I gave my girl a handphone when she was in P3 or P4. I regretted giving it to her so early because I had a hard time setting time limits and controlling her use of it.

“Now my boy is asking for a handphone. I told him, ‘Your turn won’t be coming any time soon.’

“Parenting is a learning journey. When you make mistake with the older, you correct yourself with younger. It’s not about being fair.”

7. Know when to intervene

Ong and Tien believe in letting the children resolve their differences on their own.

Said Ong: “They like to watch tv together. So, I let them learn to negotiate which programme to watch.”

Apart from fighting over the television, Tien’s children used to fight over the “better seat”.

“We used to have this very small table, The longer side of the table was the most comfy and we gave it to the oldest because she was the biggest.

“Then di di (little brother) started to complain that it was so unfair. So, daddy decided to schedule it. One, three, five, jie jie (older sister) gets the seat; two, four, six he sits.”

Boo said that such intervention is necessary especially if there is physical hurt involved or if a child’s personal emotional health is affected. She offered a “continuum of fighting” as a guide to know when to step in.

Green light
Normal Bickering, minor name calling
Parent’s role: Stay out of it.

Yellow light 
Borderline, volume is going up, nasty name-calling, mild physical contact, threats of danger
Parent’s role: Acknowledge anger and reflect each child’s viewpoint.

Orange light
Potential Danger, more serious, half play/half real fighting
Parent’s role:
Enquire, “Is it play or real?”
Firmly stop the interaction;
Review rules;
Help with conflict resolution.

Red light
Dangerous Situation, Physical or emotional harm is about to or has occurred
Parent’s role:
Firmly stop the children and separate them;
If a child is hurt, attend to that child first;
Review the rules;
Possibly impose a consequence.

When parents do intervene, Boo gave some guidelines on how best to do it:

  • Stay calm and acknowledge the emotions they feel;
  • Ask for the facts and give both the opportunity to speak;
  • Help them recognise the emotions at play, for instance, “So when he did that, did you feel angry?”
  • Involve them. Depending on their age, this can be letting them choose the resolution or suggesting what can be done to avoid a replay of the same scenario.   

Salt&Light Family Night: My kids are fighting! How do I manage sibling rivalry?

It might begin with refusing to look at the new baby when he comes home. It could become a fight for mummy’s attention that escalates into a full-on fist fight.

Sibling rivalry. As long as there is more than one child in the family, there is potential for sibling rivalry. Older parents tell you it will blow over in time. Psychologists tell you it is normal and might even be healthy.

But, while your children are embroiled in daily squabbles, it can be frustrating and heart-breaking. How do you manage the bickering? How do you deal with the cries of “It’s not fair!”? How do you convey to your children that, despite their differences, they are equally loved and equally valued?

Join hosts Carol Loi and Alex Tee as they chat with their guests this month – parents with multiple children who come from large families – as they share tips, tales and authentic talk about managing sibling rivalry so that your children can grow up with a healthy sense of family and self esteem.

Date: April 27, 2021

Time: 8.30m-10pm

Cost: Free

Register at: Pre-registration is required.

About the Organiser:
Satl&Light is a Christian news digital platform where believers can unite in spirit and purpose to see God in the 9-to-5, to influence and to impact, to find meaning in the mundane and to wrestle with doubt and despair in faith – and find amazing grace for the journey ahead.

About the Hosts:
Carol Loi is the International Director of Generations of Virtue, a ministry committed to transforming culture, one family at a time. She runs a social enterprise Village Consultancy that provides digital literacy education as well as John Maxwell Certified training on leadership & family life. She and her husband are raising two teenagers.

Alex Tee is a former banker who left the corporate world to home-school his three young children. His deepest desire is to prayerfully raise children who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. He is part of the Elijah 7000 group of fathers who meet every Saturday at dawn to intercede for families and the nation.


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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.