We all know that our children will most likely experience some level of sibling rivalry during their childhood. Can you create an environment, and solutions at home, that will positively impact and support your children as they face potential sibling rivalry while dealing with their parents' divorce?
The following are some tips that may help you assist your children:
Family Life as a Co-Parent
As a divorced parent, creating a supportive environment for your children can be a challenge, especially if you are co-parenting with an ex-spouse who may not be cooperative or supportive. Keep doing your best to foster a happy home life for your children. I know what you're thinking: What planet do you live on, happy home? Remember, you're writing to someone who has gone through a divorce, one of the most significant, difficult, devastating life experiences a human being can go through. Your home can be your children's peaceful place after busy school days, outside responsibilities, extracurricular activities, and upon returning from your ex-spouse's visitation time.
Most likely, by the time your children are in their middle childhood years, they will be spending significantly less time with you at home due to after-school activities, summer jobs, social outings, extracurricular activities, volunteer service time, etc. However, you can—and should—continue to be a major influence for good in their lives. They can see you as the one who provides them with constant assistance, advice and unconditional support, if you choose to be that positive role model for them. Our children then begin to mirror and reflect what they see us do and say.
I challenge you to watch your children's actions, and then think to yourself, What might I be doing, or how might I be choosing to act that is having a direct effect on my child or children? You will see it and feel it, if you give yourself permission to do so. It's all about being mindful and aware.
Sibling Rivalry and Co-Parenting
Siblings and their place within their family (oldest, youngest, middle child) have a big influence on one another during their childhood years. This impact can be good, or it can be bad. Brothers and sisters can be a source of real strife, or great support, companionship, and friendship. Work with your ex-spouse, and agree on positive ways to create a consistent, supportive environment for your children, if possible. Consider setting up a mutual behavior contract that includes fair consequences for any negative sibling rivalry, and positive reinforcement for good behavior you observe between siblings.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to communicate effectively and respectfully with your ex-spouse, your children will greatly benefit, and you will be instrumental in decreasing your children's level of possible anxiety, depression, detachment, or feelings of not being good enough or not fitting in; and you will also increase their ability to regulate their emotions and feelings, which will help your children to then communicate, interact with, support and respect one another, as well. Remember, they mirror what you do.
Reasons for Sibling Rivalry Between Children
Sibling rivalry can occur in any home. Siblings can quarrel and compete with each other, and fight for attention from you as their parent, especially if you are possibly distracted, emotionally absent, etc. Most likely, middle childhood-aged children will struggle to regulate their own emotions or feelings, especially if they feel tension or if you are absent or unavailable to them emotionally. There can be a great deal of competition between siblings, particularly if your children are closer in age.
Be aware that, as parents, we can negatively impact their sibling rivalry by being perceived as favoring one child over the other. Do your best to be fair to each of your children; they notice everything! It really is essential to treat each child equally and to "be there" for them, both emotionally and in person.
Setting Up a Behavior Contract for Your Children
Set up a behavior contract for your children to follow, including fair consequences for negative behavior or sibling rivalry, and positive reinforcement for good behavior. Establishing this with your ex-spouse is ideal, but may not be possible. It's okay—you can set it up for yourself and your children either way.
Choose two or three clear rules for your children to follow. I would suggest sitting down with your children to review consequences together, discuss and share their ideas, listen and give each other feedback. They should have a voice, and be involved in this important process. Of course, you have the final say, because you are the parent.
Your home will most likely become a more peaceful place for you and your children, which will positively benefit you all; and help each of you feel safer, more accountable to yourselves, and to one another as a family. You will know what to expect, and you will know what the goal is—to build healthy relationships with one another as siblings and parents; to increase emotional regulation, decrease anxiety, and foster healthy ways to communicate and work through situations.
Trying your best to be a divorced, single, co-parent is not easy. In many cases, you are carrying the responsibility of two parents by yourself, especially if you are not able to have a co-parenting relationship with your ex-spouse. By creating a positive home environment for them, you can actively support your children's relationships with one another as siblings.
Written by Lisa LaBelle, MSC, ACMHC
Lisa LaBelle, MSC, ACMHC, is the founder of Hope After Divorce, HopeAfterDivorce.blogspot.com, and HopeAfterHealing.com. She is a licensed Associate Clinical Mental Health Counselor. Lisa has a B.S. degree in Education and a Master of Science degree in Counseling. Her counseling work centers on families, individuals, and children experiencing divorce, grief, and loss. Lisa is a family and child advocate, and a published author. Her work includes Hope After Divorce, Hope After Divorce Support Group Program, and Hope After Healing Support Group Program for Youth. She has been an educator for over 25 years and a divorce consultant for over 15 years.