My daughters are 5 and 7 and I really want them to be close friends but they bicker all the time.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It’s not uncommon for children to bicker and it is considered normal as long as one isn’t being more abused by the other one in any kind of chronic fashion.
Relationships between siblings rise and fall throughout the years. There are periods of time where kids look to be very close friends, and then there will be periods of time when they are fighting like cats and dogs. Often this sister relationship smoothes itself out after college when both parties have matured.
In the meantime, for 5 and 7 year olds, it would be worth doing an experiment where the parent spends some one-on-one time alone with each child. Often sibling rivalry comes from the sense of not having enough time with the parent. Sharing a parent can be really hard on some children. So, if once every couple of weeks or once a month you can manage an outing with each child separately, it might actually reduce the tension between them.
MOLLY: What do you think about talking to your kids about how important it is to be nice to your siblings, and that you protect them because you are on the same team as your sister in life…?
MOM: Yes, I think that would be a good idea. I think that having a good relationship with your siblings is very important as it will likely be the longest relationship of your life. Kids might not see it during childhood, but it is up to you as the parent to sow the seeds of friendship and impart the bonds of family between your kids. When the parents are gone, the kids will still have each other for love and support.
MOLLY: What are the long term effects of sibling rivalry if it’s left unchecked?
MOM: When one child is traditionally the abuser and the other is the abused victim, the long term effects may last forever for each of them. The child who is abused is more likely to become depressed as an adult and re-enter abusive relationships; and the abuser often grows up to be a type of bully in their relationships with their friends, family, and colleagues. (“When the Bully is the Sibling” -New York Times)
I’ve known parents who have abdicated their role and responsibility in the sibling rivalry by saying that the younger child needs to learn to defend herself without parental intervention. I consider that a very big mistake because, left unchecked, sibling rivalry can persist for a very long time and take on a life of its own, and those siblings will never really be able to be friends. It often leads to all kinds of issues for the younger child in terms of her self-esteem and interpersonal relationships with others.
If you envision your children as friends more than competitors for parental attention, then be sure to lavish each with individual time and attention while intervening and correcting sibling rivalry behaviors when they arise. Never pit your children against each other; rather, encourage them to work together as a team to communicate and solve problems and you’ll lay the groundwork for adults who trust, respect, and like each other.