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When sibling rivalry causes problematic behaviour…

30 Sep 2015

When sibling rivalry causes problematic behaviour

Retired Principal, Mrs Jenny Yeo, shares how sibling rivalry can be the cause of a child’s misbehaviour.


A mother of a Primary Two student came to see me in exasperation and said, “Mrs Yeo, I don’t know what to do, the only thing I can think of is to transfer Taylor to another school.”

I advised her to take a step back and proposed that we find the root of the problem. She was at her wit’s end because she had been called to school nearly every day for her son’s problematic behaviour, such as being disruptive in class and even punching his classmate.  When I found out she had given birth to her second child recently, I immediately suspected that Taylor’s behaviour was due to his struggle with this change. 

Sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters, which usually starts right after, or even before, the arrival of a sibling. The older child often becomes aggressive, “acts out” or regresses when he feels that he is getting an unequal amount of attention and responsiveness from his parents. 

Dr Becky A. Bailey, an expert in childhood education and developmental psychology, wrote in Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline that children of school-going age often complain about being unfairly treated. In this case, Taylor felt that his mother was more responsive and attentive to the baby and felt threatened. Dr Bailey says “the best kind of help you can offer is empathy”. 

For example, Taylor might not know a positive way to get attention, so he picks a fight and shows his anger at the younger sibling. His mother could acknowledge his frustration and express care and understanding by saying “sometimes being a big brother is difficult” or “it’s hard to share”.  When he acts up or behaves aggressively, she could say “you can ask for my attention and I will give it to you.”

I recommended that Taylor’s mother make a conscious effort to pay more attention to him while we do the same in school. The teachers were briefed and I appealed to them to think of different ways of managing his behaviour, rather than constant punishment.

A year passed, not only did Taylor stay on in the school, he became known in school for being a talented presenter. Whenever the school received visitors like ministry officials from other countries, he would accompany them around and explain the school’s programmes.  Many were impressed with such a well-behaved and confident child.

By giving him this role, we effectively distracted him and channelled his energy and focus to more constructive activities. The teachers gave him more attention by helping him prepare for his presentations. Furthermore, his outstanding performance earned him praise and attention, this time in a good way.

Taylor thrived and graduated with excellent results. Now he is studying Life Sciences at the National University of Singapore and passionate about marathons and mountain trekking. He also gets along well with his younger sibling. In fact, the brothers recently went on a trip  to Korea together.

Sibling rivalry can be destructive when not dealt with properly, so if you want your bundles of joy to get along happily, help your older children adjust when you are expecting another baby. The way parents treat their children and react to conflict has a big impact on how well siblings will get along, which in turn impacts how a child interacts with his friends in school, as well as how he learns. 

Here are some tips on tackling sibling rivalry from an article from the University of Michigan:

  • Favouritism is a huge no-no.
  • Each child is an individual, let them be who they are and enjoy their different gifts.
  • Help them learn to cooperate (as opposed to compete) and respect each other.
  • Teach them positive ways to get each other’s attention, like how to approach each other to play and share their toys.
  • Be fair; this is not the same as being equal.  Explain how the treatment for older and younger children is different according to their unique needs and reassure them that you do your best to meet them.
  • Plan family activities that everyone enjoys.