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Sibling Conflict During Lockdown? Some thoughts for parents

Irene Chait - Clinical Psychologist/Psychoanalyst


The global pandemic has been a stressful time, and has kept everyone stuck at home. What makes it worse for parents, is when children cannot stop bickering. Siblings, cooped up and frustrated, are fighting more than they normally might , and it often feels as if there is no escape. Children do not have their usual breaks from their siblings during school, sports or time with their friends. They may be worrying about when life will go back to normal. They hear their parents' stress and arguments about safety and money. They worry about getting  sick with the virus, about their parents and grandparents getting sick and maybe dying. With all this worry and uncertainty, children may become moody, sad, easily frustrated, or more emotionally dysregulated.

How do we handle these challenges with children? What can parents do to meet their child's emotional needs during Covid-19?

Parents can help their children by giving them attention.

Siblings rivalry may arise when children compete for trivial things, like toys or screen time. But they may be fighting for something more valuable - their parents' attention. It's not always easy to identify the cause of the fight. Parents could try giving children some of their time (without distraction) to see if that helps to diffuse the situation. Additionally, parents could try understand the needs of their children, by asking them how they are feeling. Are they worried about the Coronavirus? Are they missing their friends?  Are they bored?

In times of emotional stress, parents should avoid being too punitive or lecturing their children, they just need to listen.

Sibling rivalry is normal between children.

Siblings  often feel ambivalent towards each other. They love having a playmate, especially during lockdown when they cannot see their friends. However there can be a lot of jealousy between siblings, when they perceive one child getting more attention, more love, especially from a parent. It can be difficult to share parental love and attention, and some childen want sole possession of a parent.

Children playing on their own or with friends or siblings is important for their development and their socialization. Playing is ‘fun’, but it often ends in tears when it turns into a power struggle, when one sibling dominates the other, or one hurts the other.

All of this can get exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Parents can be proactive rather than reactive

Finding ways to prevent the fights between siblings can ease the stress for all family members. Parents can put in boundaries, have schedules with times for meals, sleep, home schooling, screen time, private time, and free time. If possible, it may help for children have a calm place where they can retreat if they are frustrated or upset, or just need some breathing room. There may need to be bending of usual house rule during this strange time, as the pandemic requires flexibility to allow for changes in schedule, and reduced opportunities for peer interactions. Parents need to tolerate this and remember children are missing out on so much of their normal lives.

Parents can include cooperative activities, between siblings and or parents in the schedule. Games where players win or lose together build social skills and encourage siblings to work as a team, and can provide an outlet for emotions.

Parents can be fair and give praise

Although it can be tempting to involve oneself in the fight to find resolution, it is important to treat fighting siblings fairly - with clear and identifiable consequences for actions. It is important to help the siblings make up after a fight, and to help them develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills when disagreements occur. Children should be praised for their attempts to sort things out amicably.

Parents can be  compassionate

Children are struggling  in Lockdown. Adults are often better able to understand what is going on and why, and they are able to communicate their emotions and needs. It is different for children – they feel the same emotions, but they do not have the same life experiences or the vocabulary to make sense of it. Often they express their struggle by acting out, and fighting with their siblings.

Sometimes the simplest approach is the best approach - Sit with them, listen to them, comfort them,  and give them a shoulder to cry on.

If parents cannot cope with their children’s fighting, or if parents need help for themselves, contact JPCCC: Tel 011 484 1374

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