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Children usually squabble or provoke each other for one of three reasons:

  1. To get more attention from a parent
  2. To get their brother or sister to be with them or play with them
  3. To gain a sense of power over the other child

Rivalry for attention

When the children squabble, parents intervene, often by getting angry and shouting or talking a lot to the children. This of course provides the child with a big load of attention – but maybe not for the sort of thing you want to give attention for. Some siblings may squabble with or annoy their disabled brother or sister, because they know this works as a way to get their parent to give them attention.

Change the focus of your attention

One to one time

Make individual time for each child, doing an activity of their choice with you.
For younger children this needs to be daily. It can be very hard to get the support to make time for this, but most parents find that when siblings get one to one time, that there are less squabbles to deal with.

Asking for attention

Show a sibling how to ask for attention when they need it. Tell them what words to use for when they want you to give them attention. Get your child to practice saying “Mum, please can I have attention from you?” Or “Dad, please can I have some time with you” A very young sibling can be shown how to use a gesture to ask for attention. Once you have told your child to ask you for attention, you must respond to that request when they ask. As far as possible, give the attention straight away – especially in the first few weeks of getting your child to do this. If you are really not able to give the attention, you need to acknowledge the request for attention and make a plan with your child to give him or her attention at a later time that day. “I like it that you have asked me to help you/be with you – I want to do this with you as I know it’s really important to you. There are 5 minutes now before tea. Or, after tea, I will be able to spend a much longer time doing this with you. Do you want to do a small bit now with me, or do it all after tea?”
By listening to what your child wants and discussing it, you are giving attention immediately, and then you are letting the child know that they will get more attention from you later. Make sure that you will be able to give your time before you make any promises.

Avoid comparisons

Avoid making comparisons between the children. Never praise siblings in comparison to their disabled brother or sister. This can either make the sibling feel under pressure to be better or can make the sibling feel superior to his or her disabled brother or sister. Don’t compare the disabled child as being better or more ‘special’ than the sibling. Instead, talk with your children about their own individual talents and how they are developing their skills in these areas.

Reinforce positive play

Reinforce times when your children are playing together well or just being together harmoniously. Look out for times when the children are playing well together or getting along well and then go and get involved with them. Some examples:

  • Let them see that they can have your attention when things are going well.
  • Show interest in what they are doing and tell them that they are playing well together.
  • Tell a sibling that he/she has shown good self control by keeping hands away from the other child (not pinching, hitting etc).
  • Ask the children if you can join in as it looks like fun.
  • Take a photo and put it on the fridge so they have a reminder of playing well together 

Rivalry for companionship

Sometimes the cause of sibling rivalry is when a child is trying to get their brother or sister to interact, play or pay attention to them. Some children don’t know how to get a brother or sister involved and this can be the case for both the sibling and the disabled child. Squabbling or damaging toys can end up being the only way a child has to get the other child to interact with them.

Reduce squabbling

Find other friends

Find other friends for both children to play with so that the sibling does not have to be the only person for your disabled child to play with, and so that your sibling child has other companions to play with to match his/her abilities and needs.

Structure the environment

Structure the environment at home so that you create more chances of successful interaction between your children. Put out toys that you know both/all children like to play with together; stuff that you know can be shared – for example a big pile of cardboard boxes that can be stacked, crawled into, used as cars, can be drawn on, etc. If you can, give each child his/her own space in the room to do their own thing side by side, but without getting in each other’s way.

Show how to interact

Teach your children how to interact with each other. This includes things like:

  • Having a set time of day which is for playing together
  • Teaching siblings ways that their brother or sister can join in a game to their best ability – siblings are often very imaginative about coming up with ideas for this
  • Teaching your disabled child ways to play or take part in a game.
  • Showing your children ways to communicate that they want to do something with the other child – using words or signs or pictures
  • Helping your children learn to recognise whether another child is enjoying or not liking an activity – through identifying facial expressions, sounds, or gestures.
  • Notice when they do play or interact well together and reward that behaviour through an affectionate hug, or a positive statement “That looks like fun”, or through joining in with them.

Rivalry for power

Sometimes siblings fight in order to feel powerful and to see how much power they have over another child. A child with a learning disability may not have any other way of experiencing power except by pushing his brother or sister. A sibling may exert her power over her physically disabled brother or sister by deliberately putting a toy out of reach. Or by getting a younger child to do something wrong that will get him or her into trouble.

Rebalance the power

Avoid blame

Help the children sort things out without blaming one of them. It is very hard to really know what happened when you were out of the room. When you blame one child without knowing all the facts, you run the risk of that child feeling picked on. It can also make things worse if one child knows he/she can get the other into trouble by starting a squabble. Instead of blaming ask ‘What do we need to do so everyone can have a nice time?’

Other ways to feel in control

Help the children find other ways to feel they have power. Some things you can say to them are:

  • ‘You can ask your brother for what you want’
  • ‘You can come and tell me if you want your brother to do something’
  • ‘You don’t have to hurt or be nasty to your sister if you want something’

Some things you can get them to do:

  • Show them how they can use their body strength for games and physical activities
  • Get them to come up with other ideas for how to solve problems between each other – this gives them a sense of being in control
  • Show them how they can use their skills and power to teach their brother or sister how to take part in a game or activity that both will enjoy 

Have rules

Have some rules about things that regularly cause squabbles. Sometimes there are things that are always a source of conflict, for example how long someone can play on the swing. A child with a learning disability may find it easier to get off the swing when the timer bleeps after 15 minutes, rather than when their sibling tells them too. So you have a family rule of taking turns on the swing –  if someone else wants it you have to get off when the timer bleeps. This can also take away the need for the sibling to exert their power over their brother or sister, and vice versa.