How to cope with sibling rivalry

Squabbling siblings are all part of family life, but is there anything we parents can do to stop it?

Noreen O’loughlin, Anne Marpole, Catherine Craig and Elaine Luck
Noreen O’loughlin, Anne Marpole, Catherine Craig and Elaine Luck
Noreen O’loughlin
Noreen O’loughlin
Anne Marpole
Anne Marpole
Catherine Craig
Catherine Craig
Elaine Luck
Elaine Luck
Catherine Craig
Catherine Craig
Debate team

• Originally from Ireland, former  teaching assistant, Noreen O’loughlin is mum to daughter Eirean, aged eight, and son Daire, who is 10. The family has lived in Dubai since 2000.

• Anne Marpole is a lactation consultant and midwife at the Infinity Clinic and also runs classes for parents and kids on the arrival of a new sibling. Originally from South Africa, she has lived in Dubai for 13 years and is mum to Gavin, aged 12 and Nicole, 10.

• Catherine Craig is from New Zealand and has three children, Jack, eight, Alexandra, six and Lily, aged two. She is CFO of a construction company and has lived in Dubai for 10 years.

• Founder of PURE Fitness, which runs fitness classes for mums and mums-to-be, Elaine Luck came to Dubai three years ago. She has two children, Cameron, 11 and Rebecca, nine and is originally from Scotland.

What got us talking…

Are your kids comrades in adversity but sworn enemies the rest of the time? Or are they the best of friends and true companions? Perhaps they defend each other to the hilt at school but just can’t say a kind word to each other at home? Are girls worse than boys when it comes to being competitive? While every family is different, all parents agree that our offspring can be ghastly to each other when they are growing up. We caught up with four mums at Urbano in Souk Al Bahar, and talked tactics over tea and cupcakes.

Do your children fight a lot?
Catherine: They didn’t initially – but I’m getting it more now as they get older. And it’s really because they are a boy and a girl and they want to do different things, which causes them to clash. But you can’t expect them to get on all the time.

Noreen: You know that saying, ‘You can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends?’ It’s so true. I come from a family of six children and all of us have very different personalities. Some siblings you have more of a connection with than others – it’s just natural. My kids get on – but they argue at times too – and they need to do that. It’s perfectly normal.

I think it’s important to have sibling rivalry as kids because it teaches you how to get on with other people. You have to learn to fit in as a family. You don’t always get on with people in the work environment and sibling rivalry helps you work through those issues so you can cope later on in life.

Anne: My kids have a two-year gap and I’m lucky because they seem to get on really well. But we have a system where we use the calendar to make sure everything is fair. One day my daughter gets her TV programmes, and the next day, my son gets his. We use the same system for setting the table, who gets their bath first etc. And it seems to work.

Elaine: We use that too. We actually have a whiteboard by the back door that tells us who’s done what, otherwise we end up spending ages deciphering whose turn it is to do something!

Anne: But another very valuable lesson we learned was that you have to treat each child’s needs individually and not compare them. That has helped us a lot. Ultimately, they may be siblings, but they do have different strengths and interests, and you can’t always treat them in the same way. Acknowledging that has made life easier.

Did you experience much sibling rivalry as a child?
Noreen: Oh yes! But then I was the youngest of six kids. I had four older brothers and a sister, who was two years older than me. My sister was the daddy’s girl because she was the daughter my parents finally got after having four boys. And I came after that. My brothers took me under their wing and turned me into a tomboy. And I loved that! My sister and I used to fight an awful lot, over everything – but my brothers were the instigators behind a lot of it.

Elaine: My husband is one of six kids, and when we first met, we had this discussion about how we ate dinner. I’d always save the best until last, and he’d always eat the best bit first. And I asked him why that was and he said it was because in his house, if you wanted to eat the best bit, you had to get it down quickly or someone else would nick it off your plate!

Noreen: That’s so true! (Laughs.) You learnt to eat like this! (cowers over her plate with her arms around it protectively). I remember when I first brought my husband over to our house for dinner before we were married – and he was in awe. He nicknamed us The Mansons!

Even though I’m one of five kids, there’s a big age gap between me and my older siblings, so I had the best of both worlds. I got the big family get-togethers and older brother and sisters – but I didn’t have to compete with them for anything and I had lots of attention from my parents. I lived in this happy little bubble. Although the older ones did complain and said I’d had more than they had done etc, I never felt upset about it because they were right, I did have everything and that was great!

Anne: I have a brother who is 14 years younger who I never fought with, and another who is three years younger than me who teased me mercilessly. I think he was jealous because I was quite academic and he wasn’t – but at times it was horrendous. He had curly hair, and out of sheer frustration, I used to grab hold of it and hit his head against a wall! But now we get on like a house on fire and I love spending time with him.

Elaine: I was the jealous one. I was awful to my older sister, even though we’re best mates now. If she had boyfriend round I’d run into the room and shout ‘Bleurh!’ or stand in front of the telly deliberately so they couldn’t see it. I was the archetypal annoying little sister. At school she was very clever, sporty, and competitive. What I found difficult as the younger child was the fact that I wasn’t just Elaine, I was always ‘Josie’s sister’. I remember being made to play the same position in hockey as my sister because she was good at it. Ultimately, jealousy and wanting to be recognised as a person in my own right was behind it all.

Is sibling rivalry worse between children of the same gender?
Elaine: Definitely.

Anne: Oh for sure.

Noreen: My sister and I are quite close in age and similar in height and lots of people used to think we were twins, which I hated. There was always competition between us, and this got worse once we hit our teens. But she had bright green eyes and was quite ladylike while I was quite loud. So the boys would always approach me and say, ‘Actually, Noreen, can you introduce me to your sister?’ And I found that quite hard to deal with. I was always perceived to be one of the lads.

Catherine: But she could even have been a bit jealous of that – the fact that you were more sociable and accepted as part of the group.

Noreen: That’s true. I know for a fact that my sister was jealous of me too. At one point she tried to throw me down a manhole because she hated me so much! We’d compete about who was slimmest all the time, and clothes – ‘Do they look better on me than you? Does my bum look big in this?’ We used to do photographic modelling and there would always be an element of, ‘Well, I got a call today, did you?’ It got better once we left home.

Catherine: I think it depends on the child too, though. My middle daughter, Alex, has the kindest heart. She has never been jealous of Lily, who can be a real pain, although maybe later on that will change. The other morning I came into their bedroom, and Lily had climbed into bed with Alex. Alex had her arm around Lily and she looked at me with a pained expression and whispered, ‘Mummy, I can’t move my arm because Lily’s fallen asleep on me and I’m worried she’ll fall out of bed if I move it – but it’s hurting me.’

Everyone: Aaaw!

Catherine: Yes – my heart went out to her – because she’s only six and I realised Alex is kinder than I am! I would have just sent Lily back to bed and be done with it. (Everyone laughs).

What’s the worst thing your kids have ever done in terms of sibling rivalry?
Catherine: My kids are big on practical jokes at the moment. The most recent one is the soap on the toothbrush gag. Alex will say sweetly, ‘Here Jack, I’ve put toothpaste on your toothbrush for you,’ and he’ll discover that she’s put soap on it under the Colgate! (Everyone laughs).

Catherine: And Jack will come and moan at me about it – and I’ll go ‘Oh naughty Alex,’ But secretly I’m thinking, ‘Get over it Jack, good on ya Ali!’

Noreen: My son took an overdose when his little sister arrived on the scene.

Everyone: Oh no!

Noreen: He overdosed on multi-vitamins! All our relatives came to stay – and we were all cooing over the new baby when suddenly someone said, ‘Where’s Daire?’ I went to look for him upstairs and discovered he’d managed to get the child safety top off a full bottle of kids’ vitamins – and eaten all 100 of them!

Anne: What did you do?

Noreen: We rushed him straight to the American Hospital A&E and they made him drink charcoal. It was awful at the time, but now we tease him and tell him, ‘When your sister came along, you tried to commit suicide!’

How do you diffuse arguments in your house?
Noreen: Thankfully, we don’t have to do it very often. My husband and I were listening to my two the other day and they were saying things like; ‘When you did that, you really hurt my feelings.’ Now in my day, I’d have just punched my brothers rather than explain anything – but because of anti-bullying tactics at school, kids are told to explain their feelings rather than just bottling them up and getting angry.

Anne: That’s true. Acknowledging their feelings helps diffuse the situation. If you say; ‘I understand why that made you feel angry,’ it disperses the negative feelings. When kids are angry, they do imagine pulling their sibling’s hair or hitting them, because it’s difficult for them to handle frustration.

Catherine: I think humour is really important. If you can make your kids laugh while they’re having an argument – then it’s all finished in seconds.

Elaine: That’s so true. If mine are getting steamed up, I make them sit opposite and they have to stare at each other. Within 30 seconds, guaranteed, one of them will crack up laughing and the other will follow.

Once my husband and I were having a barbecue and the kids started bickering at the table. So after about five minutes, I just marched up to them, slammed the salad bowl down in between them and shouted, ‘Do you want more salad?’ They were so shocked they just burst out laughing.

Catherine: I started this incentive jar and every time the kids were kind to each other, we put a dirham into it. The idea was that eventually we’d have enough cash saved to go to Aquaventure. Only it didn’t work at all – and two weeks later, there was still only Dhs1 in there – and even that got taken out because someone was naughty! But you win some, you lose some!
Are you concerned about how your little one will cope with the arrival of a new sibling? Check out Anne’s classes at Infinity Clinic (04 394 8994). The next one is July 10 and there’s another on August 14.

Sunrise sessions are back at At The Top

Celebrate Opera Gallery Dubai’s tenth anniversary with Urban Poetry

DIFC’s gallery to bring a stand-out street art exhibition

Music favourite set for November launch in DXB

Ahlan rolls out lounge and meet and greet discounts


Follow us