Senior Psychologist, Family Therapist & Counselor
What is sibling rivalry?
Sibling rivalry describes the ongoing conflict between kids raised in the same family. It can happen between blood-related siblings, stepsiblings, and even adopted or foster siblings. It might take the form of:
• verbal or physical fighting
• tattling and bickering
• being in constant competition for parental attention
• voicing feelings of envy
What causes sibling rivalry?
Let’s be honest: Sometimes you feel like picking a fight with your spouse or partner, right? Of course you do! You live with them 24/7. Tight-knit family bonds are a good thing, but they can also breed a perfectly normal amount of irritation with one another.
The same thing happens between siblings, and because you’re dealing with developmentally immature little people, those irritations can be compounded by a few other factors:
• Major life changes. Moving into a new home? Expecting a new baby? Getting a divorce? These events are stressful for parents and kids alike, and many kids take their frustrations and anxieties out on the nearest target (i.e., their little sister).
• Ages and stages. Ever watched a toddler lay the smack down on their poor, unsuspecting baby sibling? There are some developmental stages when sibling rivalry is worse, like when both kids are under 4 or there are especially large or small age gaps between siblings.
• Jealousy. Your 3-year-old painted a beautiful picture at daycare and you praised them for it… and now their older sibling is threatening to rip it up. Why? They’re feeling jealous of the praise.
• Individuality. Kids have a natural inclination to set themselves apart, including from their siblings. This can spark competitions to see who can build the taller tower, race the fastest car, or eat the most waffles. It may seem trivial to you, but it feels hugely important to them.
• Lack of conflict resolution skills. If your kids routinely see you and your partner fighting in loud or aggressive ways, they may role model that behavior. They literally might not know any other way to handle their conflicts.
• Family dynamics. If one child has a chronic illness or special needs, been treated differently because of birth order, or had negative behaviors reinforced, it can throw off the way everyone in the family communicates with and treats one another.
Before you start blaming yourself for all the life choices you’ve made that have caused your kids to hate each other on the daily, take a deep breath. Siblings are going to fight, with or without your interference.
Your choices can contribute to or even worsen an existing sibling rivalry, but chances are you haven’t directly caused your kids to compete with one another. Plus, no matter what you do, you can’t stop it completely.
That said, there are parental behaviors that can exacerbate sibling rivalry. If you do any of the following (even unknowingly), you could be setting yourself — and your kids — up for a lot of angst:
• constantly praise one child and criticize another
• pit your kids against one another in competition
• assign specific family roles (“Julia is the math whiz, and Benjamin is the artist.”)
• clearly pay more attention to one child’s needs and interests
How to handle the fights
According to Nemours, when a fight breaks out between your kids, you should try to stay out of it as much as possible. Your kids won’t learn how to negotiate their own conflicts if you’re always interfering and playing peacemaker.
At the same time, your kids will only learn how to appropriately handle conflict if they see good conflict resolution in action (i.e., they learn it from you), and some kids are too little to navigate it anyway. Here’s how to model conflict resolution in the examples given in the previous section.
1 Keep things simple. Perhaps say, “Your brother is a part of our family, and we need to take care of the people in our family.” Remove your older child (or your baby) from the room until your 3-year-old is calm. Later, you may want to soothe your older son’s insecurities by giving him some one-on-one attention or encouraging him to talk about all the fun things he hopes to do with his baby brother as he gets older.
2 For some reason, the blue train has been deemed “better,” but it can’t be in two places at once. Your daughters have a choice: They can share the blue train or lose it. Calmly present this choice, and let them decide. If the fighting persists, simply take the blue train away. If they come to a reluctant truce, remind them that any continued fighting will result in all of the trains taking a “time out.”
3. At this age, your kids can take part in the solution-generating part of conflict resolution. Perhaps say, “It seems like you can’t agree on what to watch. Should I pick something?” When they protest, give them one chance to work it out themselves (i.e., splitting up the TV time between picks or assigning each person a designated “TV choice night”). No peaceful agreement in 5 minutes means no TV, period.
The common thread in these scenarios is that you, as the parent, are taking the role of sideline advisor, not on-the-field referee. When encouraging conflict resolution between your kids, it’s important to:
• avoid taking sides — unless you witnessed one child hurting another without provocation, everyone involved in the fight takes some share of the blame
• encourage a solution that’s beneficial to everyone, even if it involves some compromise
• set limits, like no name-calling or physical contact (“You can say you’re mad, but you can’t hit your sister.”)
• teach empathy, encouraging your kids to put themselves in their siblings’ shoes (“Remember when Patrick wouldn’t share his coloring book with you yesterday? How did that make you feel?”)
• avoid playing favorites, as kids will notice if you always baby your youngest or believe your oldest child’s version of the story
Remember, you probably didn’t cause sibling rivalry between your kids — but you may be inadvertently making it worse. Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to promote more camaraderie in your house.
You can’t stop it completely, but implementing these parenting strategies may reduce how often your kids fight.
• Forget what you know about “fairness.” If all kids are different, then how you parent all kids should be different, too. One child may need a different kind of attention, responsibility, and discipline to thrive than another.
• Prioritize one-on-one time. On a daily basis, try to devote a few minutes to check in with each of your kids individually. Then, on a weekly or monthly basis, try to spend some “alone time” doing a favorite activity together.
• Promote a team culture in your family. When parents and siblings act like a team working toward common goals, members tend to get along better and not compete as much.
• Give everyone some space. If your kids share a bedroom, designate areas of the house where they can each retreat to get a break from one another.
• Introduce family meetings. This is a great opportunity for all family members to air grievances, offer solutions, and work through conflicts away from the heat of the moment.
Your kids are going to fight. It’s probably not your fault, but if the fighting is excessive or truly disrupting household harmony, it’s time to take a look at how conflicts are modeled and resolved in your family.
There are often small ways you can adjust your parenting techniques to promote better cooperation between your kids. And if you need more help, you can reach out to your pediatrician or a family therapist for more tips.