Sibling rivalry: How to end sibling rivalry [and encourage healthy sibling friendships]

Sibling rivalry is a topic that almost everyone can relate to, whether you're the oldest, youngest, or somewhere in between. We all have memories of fighting with our brothers or sisters over toys, attention, or even just breathing the same air.

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But while sibling rivalry might seem like a harmless, inevitable part of growing up, it can actually have long-term effects on our relationships and even our mental health.

So we are going to explore what sibling rivalry is, why it happens, and some tips for how to handle it in a healthy way.

What is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is a type of competition or animosity between siblings, often characterized by disagreements, jealousy, and conflicts over resources or attention. It can take many forms, from teasing and name-calling to physical aggression and sabotage.

Siblings may compete for parental approval or affection, fight over toys or possessions, or resent each other for perceived differences in treatment or favoritism.

How common is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is an incredibly common experience for families with more than one child. The intensity and frequency of sibling rivalry may vary depending on factors such as age, gender, personality, family dynamics, and life events.

While some sibling rivalry is normal and can even be healthy for children's development, it can also escalate into harmful and long-lasting conflicts if not addressed properly.

As a parent, it's important to recognize the signs of sibling rivalry and take steps to manage it in a constructive way, such as teaching conflict resolution skills, setting clear rules and boundaries, and encouraging positive interactions between siblings (we will talk more about strategies for developing healthy relationships here).

What causes sibling rivalry?

From a psychological perspective, sibling rivalry can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  1. Competition for resources: Siblings may feel like they're competing for limited resources such as parental attention, love, or praise. This can lead to feelings of jealousy, resentment, and conflict.
  2. Birth order: Birth order can play a role in sibling rivalry, as older siblings may feel threatened by the arrival of a new baby and the attention they receive. Younger siblings, on the other hand, may feel like they're always in the shadow of their older siblings.
  3. Personality differences: Siblings may have different personalities and temperaments, which can lead to clashes and disagreements. For example, one sibling may be more outgoing and assertive, while the other is more introverted and sensitive.
  4. Family dynamics: Family dynamics such as favoritism, parental conflict, or divorce can also contribute to sibling rivalry. Children may feel like they have to compete for attention or affection or take on different roles in response to family stress.

It's important to remember that sibling rivalry is a normal part of sibling relationships and doesn't necessarily indicate a dysfunctional family.

However, it's important for parents to be aware of the potential causes of sibling rivalry and to work with their children to promote healthy communication, respect, and cooperation.

So let's talk about how we can develop healthy sibling relationships.

How can I develop healthy sibling relationships?

A little background. I currently have four children, and people always ask if I'm crazy when I want more kids. And I guess the short answer is, yes, yes, I am. But seriously, I think one of the best gifts I can give my kids is their siblings. But I know know that it's not a walk in the park and that one of the hardest parts of having more than one kid is managing the relationship they have with each other.

Some days it seems like they wake up with the goal of destroying one another. But with the right approach, we can minimize the amount of sibling rivalry and help them develop solid, healthy, loving, supportive relationships. 

Here are the five most important things you can do as a parent to reduce sibling rivalry

Avoid comparison.

Comparing one child with another can cause feelings of jealousy and resentment between siblings. Instead, focus on each child's individual strengths and achievements, and celebrate them for who they are as individuals. 

It's so hard not to compare your kids to each other. But doing so pits them against one another. Instead, just DESCRIBE what you see, what you like or don't like, or what needs to be done. Keep it based on your observation of that particular child.

Things can't and shouldn't be “equal.”

Instead of worrying about trying to make things equal, it's more important to focus on what each kid NEEDS (nothing will ever be equal, but that doesn't mean it can't be fair). The last thing you want is kids feeling like one is the “favorite.” To avoid this, you need to provide for each kid uniquely.

For example, if one child is interested in playing sports and another is interested in music, it's okay to support each child's individual interests and talents rather than forcing them both to participate in the same activities.

Avoid placing kids in roles.

Sometimes, parents unintentionally assign certain roles to their children, such as the “smart” one or the “athletic” one, or even the “social” one or the “shy” one. But doing this brings a bigger divide because it can pressure children to conform to these expectations and lead to competition and resentment between siblings. Instead, allow each child to develop their unique identity without preconceived notions of who they should be.

Implement one-on-one time.

Spend quality time with each child: When parents are busy or stressed, it can be easy to neglect spending one-on-one time with each child. However, spending quality time with each child can help strengthen your relationship with them and reduce feelings of competition between siblings. This could be as simple as reading a book together or going for a walk.

Don't solve the problem.

As much as you want to, it's important to NOT jump in to solve the problem: When siblings argue or fight, it's important to let them try to work it out on their own before intervening. This allows them to develop problem-solving skills and learn how to communicate effectively with each other. If they can't resolve the issue on their own, then step in and help them come to a fair resolution that feels good to both children.

Okay, but they still fight…

Unfortunately, some fighting is inevitable, but here are some strategies to help them work things out independently.

  1. Encourage communication: Encourage your children to talk to each other about how they feel and what they want. Teach them how to listen to each other and respectfully express themselves. This is going to take A LOT of modeling, for years…it's not easy, but it's how they will learn to express their own needs and get what they want, without hurting their siblings (or others).
  2. Provide opportunities for cooperation: Give your children tasks that require them to work together, such as cooking a meal, cleaning up a room, or doing a puzzle. Making sure not to have them compete against each other is key.
  3. Establish ground rules: Set clear boundaries and expectations for how your children should treat each other. Consistency is key here. If children are older they can participate in coming up with ground rules; for example, maybe your kids like do more rough and tumble play (which is great!) but then one always gets hurt–have them think through that situation so they can game plan ahead of time for how they will handle the situation.
  4. Avoid taking sides: When your children are arguing, try to remain neutral and avoid taking sides. Encourage them to find a solution that works for both of them. It's important to show them that you understand how difficult the problem is (and remember that even though a problem may seem small to us, it can seem HUGE to them…) So you can say something like: “Yeah it's really hard when someone is using something that is special to us.” This keeps it neutral. You are see ing BOTH sides of the problem, vs choosing a side.
  5. Help them identify their emotions: Teach your children how to identify and manage them. Make sure you describe what you see vs what you personally feel. You can say something like, “Oh wow, it looks like you're really angry that Charlotte is using your truck, and you want to hit her with that block” (and take the block). This will help them express themselves in a healthy way and avoid escalating conflicts. It's going to take practice!
  6. Teach problem-solving skills: Encourage your children to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem and choose the best one together. Sibling conflict is almost inevitable, so teaching problem-solving skills is crucial.
  7. Promote empathy: Teach your children to see things from each other's perspective and to understand how their actions affect others.
  8. Encourage compromise: Help your children understand that they may not always get everything they want, but that a compromise can be reached that benefits both parties.
  9. Let them work it out: Give your children the space and time to work out their own disagreements. This can be difficult for parents, but it allows children to learn important conflict-resolution skills. Make sure you express confidence that they will be able to work it out on their own. If they are younger, you can prompt them with something like, “Hmmm I think you guys can figure this out together. Maybe Charlotte will play with the truck, and you can play with [insert some other popular toy], and then you guys can switch?” This helps them start thinking about how they can work it out (eventually without you!)
  10. Walk away. Kids will work things out MUCH better on their own. If they aren't hurting each other, let them work it out. If it sounds like it's getting too rough, I will usually say, “It sounds like people are angry. Do you need me to come in there, or can you figure it out yourselves?” More often than not, they want to figure it out themselves.
  11. Praise positive behavior: When your children do work things out on their own, praise them for their cooperation and problem-solving skills. This will encourage them to continue working together in the future.

Obviously, if kids have good feelings towards each other, it will be MUCH easier for them to settle disagreements because they will want to get back to the positive relationship vs. harping on the bad.

Here are a couple of more non-traditional tips for building those positive sibling vibes

  • Let them overhear you talk about how great they are as a team. “Wow, today Henry was teaching Charlotte to draw a face, and Charlotte was helping Henry mix all the paints. They were really creating some great art together!”
  • Direct them to ask for help from each other vs. you.
  • Instead of having them compete against each other as in “who can get upstairs to brush teeth the fastest” (which pits one against the other) it's better to have them work together against you or the clock. So say something like, “Do you guys think you can get upstairs and brush your teeth before the timer goes off? Or before I count to 30?” Something that gets them working AS A TEAM, not against one another.

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