What is sibling rivalry?

Three young brothers, set aside their sibling rivalry, to pose for a photo in which they appear well-behaved.

How do siblings go from playing perfectly to fighting furiously, in a matter of seconds.

Not only is the shift quick and pronounced, but children seem to have a built-in timer — they know the exact moment you sit down for a quiet cuppa; that moment when you relax or when you want to make a phone call. 

It’s sibling rivalry, it drives parents nuts, and it’s inevitable if you’ve got more than one child in your home.

Sibling rivalry relates to an ongoing conflict between children raised in the same home and can continue into adulthood. Siblings don’t necessarily need to be blood related, either. Children and adults can feel like they are in competition with their step siblings and adopted or fostered siblings, too.  

There can be a range of reasons why sibling rivalry occurs, this could be the threat a child feels when a new baby is introduced, when children feel as though they are not receiving fair amounts of attention, and can sometimes relate to feelings of stress experienced by the child and parents.   

Sibling rivalry includes: 

  • name-calling,
  • blaming,
  • poking,
  • stealing things,
  • lying,
  • jealousy,
  • challenging a belief,
  • arguing,
  • simply looking at each other,
  • breaking something that belongs to the other one,
  • hitting,
  • throwing something at the other one,
  • hiding something that is important to the other one.

They may fight because then they:

  • get attention from you.
  • feel powerful.
  • get a break from boredom. Annoying a sibling may seem more exciting than anything else going on.
  • connect with their sibling.
  • get physical contact.
  • become the ‘favoured one’ in their parents’ eyes by making their sibling look bad.

Sibling rivalry can be at its worst when both children are under 4 years of age, especially when they are less than three years apart. Children under the age of 4 depend on their parents a great deal and have a very hard time sharing them with siblings. 

Competition between brothers and sisters can heat up as they grow older—usually at its worst between ages 8 and 12. Siblings who are close in age or who have many of the same interests tend to compete more. Home is a comfort zone, and children feel accepted and loved and naturally fall apart in ways they never would at a friend’s house or in school.

A brother and sister not getting along as a result of a sibling rivalry

As the younger child grows older and develops more skills and talents, the older child may feel threatened, embarrassed, or “shown up” by the younger one. This can lead to unnecessary competition or aggression from the older child. 

Meanwhile, the younger child tends to become jealous of the privileges his big brother or sister gets as he or she gets older. An older sibling’s competitiveness and aggression that arises as the younger one grows and develops can come as a surprise to the younger child and lead to returned hostility. 

Gender can cause friction. For instance, a son may resent his sister because his father seems gentler with her. On the other hand, a daughter may wish she could go on the fishing trip with her father and brother. 

Tips on how to handle Sibling Rivalry, without losing your cool:

Insist on a hands-off policy

When kids get frustrated, they’ll lash out physically, and it’s not pretty. It happens less frequently as they get older, and develop better ways of expressing themselves, but there they still slip from time to time.

Let your children know that violence is unacceptable. Praise your children when they solve their arguments peacefully. Reinforce this rule by saying “I know that you’re upset, but we never hit; you have to use words to let us know how you feel.”

Refuse to put a child in charge

Sibling rivalry is a natural consequence of birth order. The eldest is often the responsible, determined, perfectionist. The youngest is often the persistent risk-taker who constantly challenges authority. Those born in the middle tend to be stuck in the middle and often become the mediator.

Older brother showing anger towards younger brother

If your older child asks to be in charge instead of encouraging the natural consequences of birth order and family dynamics, say “No.” Putting one child in charge of the other doesn’t work until they have the skills and knowledge to exert their authority fairly. Instead, you can tell them, “You are both in charge of yourselves. You both know what’s right, and what’s wrong, and I trust you both to do the right thing.” 

This encourages younger children to take responsibility, and older siblings to accept the imperfections of others.  

Discover the power of one-on-one time

Spend time with each child. Being proactive about making sure each of your children gets enough one-on-one attention with you will go a long way toward ending rivalry. 

All people, including children, have a basic need to feel powerful. If we don’t meet the need in a positive way our children often resort to negative behaviour. Sibling rivalry stems from this unmet need for power and attention. Parents often unknowingly exacerbate the problem by labelling behaviour and taking sides. 

Give your children a little of the attention they crave by spending some quality time with each of your children, every day. As you become closer and your relationship is strengthened, so does their desire to please. They begin listening more, and battle less with us and with their siblings.  

Listen to their conversation

Sibling rivalry can increase maturity, enhance social skills and improve emotional development.  

Sibling rivalry in moderation can be good for children if it does not get out of hand – the more siblings argue and the older child puts the younger one down, the more they are learning complex lessons about communication and conflict resolution skills. It is an important development stage and can help children learn to regulate their emotions. Having said that regular arguments don’t make for a happy family life (or sane parents), and there are days when you just don’t want to deal with it.  

A stressed parent dealing with the consequences of sibling rivalry

An excessive amount of sibling rivalry and competition can foster resentment, anxiety, and low self-esteem in both children. Some arguments can be thwarted by listening in to your children’s conversation and stopping arguments before they start – for example by distracting them.  

Veto winners and losers

When there are arguments, even between adults, there are winners and losers. When the issue is resolved, one party is happy, and one is not. When children fight, and they appeal to you, they want you to take sides — each one hoping to be the happy winner. 

Support your children to express themselves with courtesy, and to resolve conflicts effectively but fairly. 

The key is to keep them focused on finding a solution and remember not to expect miracles – there is a natural inclination for kids to fight… 

Refuse to be involved

Sibling rivalry can create healthy conflict and lead to solution building and coping skills. Children can learn how to: 

  • deal with power struggles.
  • manage conflict and resolve differences.
  • be assertive and to stand up for their position.
  • negotiate and compromise.
  • help to develop their unique personalities

Stay out of siblings feuds. You may have to step in and settle a spat between toddlers or pre-schoolers, but older children will probably settle an argument themselves if left alone. If your children try to involve you, explain that they’re both responsible for creating the problem and for ending it. Don’t take sides.

A brother and sister getting along well together, have managed to resolve their sibling rivalry

Be calm and firm 

If they cannot come to an agreement be calm and firm and say things like:

“If you can’t work out how to share that toy with your baby brother, I’ll take it away until tomorrow.” Sharing means that they get it back and they usually work out a solution in order to do that. You’re giving them two messages: you expect them to be able to work it out themselves, but you’re giving them the unequivocal consequences that if they don’t, you will.

Do what works for your family

How you deal with sibling rivalry will depend on what you think works best for you and your family members.

As parents, our role is to make ourselves redundant. To encourage our kids to be as resilient, resourceful and self-reliant as possible.

Encourage their independence and ditch the role of referee.

Give them the opportunity to sort out their arguments themselves, whenever they can.

Start spending one-on-one time with each of your children, every day. A fifteen minutes story and cuddle can make the world of difference.

Don’t dismiss or suppress your children’s resentment or anger.

Contrary to what many people think, anger is not something we should try to avoid at all costs. It’s an entirely normal part of being human, and it’s certainly normal for siblings to get angry with each other and even fight. They need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry too but have learned self-control and that angry feelings do not give license to behave in cruel and dangerous ways. This is the time to sit down, acknowledge the anger, and talk it through.

For younger children, toddlers, children with special needs:

  • keep a close eye on them so you can step in quickly when things become physical
  • keep your serious, stern face on so they know it’s not funny
  • keep repeating “we don’t hit, we use our words”
  • let them know that you’re very disappointed in their behaviour
  • use calming techniques such as breathing to help them learn how to calm down

For more parenting tips and content:

Managing exam stress

Coping with anxiety as a parent

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