Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters.  It is a concern for almost all parents of two or more kids. Problems often start right after the birth of the second child.  Sibling rivalry usually continues throughout childhood and can be very frustrating and stressful to parents. 

Fortunately, there are lots of things parents can do to help their kids get along better and work through conflicts in positive ways. 

Further, most likely your kids’ relationship will eventually develop into a close one. Working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person’s point of view.

What causes sibling rivalry?

There are many factors that contribute to sibling rivalry:

  • Each child is competing to define who they are as an individual.  As they discover who they are, they try to find their own talents, activities, and interests.  They want to show that they are separate from their siblings.
  • Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of your attention, discipline, and responsiveness.
  • Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby
  • Your children’s developmental stages will affect how mature they are and how well they can share your attention and get along with one another. 
  • Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to become frustrated and start fights.
  • Children may not know positive ways to get attention for a sibling or how to start playful activities, so they pick fights instead. 
  • Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this may subconsciously influence how the parent treats that child. 
  • Children often fight more in families where parents think aggression and fighting between siblings is normal and an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. 
  • Not having time to share regular, enjoyable family time together (like family meals) can increase the chances of children engaging in conflict.
  • Stress in the parents' lives can decrease the amount of time and attention parents can give the children and increase sibling rivalry. 
  • Stress in your children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.
  • How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along. 

How can I help my kids get along better?

  • First and foremost, don’t play favorites.
  • Try not to compare your children to one another. For example, don't say things like, "Your brother gets good grades in math—why can't you?" 
  • Let each child be who they are.  Don’t try to pigeonhole or label them.
  • Enjoy each of your children’s individual talents and successes.
  • Set your kids up to cooperate rather than compete.  For example, have them race the clock to pick up toys, instead of racing each other.
  • Pay attention to the time of day or other patterns in when conflicts usually occur. Are conflicts more likely right before naps or bedtime or maybe when children are hungry before meals?   Perhaps a change in the routine, an earlier meal or snack, or a well-planned quiet activity when the kids are at loose ends could help avert your kids’ conflicts.
  • Teach your kids positive ways to get attention from each other.  Show them how to approach another child and ask them to play, and to share their belongings and toys.
  • Being fair is very important, but it is not the same as being equal. Older and younger children may have different privileges due to their age, but if children understand that this inequality is because one child is older or has more responsibilities, they will see this as fair.  Even if you did try to treat your children equally, there will still be times when they feel as if they’re not getting a fair share of attention, discipline, or responsiveness from you. Expect this and be prepared to explain the decisions you have made. Reassure your kids that you do your best to meet each of their unique needs.
  • Plan family activities that are fun for everyone.  If your kids have good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they come into conflict.  It’s easier to work it out with someone you share warm memories with.
  • Make sure each child has enough time and space of their own.  Kids need chances to do their own thing, play with their own friends without their sibling, and to have their space and property protected.
  • Help your children learn to manage conflict with other children.

Be there for each child:

  • Set aside “alone time” for each child, if possible.  Each parent should try to spend some one-on-one with each kid on a regular basis.  Try to get in at least a few minutes each day.  It’s amazing how much even 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time can mean to your child.
  • When you are alone with each child, you may want to ask them once in a while what are some of the positive things their brother or sister does that they really like and what are some of the things they do that might bother them or make them mad. This will help you keep tabs on their relationships, and also remind you that they probably do have some positive feelings for each other!
  • Listen—really listen—to how your children feel about what’s going on in the family.  They may not be so demanding if they know you at least care how they feel.
  • Celebrate your children’s differences.
  • Let each child know they are special in their own way.

Convene regular family meetings

If you have older children, call a family meeting every once in a while.

The purpose of the family meeting is to recognize that everyone's opinion makes a difference.  The meeting allows the family to share their opinions, seek understanding, and find resolutions to problems. Family meetings help to build cooperation and responsibility, and make anger and rebellion less likely. Also, it is a time to share love, develop unity, and to build trust and self-esteem. The social skills and attitudes that children develop within the family circle are the skills and attitudes they will carry with them the rest of their lives

A family meeting is a meeting for all family members to work together to make family decisions. Parents, children, and any others who live in the home and have a stake in decisions affecting the daily life of the family should take part.  

To make your family meetings successful, establish some general rules, for example:

  • Everyone gets a chance to talk
  • One person talks at a time and does not get interrupted
  • Okay to say what you feel
  • No one has to talk
  • Everyone has to listen
  • No one puts anyone else down

It may also be helpful to set an agenda, for example:

  • Discuss family issues, concerns, interests, and positive events of past week.
  • Determine priority issue(s).
  • Clarify the issue to be discussed.
  • Generate possible solutions.
  • Determine the most effective solutions.
  • Make plans to implement the solution.
  • Plan one fun activity for the coming week.  

Additional resources:

Suggested reading:

  • Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, Dr. Laura Markham

Suggested reading for kids:

  • I Love You the Purplest, by Barbara Joosse. Ages 4-adult.  Two brothers compete for their mom’s attention and love.  She shows them she loves each of them for their special selves.
  • You’re All My Favorites, by Sam McBratney. Ages 2-5.  Mommy and Daddy Bear convince three worried cubs that there's plenty of love to go around.
  • Do Like Kyla, by Angela Johnson. Ages 4-9.  A younger sister wants to do everything like her older sister.
  • Sheila Rae’s Peppermint Stick, by Kevin Henkes. Preschool.  Sheila Rae taunts and torments her little sister and refuses to share her peppermint stick.  Has a win-win ending.
  • Naughty Toes, by Ann Bonwill. Ages 3-6 A gentle story embracing your individuality, helped by understanding and sensible adults.

Reviewed by Sara Laule, MD
Updated March 2017