Handling Sibling Rivalry

The term sibling refers to children who are related and living in the same family. Sibling rivalry has existed as long as families. Think back to Biblical times and Joseph's problems with his brothers or of the dreadful time Cinderella had with her stepsisters!

It seems strange that whenever the word sibling comes up, the word rivalry seems sure to follow despite the fact that there are many solid sibling relationships in families (brothers and sisters who like and enjoy one another). However, it is the rivalry that gets attention the proverbial squeaky wheel.

What causes sibling rivalry? Think about it. Siblings don't choose the family they are born into, don't choose each other. They may be of different sex, are probably of different age and temperament, and. worst of all, they have to share the one person or the two people they most want for themselves: their parents. Other factors include:

  • Position in the family, for example, the oldest child may be burdened with responsibilities for the younger children or the younger child spends his life trying to catch up with an older sibling;
  • Sex, for instance, a son may hate his sister because his father seems more gentle with her. On the other hand, a daughter may wish she could go on the hunting trip with her father and brother;
  • Age, a five and an eight year old can play some games together but when they become ten and thirteen, they will probably be poles apart.

The most important factor, however, is parental attitude. Parents have been taught that they must be impartial but this can be extremely difficult. It's inevitable that parents will feel differently about children who have different personalities with differing needs, dispositions. and place in the family. Picture the age-old conflict of the young child whining. "It's not fair. Why can't I stay up until nine-thirty like Johnny?" Fairness has nothing to do with it. Susie is younger and needs more sleep. It's as simple as that, and parents are advised never to give in to the old "it's not fair" strategy. Besides, when Susie is finally allowed to stay up until nine-thirty, it will seem a real privilege to her.

Many parents feel that in order to be fair they must try to treat their children equally. It's simply not possible, and it can be dehumanizing If a mother feels that when she hugs one child. she must stop and hug all of her children, hugs soon become somewhat meaninglessin that family. When Susie has a birthday or is ill, she is the one who merits the special attention and presents. You can be sure that the other youngsters in the family no matter what they may say, recognize the inherent "fairness" of the situation.

Ever since we decided that sibling rivalry is normal, we've had a terrible time figuring out what to do about it. However, here are some do's and don'ts that may be helpful in dampening down sibling rivalry within a family:

1. Don't make comparisons. ("I don't understand it. When Johnny was her age, he could already tie his shoes.") Each child feels he is unique and rightly so-he is unique, and he resents being evaluated only in relation to someone else. Instead of comparison, each child in the family should be given his own goals and levels of expectation that relate only to him.

2. Don't dismiss or suppress your children's resentment or angry feelings. 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 furious with one another. They need the adults in their lives to assure them that mothers and fathers get angry, too, but have learned 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 ("I know you hate David right now but you cannot hit him with a stick"). and talk it through.

3. Try to avoid situations that promote guilt in siblings. First we must teach children that feelings and actions are not synonymous. It may be normal to want to hit the baby on the head, but parents must stop a child from doing it. The guilt that follows doing something mean is a lot worse than the guilt of merely feeling mean. So parental intervention must be quick and decisive.

4. When possible, let brothers and sisters settle their own differences. Sounds good but it can be terribly unfair in practice. Parents have to judge when it is time to step in and mediate, especially in a contest of unequals in terms of strength and eloquence (no fair hitting below the belt literally or figuratively). Some long-lasting grudges among grown siblings have resulted when their minority rights were not protected.

When One Sibling is Handicapped

Quite different considerations must come into play when there is a handicapped child in the family, especially if it is a youngster who requires a lot of extra services both in and out of the home. In this case non-handicapped siblings can be resentful of the time spent on their brother or sister. They sense the parent's preoccupation. They feel that often they are receiving only surface attention, that the parent is not really alert to their needs.

There is one critical point that should be made and emphasized in all such cases. Whatever time and effort is spent with the handicapped child, it is done with the goal of improvement-of making the young- better able to function independently. As he improves. the demands on his parents will decrease commensurately, freeing them to devote more time to other members of the family. It actually boils down to, "Come on, let's everyone help-and everyone will ultimately benefit."

However, there are other measures to be taken to lessen sibling rivalry and tension in families with a handicapped child. Every child deserves a certain amount of quality time with a parent. It needn't be long but it should be undivided. Maybe a short quiet chat before bedtime-or lunch at a special restaurant. And when one of the non-handicapped siblings is involved in a school or community function, the parents should make every effort to be there no matter how much advance planning is required. Should the handicapped child go, too? Take your clue from the youngster who is involved in the function-it's his night. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

When One Sibling Is Gifted

Different people, including gifted children, have abilities and talents in different areas. Talk openly about this reality with your children so they can begin to develop appropriate expectations for themselves. You can do this by comparing your own strengths with those of your husband/wife or other family members or friends. There are two important points to be emphasized: (1) Don't expect to be great in everything; (2) recognize and develop those areas of strength you do have, Help your children make similar comparisons among themselves in the hope that they will have greater understanding and respect for each other. ("My brother gets all A's in school but he sure can't hit a baseball.")

It's also okay to mention your weaknesses. This can be especially effective if there is something you don't do as well as your non-gifted youngster. ("I wish I could make brownies as good as yours.")

Above all, honesty and acceptance are the greatest consideration you can give your children when the ways in which they are alike and unlike come under discussion.

Some Useful Behavior Management Strategies

Common Mistakes Parents Make in Managing Sibling Rivalry

  • Taking sides such as attempting to punish the child who is at fault, usually the one seen pounding on the other child. (How long has this child put up with the taunting of the other child before taking drastic measures?)
  • Ignoring appropriate behavior. Parents often ignore their children when they are playing nicely. They only pay attention when a problem arises. (Behavior Mod 101 teaches that behaviors that are ignored (go unrewarded) decrease while behaviors which receive attention (are rewarded) increase.

Simple Parenting Techniques That Work

1. When the rivalry progresses to excessive physical or verbal violence OR when the number incidents of rivalry seem excessive, take action. (Action does speak louder than words). Talk with your children about what is going on. Provide suggestions on how they can handle the situation when it occurs such as:

  • Ignoring the teasing.
  • Kidding back in a way that is humorous.
  • Simply agreeing (in a kidding way) that whatever the teaser is saying is true.
  • Telling the teaser that enough is enough.
  • When these measures aren't working ask the person in charge (parent, baby sitter) for help.

2. When the above does not work, introduce a family plan to help with the situation that provides negative and positive consequences for all concerned such as:

  • When there is any fighting or shouting, all involved will have a consequence such as a time out or writing sentences ("I will play nicely with my brother).
  • However, when we can go the whole day or afternoon or evening (whatever makes sense for your situation), then everyone will earn a privilege such as (1) you can have a snack, (2) I will read you a story, (3) we will all play a game together, (4) I will play outside with you (catch, etc) or (5) you can stay up later. (Note that several of these provide parental attention for appropriate behavior).

3. Develop a system for evenly distributing coveted privileges. In other words, a system for taking turns for such things as:

  • Who gets to ride "shot gun" in the car. (It's amazing how many teenagers and young adult siblings still make this an important issue).
  • Who gets to push the button in the elevator;
  • Who gets to chose where to go to eat lunch or dinner,
  • Who gets to chose the television show,
  • Who does the dishes or takes out the trash (rotate on a weekly or monthly basis)

For more parenting techniques visit Parenting 101. For help in improving your ability to cope with the rigors of parenting we suggest Stress Management For Parents.

Yes, siblings ran create certain stresses but if they are overcome successfully, they will give your children resources that will serve them well later in life. Siblings learn how to share, how to come face to face with jealousy, and how to accept their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Best of all. as they watch you handle sibling rivalry with equanimity and fairness, they will be pining knowledge that will be valuable when they, too, become parents.

Useful Books on Sibling Rivalry

Siblings Without Rivalry : How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too (an excellent resource for parents)

I'd Rather Have an Iguana (for children 4-6 having to cope with a new baby in the family)

Birth Order Blues : How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order (The author raises parents' awareness of the impact of birth order upon children and suggests ways to resolve or circumvent potential problems relating to birth order issues).

Brothers and Sisters : Born to Bicker? (Teen Issues) (An intriguing entry in the Teen Issues series focuses on the interaction between brothers and sisters: ``The sibling relationship has much to do with how we feel about ourselves, as well as how we relate to others throughout our lives.")

Other Helpful Resources

You may also want to consider reading When Anger Hurts Your Kids.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 3). Handling Sibling Rivalry, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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