6 Causes Of Sibling Rivalry And Tips For Parents To Stop It

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Sibling rivalry in families with two or more children is quite natural. But this does not take away from the fact that it can sometimes be unmanageable. The fight that usually starts when a new member gets added to the family can continue throughout their childhood. However, it may at times become quite extreme, and parents find it difficult to break the fight.

Sibling rivalry can be due to jealousy or a sense of competition among siblings. So in this post, let’s discuss rivalry among siblings, its causes, and how to deal with it peacefully.

Examples of Sibling Rivalry

Let us have a look at some common instances of sibling rivalry.

  • Siblings of similar age groups can argue over the simplest of things such as sitting in their place in the car, wearing a dress of a specific color, or having the last piece of a cake.
  • If a newborn brother or sister has arrived, the older child may feel left out and agitated as the mother devotes her time to the baby. Even the father doesn’t play the favorite games as he is busy too with the new member of the family.
  • In siblings with an age gap, the younger child may sometimes feel embarrassed or intimidated by the older sibling due to the difference in talents and skills. On the other hand, the older one can get jealous of all the attention the younger sibling gets.

Reasons For Sibling Rivalry

The reasons may vary depending on the age group of your children. For instance, toddlers who have less age gap between them (less than three years) are much more dependent on parents. They may, therefore, have a difficult time competing for your attention.

In older children, the competition may flare if they share common interests. They may compete to seek your approval and positive feedback for things they do at school or at home.

Let us have a look at some of the common reasons for sibling rivalry.

  1. Individuality or personality: As children grow up, they develop specific interests and talents. They may want to distinguish themselves from their siblings and compete to define their individuality or personalities.
  1. Attachment issues: Each child has an attachment to their primary caregiver and it can produce anxiety for that attachment to change.

Also, they may have different moods, temperaments, and adaptive behavior. For instance, if one of your children is easy-going and the other one is not, they may end up in a spat, or if one of your children is more dependent on you, then the other one may try to seek more attention from you.

  1. Different needs: Your children may feel that they are not getting equal attention. Based on their stage of development, children can make it evident how much they are ready to share your attention or get along with the sibling.

For instance, school-going children have a sense of fairness and equality. So, they might end up feeling that the other child is getting preferential treatment. Similarly, teenagers who have a greater sense of independence and individuality might not want to help you out with taking care of younger siblings or doing household chores.

  1. Inability to express: Sometimes, when children are bored, hungry, or tired, they may pick up fights with their siblings. They may end up hitting and pushing each other or yelling. They may not know ways to express their feelings.

Sometimes, children may not know how to engage with their siblings in activities or games and may be unaware of the positive ways to get their attention. So, they may end up fighting.

  1. Parents’ behavior: Children look up to their parents as role models. The way parents handle disagreements or confrontations may impact a child’s behavior with their siblings and friends. If you handle situations non-aggressively or respectfully, your children are likely to use the same tactics.

Moreover, how you treat your children makes a difference in how they treat their siblings.

  1. Stress: School-aged children or teenagers may experience stress due to several reasons. This stress may decrease their tolerance level and lead to fights with their siblings.

Besides, the stress in parents’ lives can also result in reduced family time. Children may miss out on the fun or enjoyable times, such as family outings or family meals. This may make them feel left out, resulting in sibling rivalry.

  1. Children with special needs: Children with special needs due to physical, emotional, or learning issues may need more attention and time from parents. In such cases, the other siblings may take it as indifference and act out.

Effects Of Sibling Rivalry

As children grow up, sibling rivalry is eventually resolved, and they develop a stronger or closer bond. Moreover, they learn essential life skills, such as sharing, cooperation, patience, and respecting others’ points of view and opinions.

However, extreme cases of sibling rivalry and aggression at home may lead to some health issues.

  • In some severe cases, sibling rivalry may disrupt the normal functioning of the home and affect a child emotionally, psychologically, or physically. This situation may require professional intervention.
  • A study assessed children in the age group of 0 to 9 years and youths in the age group of 10 to 17 years. It found that the children who were victims of sibling aggression were more susceptible to mental health issues, including depression and anxiety (1).

How To Help Kids Get Along Better?

You can follow these tips to avoid day-to-day conflicts in siblings.

  1. Define acceptable behavior: Make your children understand that yelling, pushing, hitting, slamming the door, cursing, or calling names is unacceptable. Discuss the rules with them and also the consequences of breaking them. This will help children to be accountable for their behavior and avoid unnecessary arguments about “right” and “wrong” doings. 
  1. Avoid labels and favorites: As a parent, do not play favorites. Do not compare your children—instead, celebrate their different qualities. Let each child develop as an individual. Discourage conversations that undermine them.

Also, do not label your children. Labels such as “he is a handful,” or “she is a wild child,” or “he is more active” make children assume that they are not good enough, and they may even stop trying.

Appreciate the talents and success of your children.

  1. Give children space: Give your children some alone time and space to do their favorite things. Let them have a corner in the house as their own protected area. If one child wants to play outside, and the other one wants to sit and read, let them have their “me” time without involving their siblings all the time.
  1. Teach cooperation, not competition: We sometimes unknowingly encourage competition between siblings instead of cooperation. Tell your kids to collect and keep their toys together instead of saying, “Let us see which one of you keeps the toys first.” Teach them to work together instead of racing against each other. 
  1. Help them to express themselves: Teach your kids to use positive ways to express their feelings. Let them know how to ask for things. Encourage them to take turns while playing.

Teach them what phrases to use, such as “May I please share this toy with you…” or responses like “I am still playing, but I will give it to you when I’m done…”.

  1. Maintain a schedule: If your children share toys, books, or television and end up having a spat, help them maintain a schedule when they can use those items. If the squabbling continues, you may take away that item. Make them realize the consequences of their actions.
  1. Being fair and equal may not always work: Do not let your children assume that everything will be fair and balanced. Sometimes, there may be instances when one child may have greater needs.

Being fair may work, but equality may not always work. Young toddlers or older children may have special privileges or responsibilities owing to their place in the family, age, and special needs (if any).

In such situations, you should be able to make them understand your choices and how they are best for them.

  1. Make time for the family: Plan fun activities and games and go for outings with the family. These enjoyable moments will bring everyone closer and reduce the tension between siblings.

You may also spend time individually with your children, doing what each of them likes. Take them out for activities they love or spend time reading with them at home. Make sure to bar calls, emails, or messages during this time.

  1. Identify red flags: Identify instances when conflicts usually occur—are these spats before meals, around bedtime, or before playtime? You may try making changes in some activities or schedules to avoid confrontation. You may even plan some quiet “me” time or other activities to ease off the tension.
  1. Hold family meetings: For older children, plan regular family meetings. These meetings may work well if you decide what needs to be discussed. Let each of your children speak, understand their problems and opinions, and work together to find a solution. These meetings can help them take on responsibilities and promote cooperation between children.
  1. Catch them being good: Parents should reinforce behavior that they want to have repeated. Notice children doing good things or when their children are playing well together. Support and celebrate those moments, activities, and events.

You may discuss events from past weeks, family issues, concerns, interests, new changes, or ways to implement the discussed solutions. You may also plan fun activities together for the coming weeks.

Make your children understand that they are in a loved, safe, and protected environment.

Dealing With Sibling Rivalry

It is not pleasant to watch your children fight. So, how do you deal with fighting amongst siblings?

The best thing to do is to avoid getting involved, whenever possible. You may get involved or step in when you sense physical harm.

If you continue to engage in such conflicts, it may create more issues. It  may give kids the impression that you will intervene in all such situations to resolve their differences. They may not even try to work it out themselves.

If you do intervene, it may also appear as though you are supporting or protecting one child more than the other. This may further increase tensions.

Moreover, the child who gets your protection may feel that he or she can get out of anything.

If you do get involved, be mindful of the following.

  • Firstly, separate the kids and send them to different rooms, if possible. Let the tensions ease before discussing the conflict.
  • Do not play the blame game with them. Avoid figuring out who did what. Make them understand that they are responsible for the situation.
  • Try to make each child feel that they should work out a solution that is a win-win for both. For instance, if they both want to play with the same toy or board game, they can play together.
  • Name each child’s emotions. Help them get a sense of what they are feeling and help them get grounded through breathing. By reflecting emotions, we help children build a vocabulary and move from blaming others to a focus on self.

If the situation gets so severe that it impacts your children’s wellbeing, causing anxiety or depression in them, or damaging their self-confidence, do not hesitate to seek professional help or counseling.

It is common for siblings to argue for the smallest of things. However, it can be difficult and frustrating for the parents. Fortunately, there are ways to positively handle such conflicts and help your children get along well.

It is important to remember that as children work out their ways through these fights independently, they learn valuable life lessons, including having patience, respecting others’ opinions, compromising, negotiating, and controlling their aggression.

Have any useful tips on managing sibling rivalry? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.


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sanjana lagudu

Sanjana did her graduation in Pharmacy from Andhra University and post graduation in management from GITAM Institute of Management. It was during her first job, she recognized her skills in writing and began working as a freelance writer. Later, she completely moved into content writing and began working as a full-time content writer. Sanjana's articles in MomJunction cover topics related to... more

Scott Kouri

Scott Kouri runs a private practice in Victoria, B.C. He provides his clients with a personal space to talk and share what’s on their minds. He helps them self-discover, change themselves, and grow in their space.  Scott provides general and addictive behavior counseling, CBT for anxiety and depression, among others. The early counseling sessions focus on reducing negative symptoms and... more