Sibling Rivalry

It’s rare for a family with multiple kids NOT to have at least some experience of sibling rivalry.  Certainly in my house we’re used to the odd squabble (I use the word “odd” in its loosest sense) and I have to admit, I am perhaps not the most tolerant when the arguments happen.  Having asked my 11 year old daughter why she thinks she and her brother squabble – “I find him annoying and he’s jealous of me” – I thought it might be interesting to do a bit more research into the subject, why siblings argue and ways in which experts feel it ought to be dealt with – is there a more scientific method than just confiscating pocket money and sending kids to their rooms? 


Kids fight for many reasons – generally though, they don’t just fight because one toy is better than another or one piece of cake is bigger.  Instead, the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes such as birth order and family dynamics.   Competing desires for your attention and differences in developmental stages can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding and most of the causes of these, such as age difference or temperament, are impossible to change, which unfortunately makes sibling rivalry inevitable.  That said, just like everything else in childhood, the underlying reason why siblings fight is that they need to learn something.  So what are they learning as part of the fighting process? 

Siblings are of equal status when it comes to the love of their parents and the rules that govern life in their family.  Teaching each other tolerance, and “give and take” (even when they don’t want to!) is a great exercise in learning to love someone even when they don’t like what the person did.  Your child’s relationship with their siblings acts as their first opportunity to develop skills such as kindness, tolerance, patience and most of all, conflict resolution.

As a parent, our initial instincts tend to be to try to stop the fighting.  However experts suggest that it may make sense to switch the focus from stopping the fighting (which after all teaches valuable skills) to stopping the rivalry.  The rivalry is the thing that can cause lifelong damage between siblings. Below are some tips from childhood development specialists (including Sharon Silver, author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding”, Dr Sigmund Norr from the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital and on making the switch from stopping the fighting to tackling the cause of the problem and stopping the rivalry:

1.     Stay calm, quiet and in control: pay attention to what your kids are doing so you can intervene before a situation escalates.  Keep your cool and your kids will learn to do the same.

2.     Remember that it takes two to tangle: rarely will you witness all the events leading up to the fight – avoid playing the blame game.

3.     Don’t be judge and jury: most parents feel the urge to try to step in and help resolve issues.  The problem with this is that kids don’t learn how to resolve things themselves.  When a parent decides who is right and who is wrong and what should be done about that then one child will feel angry and the other will feel like a winner.  They are not working together to practice the resolution skills they need to develop in order to be successful in later life.

4.     Be a facilitator: to get your kids to be on the same team you need to help facilitate and help guide them towards resolution of their own fights.  In order to do this you need to teach them how to express the feelings that motivated the fight in the first place.  For example “Sophie, why are you angry?  Please give me 3 ideas you think will help work this out” – ask both children the same questions and treat them fairly.  Listen when they talk through the feelings that motivated the fight – they will most likely be frustrated and emotional at this stage, and whilst this is no excuse for negative or aggressive behavior, children will be more likely to cooperate if they feel they are being heard.

5.     Explain that we don’t hurt those we love.

6.     Don’t compare your kids: comparing kids does not make them rise up and work harder – it makes them feel resentment and lack of self worth.  Rather, create opportunities for cooperation and compromise.  Bear in mind that how parents interact with each other sets an example for how their children interact, so don’t forget to set a good example!

7.     Focus on each child’s unique talents: help create high self-esteem in your kids by using “specific praise” – ie focused on their unique talents – rather than global praise.  Avoid labels / pigeonholing and let each child know that he / she is special to you by spending time with them individually.

8.     If a spat between the siblings results in the need for punishment, avoid making the conversation public: this can shame a child in front of their siblings, creating greater animosity between them. 


When you’re in the midst of the battlezone it’s easy to feel that it’s only your kids who fight like cat and dog.  Take comfort from the fact that it’s an inevitable part of growing up for children who have siblings and it teaches them valuable skills that will be very useful to them in later life.  There is nothing you can do as a parent to completely remove normal sibling rivalry and jealousy from your kids’ lives.  What you can do though, is to make sure that there’s enough love and positive reinforcement for each of your children, whilst at the same time setting limits on the amount of chaos that ensues from this bickering behavior.  Remember that in time, things usually settle down.  Your children will most likely continue to squabble from time-to-time, but eventually you will start to see signs of bonding between them. 




Sharon Silver, author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding”

Dr Sigmund Norr from the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital

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