As most parents know, siblings don’t always get along. If you have more than one child, chances are you’ve had to break up bickering or fighting between your children.

Sibling rivalry — that verbal and physical sparring between brothers and sisters — can leave parents exhausted and frustrated. It happens even in the most loving families. And it isn’t fun for the kids, either.

But parents aren’t helpless in these situations. There are things you can do to keep the peace and intervene when situations get out of hand.

Why Sibling Rivalry Happens

Sibling rivalry happens because children are competing for their parents’ love and attention. In some cases, jealousy and competition happen before the second child is even born. Think of the firstborn child who cries or gets angry when you tell them they’ll soon have a baby brother or sister.

Certain situations can increase the likelihood of rivalry between siblings. These include:

  • Age. Younger children may refuse to share toys. Tweens can get frustrated that younger children don’t have as many rules. Teens want their space and independence and can get easily annoyed with their siblings.
  • Position in family. Children closer in age tend to get into more arguments with one another. Older children may resent taking care of younger siblings. Middle children can feel ignored.
  • Family dynamics. Children whose parents have divorced can act out to get attention from one or both parents. It’s also common for step siblings who live with one another to engage in infighting.

Though it’s frustrating to deal with, rivalry between siblings serves a developmental purpose known as differentiation. Through their interaction and competition with siblings, they are trying to figure out who they are and what makes them special.

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Signs of Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry doesn’t mean your children never get along. It’s normal for brothers and sisters to argue or annoy each other from time to time.

Siblings who compete for your attention will often engage in:

  • Name calling.
  • Bickering and arguing with each other.
  • Hitting or poking each other.
  • Breaking or hiding something that belongs to the other child.
  • Telling on each other.
  • Lying about something the other child did or said.
  • Engaging in other immature behavior.

A bit of infighting between children is healthy. But sibling rivalry can cross a line. If the rivalry becomes verbally or physically abusive, or if these situations never stop, it’s time to seek professional medical help.

Preventing and Handling Sibling Rivalry

How you treat your children can impact how they get along with one another. To avoid sparking sibling rivalry and help children resolve conflicts, follow these tips:

  • Avoid comparing your children. Don’t use one child’s academic or athletic strengths to motivate another child. Instead, focus on the unique strengths of each child.
  • Don’t choose favorites. You may have more in common with one child. But it’s important to value and celebrate the interests of each of your children.
  • Help children to settle their differences. Avoid choosing sides in arguments.
  • Practice compassionate discipline. Don’t punish children in front of siblings, which could cause feelings of shame. If one child is clearly in the wrong, take them aside to talk about their behavior.
  • Show your love. Spend quality time with each child separately. Do things they like to do and ask them about their day.
  • Find ways to come together. Think back on times when everyone gets along. Maybe it’s a family movie or board game night.
  • Anticipate conflict. For example, if long car rides are difficult, try to come up with solutions before starting the road trip.
  • Don’t give your children labels or nicknames. Calling one child “smart” or a “natural athlete” can make the other child feel less than. Avoid using negative labels, such as “the difficult one.” Praise a child’s individual effort instead.
  • Let your children vent. Sometimes children just need their parents to listen without judgment. Childhood has a lot of frustrations, including dealing with siblings, so take the time to listen to help them through it.
Sources

How to Handle & Manage Sibling Rivalry. Child Development Institute. Link.

Jessica Grose. The Psychology Behind Sibling Rivalry. New York Times. Jan. 13, 2021. Link.

Jeanine M. Vivona. Sibling Differentiation, Identity Development, and the Lateral Dimension of Psychic Life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Dec. 1. 2007. Link.

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