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A Parenting Dialogue: How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry

by Vannessa Rhoades 03 Mar 2023
parenting dialogue
A Parenting Dialogue: How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry


I'm wondering how others handle sibling rivalry because what I am doing doesn't seem to be helping. My two oldest children (7 years and 4 years) are so mean to each other. They are very close, but this year in particular, it just seems like all they do is antagonize each other. It seems like my oldest now likes to make his brother cry all the time. How do you handle sibling conflicts like this without creating resentment? I try to separate them and give them individual attention. I remind them that I don't tolerate disrespect toward anyone, even their sibling. I listen to what they have to say without judgment. But I just feel like it's getting worse and worse. What should I do?

The New Mom


It sounds like they are bored and experimenting with tormenting each other for entertainment. Sometimes separation is the only way to peace, but they will need to work it out. Maybe you could bake cookies with them and set it up so that the activity only progresses while they are using kind words to each other. Expect it to fail a time or two, but keep trying, gently.

I think there are some behaviors parents can do without realizing that it causes conflicts between kids, like setting up competition between them, comparing them, labeling (the smart one, the handsome one), and a couple of other things. So looking inward first to make sure you're not creating any of that dynamic helps. 

I would avoid letting them "figure it out" on their own, though. They are just kids, and if they had better tools then they wouldn't be mean to each other. It can be very damaging in the long run, especially with one sibling being old enough that there is probably a consistent power imbalance.

-- Sarah, mother of two elementary-school children

The Experienced Mother

A: Our kids were generally pretty good about not butting heads while growing up. From the time they were little, we’d be a bit silly when they started to aggravate each other. We’d say something like “brother (or sister) is just trying to get your goat.” This did two things: helped them become a bit more socially savvy and helped to lighten the mood and distract everyone.

We also tried to focus on the cause and not the symptom of any conflict. Like, if we were on a long road trip and they start getting impatient with each other, there’s no point in hollering at them. Because the cause of their behavior is that everyone is tired, cranky, restless, or hungry. So we’d calmly remind them that everyone’s getting a bit tired and to try to give each other some space. And then maybe think about stopping or grabbing snacks or whatever to address the underlying cause.

If the cause was “scarce resources” (like access to a gaming system, time with a parent, access to treats), we tried to approach it from a perspective of fairness and how to help them find a way to both get what they’d like. Maybe it was sharing or taking turns or agreeing that one would forgo a toy this time but get it next time. They saw us as a resource trying to help instead of a judge that was going to swoop in and drop a hammer or take sides.

If their fighting escalated, we tried to keep parental emotions out of it. So when they were little, if one of them smacked the other, we’d just remind them “we don’t hit” and re-direct and move on. They’re just learning, so your job as a parent is to teach them what’s okay and what isn’t, rather than control or punish certain behavior.

Sometimes when they’re fighting, I think kids do just have to figure it out on their own. But as parents, we have to try to give them the tools to do that. Sometimes that means stepping in to hear them out and suggesting ways that they might be able to reach an agreement. For example, I remember one time when our kids once were arguing over some Star Wars toy. Eventually, they agreed that my daughter could have it until bedtime, and then she’d leave it at my son’s door so he could have it in the morning. They probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with that on their own if we hadn’t previously mirrored those types of friendly arrangements as a family and helped them navigate some earlier disagreements that way.

I don’t want to sound preachy or know-it-all-ish, but the approach we chose was pretty intentional after seeing some intense sibling rivalry dynamics that we wanted to try to avoid. It worked pretty well for our kids. They’re all grown adults now and still friends with each other.

-- Katie, mom of four grown children

The Pediatricians' Approach

A:Pediatrician Sigmund Norr, MD of the Cleveland Clinic says that understanding the causes of sibling rivalry is one of the first steps in making them easier to manage. Children don’t argue simply because one toy is better than another. Most fights arise because of family dynamics and birth order. Vying for parental attention and differences in age and maturity level can create misunderstandings and jealousy. This can affect their self-esteem and other friendships as they get older. Many of these causes, such as birth order or individual personality quirks, aren’t something you can change. This makes sibling rivalry unavoidable.

Fortunately, according to Dr. Norr, “there are many ways to minimize conflict and to maximize productive resolution. Start with small changes.” There are several ways to create a family dynamic that minimizes sibling rivalry.

1. Keep your cool. 

Observe your children’s activities so that you can jump in before a situation escalates. Model calm behavior for your children.

2. Foster cooperation. 

Don’t encourage competitions or comparisons between children. Encourage cooperation and compromise instead. Set a positive example by how you interact with your partner.

3. Appreciate their differences. 

Children are less inclined to fight if they feel you value their intrinsic differences. Avoid labeling or pigeonholing, and spend one-on-one time with each child individually. For instance, if one child loves to play outdoors, grab your jacket and get some fresh air with them. 

4. Enjoy family time. 

Eating meals together, playing games, or going to the park as a family helps siblings bond and share happy memories. 

5. “Fair” doesn’t necessarily mean “equal.” 

Modify punishments and rewards to fit your children’s individual needs. For instance, don’t give your children the same toys. Give them toys suited to their particular interests and developmental levels. This type of individual fairness goes a long way with children.


The Holistic Approach

A:Nationally recognized parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, Amy McCready offers a holistic approach to handling sibling rivalry. She says that even though sibling fighting is a common occurrence in families, it can be difficult to manage if parents don’t have the right tools.

“Try to see it from your kids’ perspective…your oldest child was once the sole focus of your attention. His requests were answered with haste and he didn’t have to share his time or toys with anyone. Then, his sister came along–a stranger to him, for all intents and purposes–and now mommy is slower to pour his milk because she’s feeding baby, and he has to wait for daddy to finish changing baby’s diaper before they can play with Legos together. As the kiddos get older, they vie for the same toys and as the younger sister becomes more independent, she gets tired of being bossed around by big brother. Because young children aren’t able to express these frustrations verbally, they do so by misbehaving – refusing to share, hitting, pushing, yelling, etc.”

McCready says that while you can’t stop sibling rivalry entirely, you can reduce its frequency. She recommends the following to reduce overall competition between your kids, prevent future sibling rivalry episodes, and put an end to the conflicts once they start:

1. Stop labeling your kids. 

Labels (intentional or unintentional) dramatically increase the competition between siblings. When you talk about the “smart one,” the “good eater,” or the “pretty one,” you’re making indirect comparisons between your children and unintentionally pushing them into certain roles. Celebrating positive attributes, like teamwork, persistence, and kindness, allows siblings to root for each other instead of competing for their parents’ approval.

2. Give them kid-centered, intentional attention. 

One of the big reasons kids argue is to get their parents’ attention. From their perspective, even negative attention is better than nothing. To fill this need, schedule at least 10 to 15 minutes of kid-centered, intentional attention with each child every day. That means being fully focused on your child (no phones, tv, or other distractions) and letting them call the shots. By giving each child this special time, you will boost feelings of emotional connection and proactively fulfill their attention needs with positive interactions so that they don’t resort to fighting to get your (negative) attention instead.

3. Teach them how to resolve conflicts. 

Many parents use time-out as a way to diffuse sibling arguments. While this does give them a chance to calm down, it does not teach kids how to resolve conflict. McCready recommends using role-playing once the dust has settled and everyone has calmed down. For example, give children the words to use (“May I please play with…”) as well as the language for responding (“I’m not quite finished playing with it, but I’ll let you know when I’m finished.”). By giving your kids the tools to resolve conflict on their own, you’ll see fewer sibling arguments in your home.

4. Butt out.

Sometimes the most effective thing you can do when a disagreement starts is to ignore it. By doing so, you avoid rewarding negative behavior with your attention, and most importantly, you give them an opportunity to work it out on their own. Of course, if the argument becomes physical or you feel like intervening is really necessary, you can get involved.

5. Calm everyone down and stay neutral

If an argument escalates and you need to step in, avoid taking sides. Even if you think you heard or saw what started it, don’t place any blame on either child. Instead, once everyone is calm, McCready advises parents to “listen to each child’s version of what happened and encourage them to use ‘I feel’ statements as they tell their story.” Then ask them to come up with a workable resolution. If necessary, suggest a few yourself.

6. Place them “All in the Same Boat”

If you’ve heard both sides and tried to find a solution, but your kids still can’t agree, it’s time to put them “all in the same boat.” That means everyone involved in the argument experiences the same outcome or consequence. For example, “Either you can take turns with the game, or I will put it away for the rest of the day.” Then follow through. You’ll probably hear some complaining and negotiating in the beginning, but your children will quickly realize it’s in their best interest to agree on a solution together before you “put them in the same boat.”


The Takeaway

Siblings are bound to have conflicts, no matter what. However, the problem-solving techniques you teach them now will continue to help them in their day-to-day lives as they get older. Be patient with your children as they’re learning these new strategies. Remember, conflict resolution is a pretty advanced set of skills. In fact, you’re likely familiar with plenty of adults who still have trouble with it! By teaching your children how to strategies to navigate these issues, you’ll be able to reduce sibling rivalry and keep fighting to a minimum.

Once the sibling rivalry is under control, don’t be shocked if a new issue rears its head. Tantrums, talking back, dinnertime dramas, and homework struggles may move to center stage even though the siblings are at peace with one another. Children will always look for ways to assert their independence and power and for ways to get your attention. Remember that when you honor each child’s individual needs, you create a family dynamic where each of your children knows you are on their side. They realize that they actually have a voice that you will listen to and respect. And they are assured that your love is constant.

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