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How to Deal With Sibling Rivalry in Children

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Sep 12, 2022

When you decided to have a family, you imagined wonderful days when all of your children were the best of friends. In reality, sibling rivalry has entered your home, and the tension is affecting everyone. The good news is that you’re not alone. Sibling feuds are very common, and it has a range of causes. Recognizing the problem is a great first step that lets you change the family dynamic to build sibling relationships that are more cohesive and harmonious.

What is Sibling Rivalry?

Occasional tension, disagreements, and friction between siblings are normal. Sibling rivalry describes any type of prolonged or chronic dynamic between children that involves ongoing conflict involving competition, arguing, fighting, and jealousy. The rivalry develops in many children who are from the same blood family, as well as children who are related by marriage, adoption, and legal guardianship. You can discern what is normal and what is unhealthy by looking at the overall balance of the relationship and how often your kids fight. If the scales tip more in favor of negative interactions, the relationship is most likely based on rivalry.

Sibling rivalry is very common. In most cases, sibling rivalry begins as soon as a new baby arrives, but you may notice signs even before that. It happens most often between children who are the same gender or close in age. A rivalry may also develop if one of your kids is especially gifted in some way.

From the time they are infants until their late teen years, children need a healthy environment in which to grow, evolve, and define their unique personalities. Sibling rivalry disrupts this process by introducing many factors that are unhealthy to the individual child, as well as your entire family.

The signs of sibling rivalry may be subtle or appear to be a normal conflict between children. You can learn to distinguish sibling rivalry by noticing key aspects of the dynamic.

  • Playtime often erupts into arguments about who gets the favored toy
  • Your oldest child is sitting quietly next to your newborn when he suddenly pushes your newborn away and says that he wishes the baby would leave
  • Your children often engage in “win-lose” arguments rather than coming to a compromise
  • Your blood children “gang up” on the new stepchild in your home

How Does Sibling Rivalry Affect a Child?

Sibling rivalry affects your children on a short-term and long-term basis in every area of life, including personal identity, role within your family, performance, and relationships. Sibling rivalry can also also significantly affect the dynamics of your family and the home environment. In severe cases of sibling rivalry, the underlying frustration, anger, and discouragement may erupt into aggressive behavior and violence. Parents experience high levels of stress while managing the arguments, fights, and discontent between siblings, and some parents may even subconsciously choose one child over another just to find peace and calm. In adulthood, children who experienced sibling rivalry early in life find personal and professional relationships difficult to manage, as there is always a sense of competition and unmet needs.

Causes & Examples of Sibling Rivalry

When you are looking for sibling rivalry cause in your family, it is best to take a multi-faceted approach. There are many reasons why a rivalry develops between siblings. Some are obvious, such as favoritism, while others lie below the surface, such as hunger and illness. Here are the 10 most common causes of sibling rivalry.

1. Major Life Changes

Bringing a new sibling home, blending families, and adoption are major life changes for anyone in your home. Relocating, starting at a new school, divorce, and losing a close friend or relative are other examples of major life changes that can trigger sibling rivalry. The stress of these situations makes children feel uncertain, and they often feel anger, resentment, and frustration as they try to stabilize their role within the family. Most often these feelings are expressed through unhealthy behavior towards siblings.

Example

You get married to someone who has children, and your stepchildren move into your home. Your oldest tries to spend time with you, but you are focused on making sure your stepchildren feel comfortable. Out of frustration, he starts taking toys from the new toddler in the house. When you ask why he does that, he says that he wishes the step-siblings would leave because they cause so many problems.

2. Individual Traits of Children

Sibling rivalry tends to form between children who are close in their age differences, have individual temperaments, and are at different levels of development. Preschoolers, for example, are just learning social skills and often struggle with finding a healthy level of assertiveness. Children who are in elementary school tend to focus on fairness, and teenagers are just starting to become independent and want to do their own thing. All of these stages of life bring about emotions that your kids may not understand, and rivalries may erupt as they try to understand how to manage it all.

Example

You bought a new laptop for your 14-year-old daughter to use at school, and your 7-year-old son wants one, too. You explain that when he is older, he will get a laptop. One day, your daughter tells you that her laptop is missing. You find out that your son took it from her room so he could play games with his friends.

3. Special Needs

More than 3 million children live with special needs, and parents struggle with finding balance in their lives. Special needs children require more intensive care and attention. From the perspective of your other children, there is a disparity in either the quality or quality of attention they are receiving. Out of fear or frustration, your other children may develop a rivalry with each other or the other child with special needs.

Example

Your preschooler is diagnosed with a cognitive disability that requires time to provide intensive life skills support. Your 7-year-old daughter notices that you can’t spend as much time with her, and she sees the amount of time that you spend with your preschooler. She is frightened by what is happening and she doesn’t understand what is behind the changes in your home. One day, you find her fighting with your preschooler because they both want the same toy.

4. Role Models

Studies show that children are more likely to be jealous of their siblings in homes where the parents managed conflict in unhealthy and aggressive ways. The rivalries are more common where conflicts transform into aggression and a “win-lose” outcome. Culture can also play a role in what children learn about conflict resolution, such as those that disregard the needs of one particular gender. Being a role model for your kids is hard, but it is extremely effective. Sibling rivalry is less common in homes where parents are good use an approach of productive and respectful compromise.

Example

When you spend time together as a family, your teenage son is always putting down his little sister. Even the smallest requests from her are met with rude and disparaging comments. When she tries to speak, he tells her to shut up. She tends to avoid him, but he always finds a way to make her feel uncomfortable.

5. Lack of Structure and Hierarchy

Structure in a home helps to provide the certainty that children need to feel safe and stable, and this includes a clear hierarchy within the family. Defining clear and consistent routines, consequences, rules, and expectations can be one of the biggest challenges of being a parent, especially if you have two or more kids with diverse personalities. A lack of structure and hierarchy creates anxiety, and this may contribute to sibling conflicts, often with an intent to better understand boundaries. Children may display behaviors that reflect a sense of unfairness, frustration, unmet needs, and other important elements of growth and development.

Example

To maintain a harmonious household, your teenage daughter bosses around her younger siblings. You often thank her for the help and allow her to bend the rules on occasion. One of your younger children takes notice of the praise your teenager receives and starts to do the same with her younger siblings. When she doesn’t receive the same praise, she starts to pick a fight with your teenage daughter.

6. Stress in the Home

More than 60% of adults are living with chronic stress and the condition causes a range of physical and emotional symptoms. No matter how much you try to protect your children from the effects, they pick up on the subtlest signs and changes. As you try to manage life to the best of your ability, you may spend what time you can with each of your kids, but they will notice any imbalances. Being spread too thin makes you lose balance, and your children notice.

Example

You are moving your parents into an assisted-living facility and feeling overwhelmed with managing their physical, emotional, and financial well-being. Because he is still learning to walk, you spend a lot of time with your toddler. When your teenage daughter tries to talk with you, exhaustion takes over. One day you overhear your teenager telling her baby brother that she is smarter than him because he can’t even walk yet.

7. Attention Imbalance

In a child’s world, parental attention, including one-on-one attention, is an important part of identity development, self-esteem, and certainty in life. When parents don’t provide the needed attention or balance their attention, children resort to competing with other children. They may seek more positive attention or resort to behaviors that result in negative attention. In families with more than two children, the older children may form a type of alliance and behave negatively towards the youngest child.

Example

You are a single parent with two full-time jobs and four children. Your youngest child is having a hard time in school, so you spend the evenings doing homework together. One evening when you come home, your babysitter tells you that the three older children started a fight with the youngest child over what movie to watch. They taunted her, saying that her favorite cartoons are for babies.

8. Poor Problem Solving and Conflict Resolution Skills

Children absorb information and learn how to interact with the world from the people around them. Problem-solving and knowing how to effectively resolve conflicts are two important skills that help your child well into adulthood. When parents don’t listen to their children’s concerns or help them work through problems, it can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, pent-up frustration, anger, and other issues. Rivalry evolves in these situations when children express these emotions and a sense of powerlessness through behaviors with their siblings.

Example

Your teenage son is having problems with a child at school, and he tries to talk without you about it on several occasions. You were brought up in a home where problems were not discussed, and you tell him just to ignore the other kid. A few days later, your two children disagree. Rather than work it out, they are yelling at each other and name calling.

9. Family Dynamics

The dynamics of a family are the patterns of behavior that govern the relationships between parents and children, as well as among siblings. It involves roles, responsibilities, privileges, and other aspects of feeling safe and secure. Children who are treated differently than their siblings may feel that their needs are not being met, and this works as a catalyst for rivalry with a brother or sister. The differences in treatment and attention may be situational, such as having a child with a chronic health condition, or it may be based on other factors, such as personality traits that are shared between parents and one particular child.

Example

Three of your children enjoy your interests, and you spend a great deal of time with them. Your fourth child doesn’t enjoy the same interests, and she tends to play alone when she is at home. When it’s time for bed, your three children are allowed to stay up late to complete a craft project, and your fourth child is required to go to bed on time. She starts a fight with the other kids, calling them names and making hurtful comments.

10. Parenting Style

Most people don’t consciously choose a parenting style. Instead, parents tend to go with what feels natural and right. Some parenting styles contribute to an environment that stimulates sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters, such as showing favoritism, being controlling, lacking interest, comparing your children, and encouraging siblings to compete with each other. Even something as innocent as labeling a child based on positive traits can be enough to start a sibling rivalry.

Example

Your 5-year-old just started kindergarten, and she is very excited at the end of the day. You listen intently as she describes her experiences with joy and happiness. When your second child starts to tell you about his day, you start to make dinner and only nod once in a while. He develops resentment for the undivided attention that his sister gets every day, and he starts to belittle her and call her names.

How to Deal with Sibling Conflict When It Arises

Sibling rivalry is an opportunity for your children to grow in their identities and relationship skills. It is best to stay calm and see if your children can work it out on their own. The exception is when sibling rivalry gets violent. In these situations, intervene, let everyone calm down, and then discuss the matter with each child individually. Consider getting professional help for your family. Here are some strategies for how to deal with sibling rivalry.

  • Be Proactive: Sibling rivalry rarely resolves on its own. Both parties are struggling with the same issues, so your children cannot agree. Be proactive and set aside time to teach your children new skills.
  • Brainstorm and Problem Solve: Mediate between the rivaling children to identify the underlying causes of the conflict. Brainstorm about “win-win” solutions.
  • Self-Inventory: Take some time to reflect on your interactions with your children. You may notice some behaviors that could increase sibling rivalry. Are you directly or indirectly promoting competition or favoritism? Do you give each child the same quality and quantity of attention?
  • Open Communication: If there has been a major life change in your home or if you have a child with a developmental condition or chronic illness, speak openly and honestly with all of your children. Explain the circumstances and let them know that you are there for them.

Healthy Family Dynamics Discourage Conflicts

Changing your family dynamics to reduce sibling rivalry doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are four things that not only help with rivalry but also encourage close relationships and fun.

1. Family Time

Set aside time for you to be together as a family unit. This can be as simple as family dinners without the television and mobile devices, or you can plan a day away from home. During family time, make sure that your parental attention is equally shared with all of your children.

2. Family Meetings

A family meeting may seem the same as family time, but the intention is different. The meetings are opportunities for all family members to come together and discuss any family issues. Take the role of a mediator ensure that the time is productive and respectful. Depending on the developmental stages of your children, differences in ages, and other factors, you may need to employ different methods to engage everyone.

3. Highlight the Positives

Each of your children is a unique individual. Add a new routine in your family where you spend time with each child individually, letting them know how special and important they are to you. This not only helps to prevent sibling rivalry but also boosts a sense of personal identity.

4. Listen

When your children need to talk, listen. This is one of the most powerful and positive ways to give your children one-on-one time and learn more about your children’s lives. Most times you don’t need to give advice or tell them what to do. Just listen and be engaged.

If you’re considering seeking outside help but don’t know where to start, read our guide on what to expect when bringing a child to therapy.

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