Sibling rivalry - Why it happens and what to do about it -

Sibling rivalry

Sibling arguments and fighting are common. Children have the skills to resolve conflicts and solve problems through this. Sibling rivalry is another way for kids to learn where they fit in the family. Brothers and sisters frequently fight, despite many children being fortunate enough to become the best of friends with their siblings. They constantly switch between adoring and despising one another as well.

What does it mean?

“Sibling rivalry is a type of competition or animosity among siblings, whether blood-related or not.” (Wikipedia)

How does it manifest?

Fighting and sibling rivalry among children are as frequent as scraped knees and lost baby teeth. It is unavoidable for the quantity or quality of time spent with parents to decrease when a new child enters the family. As a result, older siblings often feel displaced, which sets up the new child as a rival for the parents’ attention.

The older child may feel frightened or embarrassed by the younger one as they get older and acquire more skills and talents. This could cause the older child to act aggressively or compete needlessly. In the meantime, the younger child often develops jealousy over the privileges their brother or sister enjoys. The younger child may become hostile if they are surprised by the rivalry and aggression of an older sibling.

Sibling rivalry - Why it happens and what to do about it -

How does it manifest itself at different ages?

Sibling rivalry often begins long before the second child’s birth and persists as the kids get older and compete for everything from toys to attention. The growing needs of children as they progress through different developmental stages can have a big impact on how they interact with each other.Children under the age of four rely heavily on their parents and have a hard time sharing with their siblings.

Sibling rivalry can become more intense as they grow older. One study showed that siblings competed the most between the ages of 10 and 15.

Adolescence may see a rise in sibling rivalry as a way of attracting parental attention.
In adulthood, competition usually fades, but it still exists in some cases.

Interesting fact:
Siblings who are closer in age or have many of the same interests tend to compete more.

Sibling rivalry - Why it happens and what to do about it -

Background causes

A variety of factors can spark sibling conflicts. Sometimes children perceive their parents’ affection and attention as being available in limited amounts and as something for which they must compete with one another. Most brothers and sisters experience some level of rivalry or jealousy, which can lead to arguments and quarrels.

The factors include:

  • Changing needs
    Kids’ evolving needs, interests, and identities inevitably influence how they interact with each other. For instance, toddlers naturally guard their toys and possessions; school-age children quite often have a strong sense of equality, making it hard for them to understand why their siblings are treated differently; and teenagers typically develop a sense of individuality, making it difficult for them to want to look after their younger siblings.
  • Role models
    Children learn a lot from how their parents handle conflicts and challenges. Therefore, if you and your spouse resolve a problem peacefully and without using violence, you increase the likelihood that your kids will do the same when they encounter disagreements with one another.
  • Individual temperaments
    How well your children get along is greatly influenced by their unique personalities as well as their different temperaments, including mood, disposition, and adaptability. They might constantly get into it, for instance, if one child is relaxed while the other gets upset easily. In a similar fashion, siblings who witness their sibling’s unusual clinginess and desire for parental comfort and love may harbour resentment toward the other child.
  • Special needs or unhealthy children
    Sometimes, a child’s special needs due to illness or learning or emotional issues may require more parental time. Other kids may pick up on this disparity and act out to get attention.


Signs of jealousy in the older child include:

  • difficult and demanding behaviour,
  • mood swings or temper tantrums,
  • irritability,
  • dependent or clingy behaviour,
  • problems with eating and sleeping,
  • changes in their toilet routines and habits.

Hurtful actions towards younger siblings:

  • taunt or say unkind things to the younger child,
  • aggressive and physically harmful (pinching, poking, etc.) behaviours.
  • it can escalate to fighting or shouting at one another.

It is important to remember that the younger sibling can also show all these signs, usually in response to the older child.

When to be concerned

Some level of sibling conflict is normal. Sibling abuse is a serious concern that can have long-lasting effects on the victim. In a small percentage of families, the conflict between brothers and sisters is so severe that it disrupts daily functioning or particularly affects the kids emotionally or psychologically. Parents who are concerned should contact a child psychologist to address the issue before the situation escalates to abuse. Seek help for sibling conflict if the below situations arise:

  • extreme hostility or verbal, emotional, or physical abuse
  • if it is so severe that it’s leading to marital problems,
  • creates a real danger of physical harm to any family member,
  • is damaging to the self-esteem or psychological well-being of any family member.
  • maybe related to other significant concerns, such as depression.

Consult your doctor if you have concerns about your children fighting; they can advise whether your family would benefit from professional assistance.

Sibling rivalry - Why it happens and what to do about it -

What you can do as a parent

It’s never too late to forge a strong sibling relationship, even when it’s been years since the rivalry was on.

What to do to help your child

  1. Setting time aside for each of them to share their moments with you. Even something as simple as reading together or cuddling after their sibling has gone to bed can meet their individual needs
  2. Talk about what makes your kids special
    Remind them of all the ways they are unique and wonderful if you notice that they are resentful of their sibling. Discuss how much you enjoy their drawings or what great brother or sister they are.
  3. Make your kids feel included
    Find ways to make them feel included, even in the simplest of ways. The older child can help with the younger one as well as do other activities together. Not ignored, but rather a part of your “team.”
  4. Praise the older child for being a good big sibling
    Find and acknowledge the times when he is a good big brother. Praising him for his positive behaviour encourages him to continue down that path. He can attract attention less through his behaviour and more through his treatment of his siblings.
  5. Encourage empathy
    “We all feel sorry,” you could reply if she notices her brother crying. “When we had to leave the park, do you still recall how sad you felt? He feels something similar.” These responses help her empathize with others and understand their perspectives.
  6. Encourage cooperation, not competition
    The less they see their sibling as an opponent, the more they can see the value of having a brother or sister. Complete a task against the clock, not against each other. Let them work as a team and play games that put them on the same side.
  7. Alone time is important
    Ensure that children have their own room and time to explore their own interests. Interacting with friends without a sibling accompanying them or playing with toys alone.
  8. Set some ground rules
    Explain to the children that there should be no cursing, name-calling, yelling, or slamming of doors and that they should keep their hands to themselves. Ask for their opinions on the guidelines and the consequences of breaking them. Show and explain to your children that love has no boundaries for you.
  9. Schedules
    If your kids fight over the same things all the time, like different toys or who gets to use the TV remote, set a schedule of who “owns” what during the week.

What not to do

  1. Don’t assume that sibling rivalry is normal.
    That their kids will fight all the time, that other kids must fight this way as well, or that name-calling is the norm. Don’t think there’s no way out of it.
  2. Don’t compare your kids
    Instead of comparing, talk about each child’s milestones without mentioning the others. Avoid labelling any of them in a way that makes them believe they’re locked into that trait (“the smart one” and “the creative one”). And don’t talk about what another child would’ve done in that circumstance, as if to imply that the other would’ve done it better.
  3. Don’t let kids make you think that everything always has to be “fair” and “equal”
    Sometimes one kid needs more than the other.
  4. Don’t focus too much on determining which child is at fault
    Everyone participated because a fight requires two people to start. Therefore, they are all partially to blame.
  5. Don’t give the jealous child more attention
    This backfires mostly because they demand more, and the other party will be left feeling unfair.
  6. Don’t get involved if possible
    The kids may begin to expect your assistance and wait for you to come to their aid rather than learning to solve problems on their own. There’s also the risk that you, even though it is not your intention, make it appear to one child that another is always being “protected,” which could foster even more resentment.

Step in only if there's a danger of physical harm

Once the kids are calm, separate them. Sometimes it’s wise to wait a little bit before bringing up the issue and just give them some space. Otherwise, the conflict can worsen.

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