Sibling Rivalry – Tips On How To Deal With It

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Today’s brilliant guest post is by Janet Powell from Mentor Maestro. Janet is a Parenting Coach who conducts private parenting coaching and group Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) Courses. The next Parent Effectiveness Training course will start in October, 2011, in Camberwell, Melbourne. More details will be available closer to the date. You can call Janet on 9889 3991 now to register your interest now with no obligation. Image source.


Many parents talk to me about this sibling rivalry. They ask “Is it normal for siblings to argue?”, or “What can I do to stop the fighting?”, or even “I’m worried that my 2-year-old is going to hurt the baby! What should I say?”

Sibling Rivalry is often a normal part of family-life. So the issue is not so much that your children don’t seem to get on sometimes, but rather what you do about this to ensure that it doesn’t damage your family relationships.

Sometimes sibling rivalry is a result of jealousy, when one child seems to be favoured over another; sometimes it’s due to lack of understanding of what is acceptable behaviour, for instance if the brother continually uses his fists to win arguments with his sister; and in other cases it’s all about getting needs met, as in the scenario of the two-year-old and the new baby. There are also times when children’s natural competitiveness runs unchecked and becomes on-going rivalry. Here are some tips which can help you work through these issues:

1. Patience

Jealousy is fairly common. After all, two or more children in a family have to share their parents’ attention, love and resources. And sharing doesn’t always come easily, especially if you are only 2 years old! This is a learned skill, so parents need to be patient and explain that their job is to look after all their children equally, that they can “grow more love” to accommodate each child, and that each child is very special to them. It’s not a competition between the children, there’s enough of everything to go around.

2. Individual Time

It is important to take some time each day, if possible, to do the things with your older child that she likes to do, without the baby. If your little girl is not happy after the birth of her baby brother, it’s probably because your time is now split between two children. She could be feeling left out or neglected. You could explain to her that when she was a baby, you needed to spend lots of time with her too. Getting her involved with the baby in little ways can help to build their relationship as well.

3. Acknowledgement

Acknowledging the feelings of your child can be helpful when there seems to be a problem. For instance, when two young children are fighting over a toy, you could say to the one who owns the toy “I can see that you’re upset about having to share that toy with your little sister. “ Reflective listening is useful to defuse angry and upset feelings, instead of saying “Stop that nonsense and play nicely together!” which leaves the unhappy child feeling that you don’t understand or care.

Taking turns is another skill that is often difficult for young children, and this can be a problem between siblings. Whether it’s taking turns in a game or taking turns in receiving attention from Mum or Dad, some children struggle to wait. Teaching children that they can’t always have what they want at the exact moment that they want it, is an important lesson in life. Of course, I’m not talking about young babies here – it’s best to attend to them quickly and meet their needs. But for the rest of the family, they do have to wait sometimes. The key is to let the child know that you’re aware of the child’s need to do something or for some attention, and that as soon as it’s possible or you’re able, he will get what he needs. An understanding attitude of the child’s needs will help to settle him while he waits.

4. Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is vital when your children are behaving well, so if your toddler is handling the baby gently, you could comment “It’s so nice to see you touching the baby softly. I’m really happy about that, and so is your baby sister. See, she’s smiling at you!” Or for older children who are playing together happily, “I’m really pleased that you two are enjoying playing together safely in the backyard. I can get on with the housework.” There may even be a reward here – you’ll have time to take them out to a special place, or you might cook their favourite meal. Of course, you don’t have to reward all appropriate behaviour! Often a simple “Thanks for getting on so well today” is enough.

5. Natural Consequences

If your older children argue or fight, let them know that it’s your job to keep them safe, so you’re worried they’re arguing because they might end up hurting each other. Children need to know the natural consequences of their behaviour. If their fighting results in a toy being broken, then obviously that toy will be out of action. They both won’t have it to play with. This is the natural consequence of their actions. And when you tell them that it won’t be replaced, they can both relate that loss to what they just did. This is a learning opportunity for the children, without you having to punish them.

6. Don’t Become The Referee

Try to avoid becoming the referee between your children. If you are always resolving their conflicts, not only will you be more stressed, but they won’t learn problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. The family environment is the best place for children to learn these life-skills as there are caring adults who can help to guide them through conflicts. This doesn’t mean you solve their problems, but rather suggest ways that they could work them out themselves. With young children, you’ll need to have more input, but for older children, you can simply say “I can see that you two are struggling to play that game happily together. You need to talk about how to sort it out. If you can’t do that, we’ll have to put the game away.”

7. Family Meetings

Having regular family discussions can often lessen the impact of sibling rivalry, as children will feel that they are being heard and their feelings understood. If you try to keep it positive, rather than a session of “He did this” and “But she did that!”, you’ll be able to help your children see that resolving their differences doesn’t have to be difficult when you have some strategies to use. You can also use these “meetings” to pass on the values and skills which you believe are important for your family, and to work out the contribution of each family member to the running of the household. Rights and responsibilities may be discussed. If everyone has a chance to express themselves, a sense of belonging to a great family team will be created, where you are all working together for the good of the family. If your children are old enough to be part of a sporting team, this is an analogy which they can understand – every member of the team is as important as the other. And a guided democracy is viewed as a great parenting model.

8. Moderate Responsibilities

Don’t expect your older children to always look after the young ones as this can develop resentment. Responsibilities can be increased with age, as abilities increase, but be wary of giving too much, too soon. Remember that each child will want to feel independent at times, and more dependent at other times. Encourage older children to be good role-models for the younger ones, without having to take full responsibility for their welfare.

9. Equality

Treat all your children with the same love, consideration and respect. That is, don’t favour one child over the other. All our children are different and some parents find a child who is similar to them easier to handle, or perhaps the quiet one might be favoured because he or she doesn’t cause too many problems. Separating the child from the behaviour will allow you to show that you love and value each one equally. Children who see favouritism in their family can grow to resent the favoured child and the parent.

10. Emphasise The Process

Try not to foster excessive competition between your children. Not everything is about winning or losing, being better or worse, being first or last, getting the best result. Not everything is a game where children or adults are pitted against each other. Sometimes the end-result doesn’t matter, and the journey or process is the important thing. Some children are naturally more competitive than other children, and that’s OK. Accept that your children are different to you, and to each other.

Sibling rivalry may be worse between siblings of the same gender and those close in age, according to some research. Most families experience a degree of sibling rivalry at some point, and it can occasionally continue into adulthood. It’s important to identify rivalry and minimize its impact on the children – the “aggressor” and the “victim” – and the rest of the family, so that relationships are not damaged long-term. Working through this type of rivalry can encourage children to learn great skills like negotiation, problem-solving, self-expression, sharing, consideration for others and compromise. These are empowering skills for life.


This post from Janet was originally posted on her website. If you enjoyed this you may like to read more from her like these on her website:

What tip/s would you add for dealing with sibling rivalry?