Working with Sibling Rivalry

Working with Sibling Rivalry

Next to questions about adolescent issues, sibling rivalry ranks right up at the top of the list of parenting concerns. I often hear things like "Why can't my two boys play together for more than five minutes without getting into an argument?" Or "How can my daughter be so cruel to her brother." Then there are those rosy myths that parents have about having a second child. They usually go something along the lines of "I thought that when I had a second child, she would keep my older child company. I thought they would play together, be pals, protect each other, be loyal," and so forth.

The reality is often quite different and rather sobering. What parents find instead is that siblings bicker, argue, hit each other, fight over property, territory, whether the sky is blue, compete for your attention, and so on . . . and all of this in spite of your best efforts to prevent it. The fact is, sibling rivalry is an inevitable part of family life that ultimately must be addressed. Let's begin by looking at why sibling conflicts occur and how parents contribute to them, and then discuss some strategies for dealing with the most common problems.

Why Sibling Conflicts Occur

The arrival of siblings adds a new dimension to the family. Prior to their entrance, the single child had the full attention of her parents (or parent). Communication was primarily vertical and there were no competing interests, at least not coming from other children.

The addition of the second child changes everything. The simpler family configuration of parents and child now turns into a more complex family group (even in a single parent family). The sum of the parts in this case do not add up to the whole, but rather transform the whole and the members alike into something different altogether. The new family member doesn't just get folded into the existing system that had been developed, but changes that system in a profound way.

The family group is a special group because there are different levels of power, knowledge, maturity, and authority among the members. In a good family situation, mom and dad maintain the primary authority and serve as guides for the developing siblings. This leaves siblings in a sort of subgroup that has it's own characteristics, rules, and of course struggles. Not only are the siblings very aware of each other and each other's position within their own little subgroup, but they are very aware of how they fit within the family as a whole. More specifically, they are quite tuned in to how mom and dad view each of them, the differences in the ways they respond to them, and what kinds of roles or positions of power each holds in the overall system.

Siblings are acutely sensitive to any hints of favoritism, differences in the levels of parent-child intimacy, and differences in the approaches to discipline and behavior management.

Siblings can become extremely competitive, particularly when there seems to be a disparity between how the parents feel about one sibling as opposed to another.

Stage of Development Plays a Role

Another contributing factor is that each of the siblings is engaged in a different stage of development. They are in the process of developing different aspects of their personalities, emotional life, and cognition.

The four year old who asks "why" questions non-stop " (a normal activity at this age), can become very annoying to the nine-year-old who is much more interested in his collection of baseball cards. Each of these children is developmentally right on target, but together they have little in common. Add to this that neither of them is mature enough to offer any great degree of selfless attention to the other considering their ages (especially the four-year-old), and it is easy to see how they could clash.

Personality & Temperament Differences

The last factor to mention has to do with general personality differences often described as "temperament." The whole notion of temperament has been gathering some steam in recent years, particularly when talking about matches or mismatches in parent-child temperaments. I will save that for another discussion, but it bears some mention here in terms of mismatches in sibling temperaments. For example, the very extroverted young man who enjoys playing with others, likes a lot of sound effects and noisy stimulation, and prefers participating in a number of activities at the same time, is going to grate on the more quiet, introverted child who enjoys a lower level of sound, engages in one activity at a time, and likes to play with maybe one other child or in small groups, or even alone. Even during simple activities, the extroverted child will feel inhibited by the quiet reserve of the introverted child, and the introverted child will feel invaded and stressed by the boisterousness of the extroverted child, thereby setting the scene for the arise of conflicts.

The Parents' Contributions

Sibling problems will arise regardless of the kind of parents we are or what style of parenting is used. They are a normal part of family dynamics. At the same time, parents can have a tremendous impact on the shape that sibling struggles take, how they get resolved (or not), and whether or not something is learned from them.

The family is like a small human lab that allows each of us to develop physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It serves as the optimal setting within which we can learn how to relate to others, sustain attachments and caring, solve conflicts, and manage our own behavior. It is a school for relationship building. In terms of sibling issues, parents can either enhance the learning that should take place in these special relationships or hamper it by exaggerating the problems and blocking their solutions.

Most often, the latter is done completely unwittingly and without intention. We simply don't realize that what we are saying or doing is causing one child to feel more competitive with a sibling, or more jealous, or even unloved. The most common offenses seem to be comparing and labeling our children, relegating them to rigid roles, projecting our own personal or marital problems onto them, and dealing ineffectively with conflicts. Let's go through each of these individually.

Comparing, Labeling and Favoritism

Comparison & Labeling

This is a hard one. It is natural for parents to compare their children just as it is natural for siblings to compare themselves to each other. And, it is very necessary to consider each child's individual temperament, special emotional and cognitive needs, and approaches to activity. What's important is not to restrict a child to these individual characteristics, and particularly not to make verbal comparisons between siblings that have a negative connotation for one of them.

If Gracie is usually more organized than Ben, then saying something to Ben like "Why can't you keep track of your books like Gracie," tells Ben that not only does he have a problem with organization, but he is a step below his sister in his parents' eyes. When many such statements are made on a regular basis, the child in Ben's position will experience insecurity, self-doubt, as well as an overwhelming sense that he can't make things right.


Connected to making comparisons is favoritism. The truth is, parents do often feel an affinity for one child more than another. This might be due to personality similarities, common interests, or because a particular child is more compliant. We can't deny that we have some children that are easier for us to manage and communicate with than others, but there is a strong difference between what's easy and what's preferred.

Having favorites and making it known either through preferential treatment, making negative comparisons, allowing more time for or expressing more interest in one more than the other - all of these are potentially very harmful to both children involved. The preferred child can develop feelings of entitlement, arrogance, inflated self-worth, or conversely, guilt over his sibling's obvious emotional pain. The unfavored child can develop a whole host of negative characteristics that can plague him throughout his life and well into adulthood. You know most of these - depression, insecurity, inability to sustain healthy relationships, inferiority, anxiety, and so on.

Parenting Strategy: What parents can do is to help each child recognize his or her own uniqueness. For example, let's say Joey comes to Dad and says, "Sally always gets the best grades. School is easy for her. All the teachers love her and they hate me." Dad might concur with Joey that Sally does seem to have an easier time with certain subjects, but maybe Joey has a vivid imagination and makes up wonderful stories, or is athletic, or is good at putting things together. The idea is to build on Joey's uniqueness and to move him away from making comparisons that translate negatively for him. Then, Dad can offer to help Joey with his specific school problems if need be. What's been accomplished is that there is recognition of differences as well as of strengths and weaknesses, but on their own terms without being seen against the measuring stick of someone else - in this case, the sibling.

Assigning Roles

This one goes hand in hand with making comparisons. As we attempt to define our children's individual personality characteristics, we usually link these to specific roles in the family. A common one is birth order. We generally assign the role of responsible caretaker to the older child, more difficult to handle yet possibly more creative role to the middle child, and the younger child is always "the baby." By making such sweeping assignments, we limit each child's capacity to develop and expand to their full potential. Middle children can be highly responsible if encouraged, just as older children can be very creative. Youngest children can mature quite well if not branded as "the baby."

Parenting Strategy:  Be cognizant of the development of roles within the family, and then take special care to expand them by creating expectations that go beyond the role's boundaries. Also, avoid overly reinforcing roles that limit children. Back to our example, don't load up the older child with too many adult responsibilities. Give special time to the middle child to enhance their sense of importance to you while also encouraging their development. Establish realistic expectations of the younger child that encourage responsibility.

Projecting Parents' Problems

This one sort of speaks for itself, but unfortunately it is not so easily recognized when actually occurring. An example is the mother who seems to be regularly disgruntled with her son that looks and acts very much like the husband from whom she is estranged. A less complicated example might be the father who comes home from work after a very stressful day including problems with the boss, and as he walks in the house he is shouting about his "irresponsible son" who "always" leaves his bike in the driveway. Now here comes the clincher: He goes on to say "Why can't you be like your sister. She never leaves her stuff lying around. At least I can count on her." Although this situation is fairly transparent, sometimes parents' projections are very subtle and play out over years. A husband who feels his wife favors her son over him may make constant comparisons between this son and other siblings that are mostly negative. The real problem here is not his feelings about this particular son, but his despair over what he feels is rejection on his wife's part.

Parenting Strategy:  Spend some regular time examining your interactions with all family members and make an honest assessment of relationship problems that need some attention. For those who are married, taking stock of the marital relationship on at least a weekly basis helps to avoid redirecting marital problems toward children, and also serves to nurture and protect one's marriage. Keep in mind that this relationship is one of the most influential factors in a child's development and well being, and attending to it is a very important part of parenting. Secondly, avoid disciplining children or even commenting on their behavior when you are angry or upset. Cool off first and allow yourself to move into a thinking mode so that you can be deliberate in your intervention and correctly target the desired result. Finally, if you are feeling undue personal stress, having martial difficulties that can't seem to be resolved, or are significantly depressed or anxious, consider seeking psychotherapy.

Dealing with Sibling Conflicts

Sibling conflicts abound on a daily basis and can erupt at the drop of a hat. There is a wide controversy among parents as to how to best handle these conflicts. Many parents believe siblings should handle them without intervention, and at the other extreme are parents who micromanage every conflict, even those that are short-lived and rather insignificant. My bias is that sibling conflicts should be viewed as an opportunity to learn how to share, negotiate differences, problem-solve, and most importantly, transform negative emotions into positive actions. The parent's job is to instruct and offer hands-on training. In other words, parents need to assist their children in solving conflicts until they can successfully solve them on their own. This does not mean that they need to micromanage every situation or make all the final decisions. It means that children need their parents to walk them through the process and steps of solving conflicts while letting the children do most of the work. In this way, these conflicts become part of that human lab I referred to above.

Parenting Strategy:  When a conflict erupts, the first step is to allow each child to express his or her point of view or side of the story. This includes allowing them to label their emotions. You can start this off with a comment such as "Wow, you seem really mad at Susie for grabbing your truck." To Susie you might say something like "Looks like you wanted to play with Jeremy, but you couldn't get his attention." After allowing sufficient exploration of each person's side of the situation, your job is to summarize the problem. Next move on to the problem-solving phase. Help the children explore the possible solutions. Generally, when they have had the chance to express their emotions and feel understood, they are able to calm down and use their thinking capacity to brainstorm. Allow them as much autonomy in coming up with the solution as possible, however, intervene at any point where they seem to get stuck. It may be that certain house rules come into play such as rules about personal property. In cases such as this, you would remind the children of the rules as a reference point and then assist them in moving toward a resolution. What you will find over time is that your children will become adept at this process and be able to facilitate it without your intervention, and even without your presence in many cases.

Now there is an addendum here and that has to do with aggressive behavior. It is the parent's job to make it clear that aggressive behavior is not permissible under any circumstances. If the conflict moves in this direction, the first priority is to separate children to allow a cooling off period and then resume the discussion and problem-solving session. The session should include some very specific instruction and training regarding how to deal with anger in a constructive way. Always move children toward verbalization of feelings, and the more articulate and constructive the better. Don't censor anyone's point of view, even if the feelings should seem insignificant or silly. By allowing the expression, your children will be able to move forward toward more mature assessments of situations. Using this process, you will find that your siblings not only get along better, but also establish conflict-resolution skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

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