The constant bickering. The screaming. The tears. If you have more than one child living in your home, the chances are good that you’ve seen symptoms of a sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry is the competition that occurs between brothers and sisters. It is fueled by jealousy and the perception that one sibling is being treated better than the other. This jealousy, anger, the feeling of having no control, or of having no privacy are all things that contribute to sibling rivalry. These feelings often lead to fighting.
It is, to some degree, a completely normal part of growing up with brothers and sisters. In fact, research has shown that a little sibling rivalry is actually good for you because it promotes some healthy competition. This competition can inspire you to do your best at home and at school. However, most parents would agree that it also adds unnecessary drama to an otherwise peaceful household. If not addressed, it can lead to long-term hurt feelings and, in some cases, even physical aggression.
The way sibling rivalry is expressed will vary from home to home. It is influenced by parenting styles, by the dynamic between siblings, by the age difference in siblings, and by the gender of the siblings.
Research confirms that the expression of sibling rivalry can be different between 2 sisters than it is for 2 brothers. The rivalry between two sisters may be more intense and longer lasting, but the rivalry between two brothers is more likely to lead to physical fighting. Rivalry between a brother and sister is less frequent, probably because they are unlikely to share as much space (like a bedroom), participate in the same activities, or compete for the same friends.
There is also research that links closeness in age to sibling rivalry. If there is less than 2 years’ difference in their ages, siblings are more likely to have a rivalry.
Even though jealousy is the main emotion behind all sibling rivalry, there are different things that can lead to a child feeling jealous. Jealousy can begin because of a new baby—even before the baby is born. Older children may not feel that they are getting equal attention at home or at school. A younger sibling may feel as though he or she is living in an older sibling’s shadow at home or at school. A younger sibling may also feel that it is unfair to not have as many privileges as an older sibling.
In blended families, sibling rivalry can take on an “us versus them” quality. This is especially true if they feel that one parent is favoring their own biological children over their spouse’s children. Children in combined families can also be jealous due to what they perceive is a loss of personal space. They may need to share a bedroom or lose their seat on the couch or in the car.
Sibling rivalry can even carry over into adulthood—especially between sisters. Researchers say that brothers are more likely to leave the rivalry at home when they leave, but sisters tend to carry it with them.
If rivalry does follow kids into adulthood, it’s not always because they are hanging onto something that happened in the past. The biggest reason for sibling rivalry in adulthood is that one child is more successful than the other. It also can be because parents are still supporting one sibling, which another sibling may believe is unfair.
Path to improved health
Even though there is no way to completely prevent sibling rivalry, the way parents deal with it can mean the difference between a little healthy competition and an all out war at home.
The first thing you should do is examine your relationship with each child. Many times, sibling rivalry is nothing more than a plea for attention. It could be time to reevaluate how you are dividing your attention at home. Sure, there are times when one sibling needs you more than another, but overall, things should be somewhat even.
There are many things parents can do to improve the relationship between siblings and reduce jealousy. These are some of the most effective strategies:
- Treat your children as individuals. Even though they share many of the same genes, each one of your children is different. Their personalities are different and their needs are different. Customize your parenting to fit their needs, but remember to keep things fair across the board.
- Be fair. Enforce the same rules for everyone. Sure, older children may have more privileges (like a slightly later bedtime), but they can follow the same rules (like going to bed on time).
- Let them have time apart. Give your children their very own space if you can. If they share a bedroom, make sure they have an opportunity each day to spend some alone time in a different part of the house or outside. You can also arrange different activities for them to give children some “me” time.
- Do not compare them. No matter how tempting it may be, you should never say, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” No child should feel that they are in competition with another child at home—especially not for your love or attention. Saying these words will almost certainly cause resentment, making sibling rivalry that much worse.
- Do not play favorites. No child wants to feel second best, either, especially at home. Try to make sure that each of your children feels special and supported by you, even when they are wrong. Do not show preferential treatment. Spread your criticism and your praise equally among your children.
- Do not take sides. Instead, encourage your children to work things out among themselves. At most, you can help moderate and suggest fair solutions to problems until your children get better at coming up with them on their own. Learning how to compromise is a skill that will benefit them their whole lives.
- Spend time with your children individually. This is a great way to give your children the individualized attention that they crave. Plan a movie date or grab a quick bite, just the two of you. This one-on-one time makes them feel like they are important. Plus, it’s a great way to strengthen your relationship with your child.
- Set the expectation. If your children know what you expect from them, they are more likely to follow your guidelines—and your example. Let your children know that you expect them to treat each other with respect. If they argue or fight, fight fair. No hitting, no name-calling, no yelling, no bad words and no breaking or throwing things. If they do any of these things, there will be a consequence, administered by you.
- Love unconditionally. Let your children know—and remind them often—that there is nothing they can do that will make you stop loving them. Encourage them to love each other the same way. Stress the importance of family.
- Keep communicating. The more communication, the better. Communication can help prevent those misunderstandings that lead to arguments and hurt feelings. Encourage your children to be open about expressing their feelings. This can help them understand each other better. It also is a great tool for learning to relate to others as your children get older.
- Teach empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the best way to end an argument or prevent one altogether. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another person is also a great skill to teach your children.
As frustrating as sibling rivalry is for parents, it’s important to keep in mind that there are some beneficial side effects. Sibling rivalry can help children develop interpersonal skills. They can practice communicating in relationships. They can develop healthy strategies (with your help) for dealing with negative emotions like jealousy. Sibling rivalry can help them develop problem-solving skills that they can use throughout their lives. It can even teach them how to make up or forgive someone else or ask for forgiveness.
Things to consider
Even though a little sibling rivalry is normal and can be a healthy party of growing up, there are rivalries that do more damage than good. If your children can’t be in the same room without fighting or never seem to have moments where they get along, it could indicate a bigger problem. In these instances, the long-term effects of sibling rivalry can impact adulthood.
If sibling rivalry lasts into adulthood—or if it reoccurs during adulthood—it can impact the lives of everyone in the family. It could cause one sibling to isolate himself or herself. It could divide a group of siblings if they take “sides.” It could result in fewer family gatherings and unravel an otherwise tight-knit family. It also will decrease the overall happiness of the entire family.
When to see a doctor
Research indicates that older “tween” and teen siblings who fight over issues of “fairness” are more likely to have depression. Fighting over personal space makes siblings more likely to have anxiety and low self-esteem.
In extreme cases, a sibling rivalry can get ugly—really ugly. If one of your children is being victimized, either physically or verbally, it’s time to step in and possibly seek the help of a professional. This is especially true if you fear that your children are going to hurt each other.
Questions for your doctor
- Will my children grow out of their sibling rivalry?
- My children used to be best friends and now they don’t get along at all. What changed?
- How can I recognize normal sibling rivalry vs. extreme sibling rivalry?
- When should I worry about sibling rivalry?
- Is there any point at which I should involve a professional counselor to help resolve sibling rivalry?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.