I thought sibling rivalry wouldn’t be an issue with my children, as they are three and a half years apart, and different genders. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
If bickering and fighting between your children are wearing you down and impacting everyday family life, read on for some tips.
What is Normal Sibling Rivalry?
Sibling rivalry involving disagreements, resentment, envy, verbal and even occasional physical fights are normal.
The main reason is that as we evolved, we had to compete to survive. If food was scarce, you’d want to be the sibling who got your parents’ attention for food and other resources. It’s human nature.
Having said that, if one or both of your children are regularly being verbally abused to the point that it is affecting their wellbeing, then they may need some help with the sibling relationship. If one or both children are regularly getting hurt or you worry that someone is going to get seriously injured, you should also seek help (see below).
How Do Family Dynamics Affect Sibling Rivalry?
Family dynamics can massively impact the level of sibling rivalry because they affect how much your child feels secure and valued.
Here are some examples of variables that can have an effect:
- How much physical time a parent has at home to devote to the children (e.g. do they work long hours or do they care for a relative outside the home?).
- The amount of emotional availability the adults have.
- The adult to child ratio. For example, if there are two children, two parents and grandma living at home, the children may not feel a high need to compete.
- Physical space at home. Is your home cramped? Does each person have a safe place they can retreat to when they need space? Do they share a room? If not, this can contribute to irritability and sibling fights.
- How clear are family roles? Is one child clearly viewed as the baby of the family, and another as the big brother / big sister and role model? Or perhaps your second child is competing for the same role as your oldest child, such as “the intellectual child” or “the arty child”.
Have you noticed that rivalry intensifies between your children when you are with them? At least, it does in our family. My children get along much better when my husband and I are not around.
Personality also comes into the equation. My children are both rather driven and competitive, which makes rivalry almost inevitable, even though I don’t encourage it. If you have laid back children, you may be lucky enough to have less intense sibling rivalry! Individual temperaments really affect the dynamics of family relationships.
What are the Signs of Sibling Rivalry?
There are some tell-tale signs of typical sibling rivalry. there are also signs of more extreme sibling rivalry.
Signs of typical sibling rivalry:
- One-upmanship. For example, the younger sibling passes their grade 1 piano exam with merit. The older sibling reminds everyone: “I got a distinction at grade 2.”
- Bickering. Picking small fights with one another about trivial things.
- Indifference. For instance, in older children this could be a lack of support when their sibling is facing a big event in their lives.
Signs of more extreme sibling rivalry which may require some professional help (see below):
- Clear lack of empathy, such as constant verbal abuse from one sibling towards another or between siblings.
- Physical assaults or fights where one or both siblings get hurt.
- One sibling showing high dominance over the other e.g. treating them like a servant.
What Causes Siblings to Not Get Along?
The root cause of sibling fighting is insecurity. At home, children need to feel safe and secure. You can read more about this in my article: The Importance Of Attachment In Children. Sometimes children feel that the mere presence of their sibling threatens that security. They may subconsciously feel that it heightens their risk of parental rejection.
To some extent, these fears are realistic. For example, the arrival of a new baby will mean that you get less of your parents’ attention.
If you child feels insecure, it is not your fault though. Children of all ages go through periods of insecurity as a natural part of growing up. In the teen years this is very common. You can read more about this in my article: A Feeling Of Insecurity And Anxiety In A Teenager: 9 Parent Tips.
Why Do Some Siblings Fight So Much?
The reason is a complex combination of factors including:
- Personalities (either too similar or incompatible).
- Family environment (e.g. having enough space to be away from the sibling sometimes).
- Parental approach (for example, do you unwittingly encourage your children to compete with one another by celebrating good grades openly?).
- Level of family stress.
- Birth order and age gap.
Is Sibling Rivalry Sometimes a Good Thing?
Sibling rivalry can be positive for your children for the following reasons:
- Competition can be healthy. It can encourage children to set high goals for themselves and become high achievers.
- Your children get to practise important social skills in a safe environment. For example, conflict resolution and how to manage personality clashes skilfully. This will prepare them for adult life.
How Should You Deal With Sibling Rivalry?
There are three effective techniques to manage and resolve sibling rivalry:
- Reward Co-operation
- Plan Parent-Child Time (1-1)
- Give Them Different Roles
Just because sibling rivalry is normal, it doesn’t mean we can’t teach and reward co-operation. In other words, we can bring out more of the behaviour we want to see by encouraging, labelling and rewarding. The more practise a child gets in co-operation skills, the more they will be able to do it next time. For example, you could ask your children to co-operate to achieve a goal, like wrapping a birthday present for a family member. They may need a little guidance from you to start with if they have less experience in co-operating in positive ways (eg “Tom, you cut the wrapping paper and wrap it round, and Adam, you are in charge of the sellotape.”). If they can achieve the goal (wrapping a present by co-operating), tell them how proud you are – yes, even though it’s only a small task and you feel it’s something they should easily have been able to do! Make sure you “label” what they’ve done, to increase their awareness. For instance, you could say: “That’s brilliant, you managed to co-operate by sticking to your roles and being patient with each other.”
Be sure to plan family activities that require co-operation. Baking, board games, geocaching (a favourite of ours!)… the possibilities are endless. When you notice that you are all co-operating harmoniously, don’t forget to “label” it so everyone can remember these moments and realise that you can do it!
Make sure there are times when your children do not feel they need to compete with other family members. (And as you now know, this is hard-wired into them through evolution, so they can’t really help it!) In other words, schedule in one-on-one time with each child. Make them feel special and valued. This will reduce that (most likely subconscious) feeling of scarcity, which can fuel sibling fighting.
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Finally, sibling rivalry only happens when siblings actually feel they are rivals. You can alter this by adapting the way they see themselves in relation to their sibling(s). Regularly talk to your child about their unique role. It really helps children’s self-esteem to be able to teach unique skills to others, and this is a “double win” because it takes away the sense of rivalry. “Rival to rival shifts” to “teacher and student”. For example:
“Tom, as the eldest your brother looks up to you and he wants you to teach him how to do things. He especially loves it when you cook with him and show him how to create new recipes. Maybe you could try to teach him one recipe per week?”
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.