Sibling rivalry can take many forms—from good-natured demands to know a parent’s favorite to aggressive fighting, punching, and biting. It’s one of the most common problems families face and one of the biggest sources of parenting stress.
Siblings may have very different personalities, and they are thrown together and forced to work out their disagreements for years. This presents a great opportunity for them to learn communication and conflict resolution skills. It can also be deeply frustrating to both parents and their children. Sometimes, sibling rivalry constitutes a unique form of bullying that can affect a child for many years. Knowing how to deal with sibling rivalry can make parenting less stressful and help parents provide a safe and supportive environment for all their children.
What Causes Sibling Rivalry?
Living with another person can be difficult. There are often possessions to fight over, and children may argue over limited resources. Just as some bickering among roommates who did not choose one another is inevitable, so too is some level of disagreement between siblings.
Although most parents of multiple children report some degree of sibling rivalry, the roots of said rivalry can differ between families. Most analysts suggest a competition for parental love and approval often play a central role. Some factors that may increase sibling conflict include:
- Perceived or actual parental favoritism.
- Differences in temperament and personality.
- The need to guard resources, such as when a child worries their younger sibling will steal their favorite blanket.
- Jealousy over parental love, such as when an older child envies a new baby for the attention the infant gets.
- Parental modeling of conflict resolution, such as if parents model an aggressive or hostile conflict management style.
- Lack of conflict resolution skills, since young children rarely have the complex skills necessary to manage the challenges of living with another person.
- Behavior that normalizes or reinforces aggression, such as when parents ignore physical conflict or laugh when one child teases another.
- Viewing the sibling as a competitor rather than a collaborator.
- Being a twin or multiple, since this increases competition and raises the probability that parents or other adults will compare the children.
Some research suggests that younger children may engage in sibling rivalry more often than adolescents. Children between the ages of 3 and 7 have high rates of conflict, disagreeing an average of 3.5 times an hour.
How Sibling Rivalry Affects Kids and Parents
Sibling rivalry can be a chronic source of frustration for parents, as they may feel that they spend most of their time mediating conflicts. This increases the stress and exhaustion of parenting. Constant conflict can also make it difficult to spend meaningful time with children, either together or separately. Some parents struggle to remain calm or patient in the face of intense rivalry. Others worry that the rivalry will negatively affect their children at school, with friends, or in adulthood.
The effects of rivalry on children vary. In the moment, an argument with a sibling can be stressful and frustrating, particularly when a child feels that a parent favors their sibling or does not care about their needs.
Sibling rivalry is common, but not all forms of sibling rivalry are normal or healthy. Sometimes sibling rivalry becomes a form of abuse. A 2013 study that analyzed data from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that sibling assaults are common. Rates of violence were highest among children who were less than 2 years apart. Among this group, 40.9% reported being physically assaulted during the past year, and 7.7% reported either being assaulted with a weapon or being injured.
Chronic physical violence, particularly when one child is usually the victim and the other child is usually the perpetrator, can be traumatic. Chronic sibling violence may increase a child’s risk of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), depression, anxiety, difficulties at school or with friends, and relationship problems in adulthood.
Conversely, sibling rivalry also confers some benefits. Siblings teach one another social skills. Early conflict resolution skills can prepare a child for the many conflicts of adulthood, as well as the challenges of living with other people, such as roommates or spouses. A 2013 study found that fifth graders without siblings had more social skills deficits, even five years after entering school. This trend suggests managing conflicts with siblings continues to confer significant social benefits even after a child enters school and spends daily time with other children.
How Parents Can Prevent Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry is common, but not all forms of sibling rivalry are normal or healthy.
“While many parents tend to overlook it as ‘normal’ when siblings treat each other poorly, sibling rivalry can have a negative impact on mental health that can last a lifetime. Sibling rivalry should be viewed by parents as being potentially as harmful as ‘bullying,’” explains Kathy Hardie-Williams, MEd, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT, a family therapist in Oregon who often works with families to manage sibling rivalry and other conflicts.
“One thing parents can do is make ‘needs’ rather than ‘fairness’ the foundation for decisions,” Williams continues. “We tend to think of fairness as treating everyone the same, but in fact, fairness is treating everyone based on what they need. Parents would be serving their children well to teach this concept.”
A 2012 study of a novel intervention for sibling rivalry echoes these sentiments, pointing to the importance of fostering a collaborative relationship between siblings. That study tested 12 after-school activities that taught siblings how to communicate in a collaborative, positive fashion. By encouraging siblings to see themselves a part of a team, researchers were able to improve how siblings felt about each other.
Some other strategies that may help include:
- Preparing young children for the arrival of a new baby by talking to them about the baby and helping them feel like an important part of the process.
- Not making sudden changes in a child’s life following the arrival of a new baby.
- Consistently enforcing rules in an age-appropriate way. Siblings are more likely to behave abusively toward one another when such behavior is rewarded. For example, a child who can get what they want by stealing from a sibling is more likely to continue doing so.
- Intervening in conflicts that are one-sided or physically aggressive.
- Not showing favoritism or comparing children. Don’t urge one child to be more like the other. Don’t make negative gender or appearance-based comparisons. Don’t force twins to wear the same clothing or expect they will behave the same.
- Spending meaningful alone time with each child. This makes it easier for parents to recognize and nurture each child’s unique personality and talents.
When Kids Accuse You of Having a Favorite
Children who accuse a parent of favoritism often feel genuinely distressed about the experience. So parents should not dismiss their concerns—even if the parent does not have a favorite. Instead, focus on what the child is feeling and how you can help ease those emotions.
Some questions to ask include:
- Why do you feel like I have a favorite?
- What could I do that would help you feel more loved?
- Do you feel like you get enough time with me?
- What could I do to improve your relationship with your sibling?
- How can I help you and your sibling better manage conflict?
Some strategies for managing allegations of favoritism include:
- Being mindful of your own biases. Sometimes parents are more compatible with one child than another. A parent who loves sports and rough play may have trouble relating to a child who prefers to spend quiet time reading a book. Plan activities together, and encourage your child to share their interests.
- Noticing each child’s unique personality and talents. Compliment children not just for the achievements that matter most to you, but for those that matter most to them. An aspiring artist may care more that you notice the comic book they drew than that you reward them for good grades.
- Focusing on a child’s feelings rather than the truth of any accusations they make about favoritism. Love isn’t an easily measurable emotion, so it is next to impossible to “prove” that you like each child equally. If you can make your child feel more loved, then they will likely feel less need to compete with their sibling for your affection.
When Should You Consider Family Therapy?
Family therapy can help families manage many forms of sibling rivalry. It’s never too early or too late to give therapy a try. Therapists can help even with minor sibling rivalry. Some signs that a family should consider therapy include:
- Sibling rivalry is a chronic source of stress to the parents or children.
- The parents have tried multiple strategies to improve the siblings’ relationship, but none have worked.
- There is bullying or physical abuse.
- One or more children have special needs that complicate sibling rivalry.
- There has been a recent change or loss in the family, such as a divorce or death.
- The parents have trouble relating to one or more children, triggering allegations of favoritism.
The right therapist can help each family member talk about their feelings. They can then support the family to develop a sibling rivalry management plan that everyone can live with. GoodTherapy can help you find a family therapist here.
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- Downey, D. B., Condron, D. J., & Yucel, D. (2013, November 7). Number of siblings and social skills revisited among American fifth graders. Journal of Family Issues, 36(2), 273-296. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0192513X13507569?journalCode=jfia
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- Fry, S. M. (2019, May 1). Sibling rivalry—lifelong relationships, lifelong effects. Retrieved from https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/sibling-rivalry-lifelong-relationships-lifelong-effects/
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