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Soothing Sibling Rivalry: Parenting Tips

May 10, 2013
Children and Teens / Mental Health
“Staff Tips and Strategies” and a drawing of a family in green

Deborah Goldstein, LCSW-C, Clinical Director

Growing up in a family with more than one child has its pros and cons. Living with brothers and sisters offers many opportunities to learn important social lessons –such as how to compromise, how to share parents’ attention, and how to tolerate not getting your way every time. However, siblings typically do experience jealousy and competition that often leads to bickering and fights. Although these rivalries can seem daunting to parents, sibling rivalry is a normal part of family relationships. Here are some tips to help parents keep sibling rivalry under control.

React to Conflicts with Composure

  • Let children express their feelings about one another. Acknowledge negative feelings by labeling them, saying something like “You sound very angry at your sister.” Then suggest healthy ways of dealing with those feelings. With a young child you might encourage using words or a drawing to express feelings. With older children, give them some time to calm down, and then help them to verbalize their emotions.
  • Allow children to work out their differences instead of stepping in on all arguments. Minor arguing is normal and can help develop conflict resolutions skills valuable in all future relationships.
  • When children argue, comment on the behavior you are seeing, but don’t judge who is right or wrong. Use neutral observations such as “ I see the two of you disagree.” Contribute ideas to solve the problem with them, not for them. Don’t assume the older child made the first mistake. Younger children can antagonize and start conflicts, too.
  • Step in on fights that may become dangerous. Break up any physical altercations. Let the children cool down before bringing them back together with you to discuss their feelings and work together towards a possible solution. Set a rule against physical fighting, and clear, consistent consequences for breaking it. Allow “play-fighting” only if both children agree it is fun.

Show you Value Both Individuality and Teamwork

  • Treat your children individually, but not equally. Respond to each of your children’s needs appropriately, but do not pressure yourself to do all things equally. Sometimes one child may need more of your time than another. An older child may also be allowed more privileges than a younger sibling.
  • Tell each child what behavior you expect without comparing to siblings. Statements such as “Please do your homework the first time I ask you” are direct without setting one child’s behavior above another’s. Comparing, on the other hand, creates competition between siblings and can intensify jealousy and envy.
  • Spend some time alone with each child individually, as often as you can manage.
  • Encourage teamwork by rewarding your children when they work together. Compliment them when you see them getting along, working or playing cooperatively.

Realistic expectations among parents are also important in keeping sibling rivalry in perspective. Not all siblings will be close friends. Differences in personality, age, gender, temperament and other factors may interfere. However, your children’s relationships in childhood aren’t necessarily indicators of their relationships later. Often brothers and sisters who were at odds growing up find ways to understand, appreciate and accommodate one another as adults. JSSA can help you and your family to further explore sibling relationships.