Sibling rivalry: Helping your children get along

If you have children, you know that maintaining peace in your household can be difficult.

One minute your children are getting along and the next minute they're at each other's throats. Knowing when and how to intervene can make a difference in how your children relate to each other. Find out what you can do to manage sibling rivalry.

What causes sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry typically develops as siblings compete for their parents' love and respect. Signs of sibling rivalry might include hitting, name-calling, bickering and immature behavior. Moderate levels of sibling rivalry are a healthy sign that each child is able to express his or her needs or wants.

What factors might affect how well siblings get along?

While sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up, many factors can affect how well your children get along with each other — including age, sex and personality, the size of your family, whether it's a blended family, and each child's position in it. For example:

  • Children close in age might battle each other more than children farther apart in age.
  • Children of the same sex might share more of the same interests, but they might also be more likely to compete against each other.
  • Middle children — who might not get the same privileges or attention as the oldest or youngest child in the family — might act out to feel more secure.
  • Children whose parents are divorced might feel driven to compete for the attention of the parent with whom they live — especially if stepsiblings also live in the home.

As your children get older, the way they interact is likely to change. While younger children tend to fight physically, older children are more likely to have verbal arguments. Competitiveness between siblings typically peaks between ages 10 and 15. However, sometimes sibling rivalry can continue on into adulthood.

What steps can parents take to improve sibling relationships?

All siblings are bound to fight, tease and tattle on one another at some point. Take steps to encourage healthy sibling relationships:

  • Respect each child's unique needs. Treating your children uniformly isn't always practical. Instead, focus on meeting each child's unique needs. For example, instead of buying your children the same gifts to avoid conflict, consider buying them different gifts that reflect their individual interests. Instead of signing up all of your children for soccer or piano lessons, ask for their input.
  • Avoid comparisons. Comparing your children's abilities can make them feel hurt and insecure. Avoid discussing the differences between children in front of them. When praising one of your children, describe his or her action or accomplishment — rather than comparing it to how his or her sibling does it.
  • Set the ground rules. Make sure your children understand what you consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior when it comes to interacting with each other, as well as the consequences of misbehavior. For example, discourage your children from criticizing and correcting each other.
  • Don't get involved in battles. Encourage your children to settle their own differences. While you might need to help younger children resolve disputes, you can still refrain from taking sides. When you discipline your children, avoid doing so in front of others — which can cause shame and embarrassment. When possible, take your child aside to discuss his or her behavior. Also, avoid using nicknames for your children that might perpetuate sibling rivalry or repeatedly blaming one child for sibling disputes.
  • Anticipate problems. If your children can't resolve a disagreement by themselves or they routinely fight over the same things, help them devise a solution. For example, if you have young children who have trouble sharing, encourage them to each play with their own toys or plan activities that don't require much cooperation — such as listening to music or playing hide and seek. If your children battle over gadgets, help them create a weekly schedule. Explain the consequences of not following the schedule.
  • Listen to your children. Being a sibling can be frustrating. Allow your children to vent their negative feelings about each other. Respond by acknowledging their feelings. If you have siblings, share stories of your own childhood conflicts. Keeping your sense of humor might also be useful. Consider holding regular family meetings to give your children a chance to talk about and work out sibling issues. Family dinners also provide opportunities for talking and listening.
  • Encourage good behavior. When you see your children playing well together or working as a team, compliment them.
  • Show your love. Spend time alone with each of your children. Do special activities with each child that reflects his or her interests. Remind your children that you're there for them and they can talk about anything with you.

Do twins or other multiples have special sibling issues?

Sibling rivalry often isn't an issue for multiples. While twins or other multiples might compete against each other, the children typically also depend on each other and develop close relationships early on.

However, they might have problems maintaining their individuality. Twins are often treated as a unit, rather than two children who have unique personalities. It can be tempting to dress them alike and give them the same toys. If you have multiples, pay attention to their different needs and try to foster individuality.

Other children in a family with multiples might feel left out or jealous since they're not part of this unique relationship. If you have multiples and other children, spend special one-on-one time with each of your kids. Also, encourage your multiples to play separately with other children. Being able to be apart is a skill from which your children will benefit as they get older.

Remember, all siblings fight or argue. Sibling rivalry is normal. However, by treating your children as individuals, listening to them and giving them opportunities to resolve their own problems, you'll lay the groundwork for solid sibling relationships.

Last Updated Nov 13, 2020

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