Sibling Rivalry

Contributor: Elise Herman, MD, KVH Pediatrics

If we have more than one child, we hope they will get along and be good friends, and more than likely that will happen one day. But before that time and almost as soon as the second child arrives, sibling conflict and rivalry can start. Especially now with so much family together time given the COVID pandemic and its restrictions, it is helpful to understand sibling rivalry and to have strategies to help your kids live (somewhat) peaceably together.

Sibling rivalry occurs because kids are vying for their parents’ attention, and negative attention (attention for bad behavior) is better than none. Often times, parents give much more attention when behavior is troublesome than when it is ‘what is expected’.

Children also want to ‘become their own person’; to stand out and make a name for themselves within the family. Squawking the loudest and trying to be better than their siblings accomplishes this. Sibling rivalry is more common if family members don’t have functional ways to solve conflicts and resort to yelling and getting very angry. If life is stressful and parents are tired (thanks, COVID!), behavior may worsen. Likewise, hunger and fatigue may contribute as well.

So how can we our help kids get along?

  • Give lots of positive attention to functional behaviors and they will increase– being kind, helping a sibling, letting someone else go first, etc. Practice these skills as they take time to develop.
  • Teach kids to use “I” messages (“I feel upset when…”) instead of “you” messages (“You make me so mad!”) which make people feel defensive.
  • Help kids understand that things may not always be exactly equal, but they will be fair. For example, kids at different ages will have different chores and privileges.
  • Do not compare your children as this just fuels competitiveness.
  • Establish ground rules: no name-calling or physical aggression, etc. and clear consequences if these rules are broken.
  • Try to stay out of conflicts and let kids know that if you do step in, it will be the same ‘solution’ for all. Turning off the TV if they can’t agree what to watch solves the problem and teaches kids that they are better off resolving their own conflicts.
  • Have routine family time that is positive like family meals and getting outside regularly as this helps minimize the negative impact of occasional conflicts.
  • Try to have at least 10 minutes alone with each child daily and let your child choose the activity (within reason). Even a few minutes of your time one-on-one helps that child feel valued. No cell phones or distractions during this precious time.
  • Help kids learn to resolve conflict by discussing the issue when calm, troubleshooting what happened and having strategies to do better the next time
  • Teach your kids to say 3 nice things to each other every day; simple things like, “Good morning!” with a smile counts, as does “Thanks for helping me with…” and “You are nice to be with!”. Remember to do this for your kids as well, and everyone will have a more positive attitude.
  • Take heart that most siblings do become friends as they get older. Learning how to solve conflicts with siblings is very useful for future relationships be they with a coworker, spouse or boss. These important lessons from growing up certainly come in handy later in life.