An Analysis of Sibling Rivalry and the Tools to Improve Your Children’s Bond

sibling rivalry

Being a parent is hard, but when sibling rivalry rears its ugly head, parenthood can feel like an impossible task. Car journeys become a new kind of hell and everything from their school grades to birthday presents suddenly becomes a competition. The good news is that sibling rivalry is mostly normal and can even have some positive outcomes for kids (which we’ll explore in greater detail later on.)

So what causes sibling rivalry and can it be avoided? Brothers and sisters who constantly fight with one another are doing so for a number of reasons – to compete for their parent’s attention, their parent’s affection and possibly in the hope of receiving a material prize like extra allowance or the latest toy. Deep down, siblings mostly crave their parent’s approval, and this can often be why some cases of sibling rivalry carry on into adulthood.

In its worst forms, sibling rivalry can push parents to breaking point and make them question their parenting skills. Fortunately, there are many ways you can deal with your fighting kids – even if hope seems lost! It’s also important to remember that rivalry is mostly inevitable when you have two or more children, so don’t be so hard on yourself. We hope this piece provides a better understanding of sibling rivalry and the tools to help you cope with it more effectively.

Causes of Sibling Rivalry

The causes behind sibling rivalry are never as black and white as brothers and sisters simply having a ‘dislike’ or ‘hatred’ of each other. Children may complain that their sibling has stolen their favorite toy or won’t let them play/share their game, but there is normally a deeply rooted cause behind these complaints. In reality, your children’s fight is often triggered by a built up resentment – according to child psychologist Dr. Richard C. Woolfson – and there can be a number of reasons behind this:

Lack of Structure

An important cause of sibling rivalry is when kids have little or no structure in their everyday life. Structure means rules and routines and children like to know what to expect as far as things like meals and bedtimes go. If they don’t have this, this can breed anxiety and (in the naughtier sibling), this is where boundaries will be pushed and tested.

Lack of Personal Space

It’s so important for your kids to feel like an individual, and this can be difficult as the home becomes filled with more siblings. Sibling rivalry will commonly arise when one child feels they have no privacy and space to call their own. What was once their toy chest or ‘side of the room’ will be taken over in large families and this can lead to sibling fights over territory.

Arrival of a New Baby

Welcoming a new bundle of joy into the family is a magical time for the parents, but sometimes, all your eldest child knows is that he or she isn’t being paid the same full attention anymore. The stress that comes with a new baby can also be picked up on by your older child, and this can cause them to act up in response to the tension.

Small Age Gap

According to child expert Dr. Woolfson, when children have an age gap of two years or less, a competitive nature is more likely. This is because they may start to share similar interests at a similar age and if one is more skilled or shows more progress in the same activity, then this can breed a lot of conflict – especially if mom and dad don’t give them equal attention for doing the same task.

Tension from the Parents

Often if there are marital issues between the parents, children will pick up on all this tension. Sensing conflict from the people further up in the chain of command can cause children anxiety and this will reflect in the children’s behavior. If mommy and daddy are yelling or calling each other names, this will see siblings copying the parent’s behavior.

Lack of Action/Discipline

When you hear one of your children express that classic complaint: “You love [my sibling’s name] more than me!”, it could simply be rooted in the fact that you may have – unknowingly – failed to carry out discipline on a certain occasion, and it might appear to your other child that their sibling’s bad behavior is not being met with the same response.

So What Next?

Once you know more about the causes of sibling rivalry, it will become easier to minimize the levels of conflict between your children, both in the home and in public. As much as you can do your part as a parent to lessen the impact of sibling rivalry, though, it is important to remain realistic about the fact that it may always be there.

Most siblings will only have a competitive streak at specific times when sports or similar hobbies are involved for example. The best thing you can do as parents or guardians to your children is to learn how to manage their rivalry by identifying the specific triggers and patterns in your children’s behavior that leads them to repeat the same fights over and over again.

How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry

Every time your kids get into a fight, it’s easy to feel hopeless about how to respond. Should you physically separate them? Should you use warning language that threatens their privileges, such as “you’ll both be grounded from the internet if you don’t stop”? It can be hard to judge when parents should get involved in sibling squabbles.

Fortunately, if you arm yourself with a set of guidelines to follow, then you can be prepared for the best response when your kids start acting up. According to The Center for Parenting Education, a helpful strategy to use is the ‘Green light to Red light’ guide, which looks a little something like this:

GREEN light: Small acts of hostility like minor name-calling and bickering.

Parental action? Don’t get involved. Small disagreements and comments made at a low volume normally resolve themselves. If you step in and start accusing or raising your voice, this could risk agitating your kids further and amplifying a minor fight.

YELLOW light: Name calling has become nasty, raised voices, mild physical contact etc.

Parental action? Acknowledge each child’s viewpoint. Give each sibling a chance to explain why they are angry/upset. The sooner you respond, the sooner you can hopefully prevent things from getting physical and more dangerous.

ORANGE light: Play-fighting has become more serious. Threat of violence and danger.

Parental action? Ask yourself if they are play fighting or fighting for real. If you judge it to be serious and threatening, immediately stop and separate the kids. Return to the YELLOW light action and ask each child what happened and work to resolve it.

RED light: Physical injury/emotional harm has already occurred. Kids are hurt and/or crying.

Parental action? Separate the kids immediately. Attend to the child who has been physically hurt first. Acknowledge that you will listen to their viewpoint once the injury has been taken care of. Let them know that repeating this will have consequences next time. Once each child has had time to cool off in separate rooms, return to the YELLOW light step.

If it helps, keep this ‘Green light to Red light’ guide somewhere you can refer to easily like on the fridge or memo board at home. Each time you consult the guide, the better you’ll become at identifying the type of fight your kids are having and the most effective way to respond.

How did your parents deal with it?

If it’s applicable to your childhood, it can be helpful to think back to how your own parents dealt with the rivalry expressed between you and your other sibling(s). As generations move on, parental advice can change and become less relevant to your situation, but thinking back to how your parents dealt with your childhood fights can offer a helpful framework for how to deal with your own kids. Think of the responses that worked for them and think up new alternatives yourself.

What are the Effects of Sibling Rivalry?

Studies on the long-term effects of sibling rivalry have revealed that the physical and emotional impact of sibling fights in childhood can result in things like depression and anger issues in later life. Here are some of the main ways in which victims of sibling rivalry can be affected both in childhood and in later adult life:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Anger issues
  • Aggressive tendencies
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss of identity

Another alarming discovery in this research into the effects is that – when sibling rivalry is at its most severe – this type of aggression can have a similar impact on a child’s mental health and well-being as school yard bullying. When it gets to the point that one of your children no longer feels safe at home with their other sibling, this should be classed as ‘sibling bullying’ instead of sibling rivalry and should be dealt with by setting appropriate boundaries for the bullying child. (You can find further tips in our section on ‘How to avoid sibling rivalry’ below.)

Positive effects

You may be surprised to learn that there can be some benefits to sibling rivalry. As stressful as the conflict may be at the time, your children can pick up a few important life skills along the way while fighting with their sibling. These include things like:

  • Learning how to deal with power struggles
  • Teaching them assertiveness and standing their ground in tough situations
  • Increasing their ability to manage conflicts and resolve differences
  • Honing their negotiating skills and abilities to compromise

As well as managing the effect that sibling rivalry has on your children, you should also think about how their constant rivalry is affecting you as a parent. A certain amount of reflection and self-care is important when you are in the middle of stressful sibling arguments and fights. As a parent, making time for yourself isn’t always, but if you take steps to look after yourself, you will be in better shape to handle the stress of their rivalry.

How to Avoid Sibling Rivalry

The fact is, sibling rivalry is inevitable, but manageable! It’s natural for your children to have differing opinions and to feel free to express them, and because of this, siblings will always have disagreements. Even though it can’t be completely avoided, it’s never too late to manage sibling rivalry more effectively in your family home. Here are some helpful tips for preventing sibling rivalry (when you can!)…

– Teach cooperative (not competitive) behavior

Teaching your children to work together towards an end goal – whatever it is – can encourage them to have a positive sibling relationship. Think back to your own childhood, weren’t there times when you and your sibling(s) would bond simply by working together to draw on your dad while he was sleeping? Even the most conflicting siblings can form strong bonds when they work together, so give them plenty of opportunities to do this. This could be things like:

  • Helping you plan a birthday surprise for someone
  • Making a family meal together
  • Making a decoration together like a paper chain for Xmas or Thanksgiving

– Give more one-on-one attention

Children feel less competitive when they feel valued, and feeling valued means being recognized as individuals. While it’s great to spend time with both kids simultaneously, it’s vital that parents dedicate plenty of one-on-one time with each child to reaffirm their individuality.

Pediatrician Dr. Sigmund Norr warns that “labelling and pigeon-holing” your kids – e.g. ‘the bad one’ ‘the smart one’ leaves them no room to grow beyond what they are labelled as. The best gift you can give them if you want to prevent sibling rivalry is spending 10 minutes a day giving each child your undivided attention.

– Address partner conflicts carefully

Don’t forget that a lot of what you and your partner say or do in front of your kids will play a part in their rivalry if they witness a lot of conflict between you. Whenever you can, you should not bring up serious, heated arguments with your partner in front of your children, but when conflict brews up in the heat of the moment, be wary of how this sounds to your kids. Learn to resolve conflict more gently with your partner and your children will gradually learn from example.

Activities to Help Siblings Get Along

There is only so much you can proactively do as a parent to help ease sibling rivalry – you’re not a superhero! Aside from the rules and tools you have given them to (try) and live peacefully with each other, your kids can benefit greatly from sharing fun activities with their brothers and sisters. Here are a few inspiring activities to help your kids get along better with their siblings:

The ‘Flip’ drawing game – Drawing games are great for rainy days and this one is a great way to involve siblings since it needs at least 3 players to work (if you only have two kids, then mom or dad could join in as player 3!). How it works is that each player is asked to draw the top, middle and bottom part of an animal on separate pads of paper and then combine them all at the end!

The ‘Get Along’ jar – Each time your kids start a fight, they might regret it if they know they have to answer to the ‘get along’ jar! This is a jar filled with consequences for each sibling any time a fight starts. These consequences can be things like: ‘Give your sister 3 compliments’, ‘Hug your brother for 1 minute’ or ‘Draw a picture of each other’. These ideas can be made up according to your children’s ages and interests – write them on popsicle sticks or pieces of card.

Sibling trivia game – A bit like the game Mr and Mrs but for siblings! Let your kids find out how well they know each other in a fun way by creating a sibling trivia quiz. Create a list of questions on everything from ‘What is their favorite food?’ to ‘What is their favorite cartoon character?’. This will make your kids have a laugh with their siblings and help them feel closer to each other too!

Other simple ideas!

  • Read together
  • Have a dance party!
  • Build a blanket fort
  • Build a lego tower
  • Help wash the car
  • Bake cookies
  • Build a sandcastle
  • Make paper planes

Is Sibling Rivalry Normal?

This is surely the question every new parent has asked themself when dealing with fighting siblings – is this behavior normal? When kids are constantly fighting – especially when it gets abusive – it’s hard not to question whether their behavior is normal. Have you done a poor job as a parent? Are your kids destined to be bullies at school?

Before you drive yourself mad with unnecessary guilt, it can help to remember that your children have their own unique personalities and will always express differences to each other, both physically and emotionally. Caroline Hartwell – parenting expert and nanny for over 20 years – explains that “arguments between siblings are perfectly normal: they are trying to establish their place in the ‘pecking order’. Arguing actually teaches kids how to negotiate..a very valuable life skill.”

But to what degree is sibling rivalry healthy and not so healthy? To help you spot the signs, here’s a quick guide to what is and isn’t normal when it comes to sibling rivalry:

Signs of NORMAL sibling rivalry:

  • Fights are playful, not aggressive (no injuries)
  • Name-calling is playful. Teasing ends in laughter, not crying
  • Siblings know when to draw the line e.g. leave the room, go to their bedroom

Signs of ABNORMAL sibling rivalry:

  • If one child is afraid of the other – disliking the idea of being in the same room as your annoying sibling is one thing, but if one child is fearful or uncomfortable about sharing a space with their sibling, this is a red flag that needs to be talked about.
  • When words genuinely hurt – Assess whether remarks are hurting your child’s self-esteem i.e. one sibling calling another “stupid” if their school grades are suffering or “ugly” if your daughter is self-conscious about her appearance.
  • If a physical fight results in injury – most of the time kids are play wrestling and fighting, but if this results in physical injuries and pain, this cannot be ignored. Stricter boundaries need to be set.

What Causes Sibling Rivalry in Adulthood?

We like to think sibling rivalry is something we “grow out” of as we mature, but some sibling relationships can take this conflict into their adult lives, and some sibling bonds that were previously harmonious in childhood can turn sour as they reach adulthood. But what causes grown adults to still view each other as enemies in later life? Common reasons behind this can be things like:

Parental approval

In the same way that warring siblings want their parents to see them as the ‘good kid’ in childhood, they can still crave approval from their parents in adult life. Only now instead of wanting credit for sharing their new toy or tidying their room, they want to feel rewarded for their success at work or their personal relationships. And if parents don’t recognize these things as achievements, the adult sibling can feel like they have not got the same approval as their brother or sister.

Jealousy and comparison

Grown siblings can have all the approval they crave from their parents, but rivalry can still exist with their sibling on a deeply personal basis if they believe their sibling to be the more successful one. ‘Success’ isn’t just determined by wealth either – this can mean the more successful one in love, the more ambitious one at work, the sibling who has a more interesting social life or a wound that cuts deepest of all – the first sibling to provide the parents with a set of grandchildren.

Past trauma

An understandable reason for sibling rivalry in adulthood can be a past trauma, either physically or emotionally – caused by another sibling. A particularly cruel sibling may have exploited their fears or neglected them in some way and this can have a lasting impact. In severe cases like this, forgiveness may not be so easy just because both siblings have reached an adult age.

Dealing with Adult Sibling Rivalry

Don’t take things personally

Your sibling’s comments can still wear you down if you let them, so don’t take what they say too personally. Be the bigger person and don’t engage in their immature attempts to wear you down. Keep a cool head at family gatherings by leaving the room to go for a walk or change the subject if things begin to feel like a personal attack on the way you live your life.

Find support in other places

You may have been stuck with them during your childhood, but as an adult you have the freedom to surround yourself with a different network of support from your siblings or your parents. If you do not feel as close to your siblings, spend more of your time and energy on great friendships and the love of your partner.

Talk to a therapist

Life is short and if you believe your sibling relationship is worth saving – no matter how toxic – then it is worth your time to address these problems now before it’s too late. Confiding in a therapist either alone or with your sibling in counseling can help you both overcome your past grievances and create a positive relationship with each other in future. Think how much this effort to rebuild your sibling bond will mean to your parents too.

Related Questions:

How do I cope with step sibling rivalry?

Sharing a parent with a new brother or sister just reminds kids of their separation from their old family setup. The best way to ease this transition for your stepchildren is to make sure their biological parent stays consistent with their schedule e.g. if their dad always put them to bed or drove them to school, make sure this carries on. The more step kids see that not everything has to change with step siblings on the scene, the more nurtured and less aggressive they will feel.

Is competitiveness good for children?

Being involved in sports and similar competitive arenas can increase your child’s self esteem and help them become more social as they feel accepted in a group. However, it’s important that your child knows that their efforts are more valuable than winning. Since they will not always win, you should keep them grounded by reminding them of their personal traits too, like being a good brother or a helpful daughter around the house.

How can I tell if my child has an anxiety disorder?

As we mentioned earlier, sibling rivalry can make children naturally anxious, but what is the difference between your child being anxious around their sibling and suffering from constant anxiety? An anxiety disorder can usually be identified by symptoms like headaches, muscle tension and decreased appetite. If you’re concerned, see your local pediatrician for the best assessment of your child’s symptoms.

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