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Sibling Rivalry

It’s Never Too Late

Surefire ways to help your kids get along

By Richard A. Shulman, Ph.D.


Sibling rivalry is a subject that many parents aren’t well equipped to handle.  It’s also a subject that evokes self-doubt, public embarrassment and extreme criticism.  Parents ask me, “Why do my kid’s always fight?”   “What am I doing wrong?”  “Does this mean I’m a bad parent?”  “If I let them fight, what will their relationship be like in the future?”   “Am I setting them up for failure?”  “If I allow the fighting to continue, will they begin to hate each other?”  and, “How can I make my kids get along?” 


The truth of the matter is sibling rivalry is normal and should be expected.  It’s a natural part of development and has wonderful and positive attributes associated with it, if it’s handled in a controlled and respectful manner.  

Sibling rivalry promotes many necessary and developmental milestones in a child’s life.  It enhances a child’s ability to problem solve, resolve conflicts, assess and size up situations, compromise, work together as a team, and work through self-doubt and disappointment.  Unfortunately, by allowing this process to work itself out, it understandably adds additional stress to our lives.   Furthermore, another question that needs to be addressed is, “Am I doing my kid a disservice by only having one child?”  The answer is no.  However, as a parent, you must be aware of the benefits from sibling rivalry and help your child enhance these skills in other positive and productive ways.

I’ve collected much literature on this topic from the #1 New York Times bestseller, “Siblings Without Rivalry” by Faber and Mazlish; and from articles by Family Skills: “Managing Sibling Rivalry” by Johnson and Goodman; “Practically Perfect Parenting for Pre-Schoolers: Sibling Rivalry”; National Network for Child Care: “How to Stop Sibling Rivalry”; and “Getting a Handle on Sibling Rivalry” by Vicki Lansky.

The literature discusses the benefits and problems with sibling rivalry.  It also discusses the importance of handling it in a beneficial and respectful manner.  They all state that if Sibling Rivalry is not handled properly, it may produce animosity, hatred, lower a child’s self-esteem, stunt their development and their ability to problem solve and succeed in the future.

Some of the skills to enhance the benefits and avoid the pitfalls are as follows:

1. Develop an atmosphere of mutual respect.   This entails setting up a policy of using manners, learning to compromise, avoiding labeling, name-calling, violence, etc.

2. Stay out but monitor the seriousness of the fight.   No one issue is ever black and white and the roots are very long and tangled.  You’ll never get an unbiased answer and most of the time you will be put in the middle and have to choose sides.  Instead, label each situation on a four-point scale of dangerousness.  If it’s a one-point (harmless fighting) avoid getting in the middle.  A two-point (semi-serious) describe the problem and then leave the room.  A three-point (rapidly escalating) assess the degree of potential danger and remind your kid’s to be respectful.  A four-point (dangerous situation) requires adult intervention, by separating each child and imposing consequences.

3. Don’t reward tattletales.    When one child comes to you with reports of their sibling’s dastardly deeds, reflect their feelings and have them work it out.

4. Take a break from your kids.   By taking care of yourself, it will not be as easy for your kids to push your buttons.  It’s a lot easier to stay focused and calmer when you are more refreshed.

5. Avoid playing the fairness game.   Fairness is one of the things your kid’s fight about the most.  Treat children as individuals and address each of their qualities and characteristics uniquely.

6. Teach your kids problem-solving skills.   Give your kids the guidelines and skills to solve problems for themselves.  Ask each kid during a family meeting how he or she can get along better with their sibling.  Discuss what things they might need from the other and ways to brainstorm possible solutions to these problems.

7. Use prevention as your best defense.   Since most fighting is a way to draw your attention to them.  Incorporate special time with each child.  Set up schedules and make yourself available to each of your kids.  Have your kids go on special outings with each parent and do different things with each child.

8. Give your kids’ a break from each other.    If at all possible, separate your kids.  Let them have time alone while driving, at a friend’s house, visiting relatives, etc.  Remember, kids need their own time and if they get cooped up in the same space for a long time they get irritated.  Think back to when you’ve been in that situation.  Need I say more.

9. Remember to appreciate your kids at all times.  Notice how often they get along without fighting.  Pay attention to their good qualities and what is special about each child and remember that it’s their job to work things out not yours.  Your job is to be a role model, promote all feelings, open up clear lines of communication, develop mutual respect, and monitor your kids and your needs.

As parents you need to let go of your urge to worry and your expectation of being a perfect parent.  You need to learn how to enjoy life and laugh a little more.  It’s also important to learn how to roll with the punches and to ask yourself, “How big of a deal will this be in five years from now!” 

It's never too soon to create a better life for yourself.