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Are Parents the Biggest Reason for Sibling Rivalry?

Written by Melissa Robertson

When building a family, many parents picture their children growing up to be best friends and confidants but end up with a sibling set that seems to be constantly at war. So why do some siblings seem to be the best of friends and others can’t stand each other?

While some factors can play a key role in sibling relationships, such as personality, position in the family and gender, the most important factor is the attitude of the parents. It can be difficult to be impartial with your children considering their different personalities, needs, and position in the family.

While children may desire you to be ‘fair and equal’, at different times children may need more or less of your attention, more or less sleep or more or less responsibility.

Children’s evolving needs can affect how they relate to one another

  • Toddler: Naturally protective of their belongings and starting to assert their will. Would react aggressively to a sibling touching their toys.
  • School-age: children have a strong sense of fairness and equality. May not understand why all children are not getting treated equally or believe one child is getting preferential treatment.
  • Teenagers: A building of independence may make the teen resentful of spending time with, or taking care of a younger sibling.

Sibling personality differences can play a role

A needy child who clings to their parents can cause resentment from their siblings who long for the same attention. A laid-back child with a sibling who is easily rattled can also cause conflict.

Special needs/sick sibling

If a child requires extra attention or medical intervention their siblings may act out to get attention or out of fear of the situation.

Role models

Children can pick up on your own conflict resolution habits. If you often yell or slam doors, your children may adopt the same habits. If you resolve your issues in a respectful manner, your children may choose to do the same.

What to do when the fighting starts:

  • If at all possible, do not get involved unless there is a risk of physical harm. It’s best for your children to learn how to resolve their own conflicts. There is also a risk that the children see their parents as always protecting one child over the other, which can foster even more resentment.
  • If the children are name calling or using bad language: you can ‘coach’ your children to use respectful language to explain how they are feeling. This is different than intervening because the children are still encouraged to resolve the conflict but are guided with respectful words.
  • If you do step in, try to guide and resolve the conflict with your kids, not for them.

If you get involved:

  • Keep things calm. Take a little time to let the emotions settle before rehashing the situation. Trying to solve it too soon could cause the fight to escalate, once things have settled you can turn it into a teaching moment.
  • Don’t focus on who is to blame. It takes two to fight so both will share the responsibility.
  • Find a positive solution that is win-win. If the children are fighting over a toy, maybe they could be redirected to an activity they can enjoy together.
  • Keep in mind: conflicts can cause stress in the household but they also teach your children important life skills. Children learn how to consider another perspective, control aggressive impulses and how to negotiate.

Simple strategies to teach your children

  • Ignore the behaviour
  • Ask the sibling to stop the behaviour
  • Go to an adult for help.

Prevent fights before they start

  • Resist the urge to compare your children. “Why can’t you eat like your sister?” Your child’s goals and expectations should be related to their individual needs.
  • Address their anger towards each other. Explain that adults also get angry and offer solutions to deal with their anger that does not involve violent behaviour.
  • Praise good behaviour, especially when your children are playing nicely.
  • You can discourage fighting by setting clear expectations around behaviour. If your children are involved in the process of setting rules and consequences they feel control over their own actions and managing their behaviour.
  • Set the limits on appropriate behaviour. Let your children know that there is no hands-on, cursing, name calling or door slamming. It is also important to not negotiate who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ in the conflict.
  • Don’t let your kids make you think that everything has to be equal to be fair. At times your children will require more or less from you.
  • Be proactive in giving your child one-on-one time that is tailored to your child’s specific interests.
  • Make sure your child has their own time and space. To play with friends without a sibling tagging along, to play alone, or to do activities solo.
  • Show your children that they are safe, important and loved
  • Let them know that your love does not have limits
  • Spend time doing family activities so you can let your children spend time together in a positive setting. These can help ease sibling tensions and allow your kids to relate to each other in a positive setting with parental involvement and attention.
  • If your children fight over the same items over and over (such as who chooses the TV channel or who gets to play with a certain toy) establish a schedule for the kids. The item will be taken away If they cannot follow the schedule.
  • School-age children can benefit from family meetings where you can talk about past success in reducing conflict. Children can earn fun family activities by getting along well.
  • Recognize the need for children to spend time away from each other.  A playdate for one can equal one-on-one time for the other child.
  • Children may be fighting in order to gain your attention. When possible, remove yourself from the situation. If your fuse is short, try handing the reins over to the other parent or give yourself a time-out in order to calm down.

Signs your family needs professional help:

  • If the fighting is causing problems in your marriage
  • If the fighting is causing self-esteem or psychological issues in your children
  • If the fighting is related to another serious issue, such as depression

For more information about sibling rivalry, you can check out our sources for this article, The Child Development Institute and Kidshealth.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Parent Life Network or their partners.