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Making Sibling Rivalry Work for Your Family

by

Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Illustration of boy and girl siblings standing far apart and touching fingers with angry looks on their faces

Conflict between siblings is a common and natural facet of family life. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University who conducted a longitudinal study on 200 sibling pairs found that sibling rivalry was ubiquitous from middle childhood through early adolescence (Kim et al., 2006). 

While sibling intimacy was highest for sisters and stable over time for same-sex pairs, brother-sister relationships tended to start off well and take a downturn before becoming positive again. In all cases, conflict declined after early adolescence.

Sibling relationships might get a lot of bad press, but there are benefits to having brothers and sisters. The quality of sibling relationships was found to positively affect prosocial behaviours, which in turn positively influenced best friend relationship quality in a sample of 310 children (Smorti & Ponti, 2018).

Competition between siblings also creates teachable moments. With the right tools and techniques, parents can impart valuable conflict-resolution and self-regulation skills to their children.


Further Reading

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Siblings to the Side: The Impact of Having a Sibling with High Needs

Why sibling rivalry occurs

Aside from the obvious explanation that children compete for resources and their parents’ attention, some experts believe that sibling rivalry serves an important developmental function (Vivona, 2007).

As they fight with their siblings, children develop their own sense of identity – a process known as “differentiation”. They figure out the characteristics that make them special and find their unique place in the world. While differentiation is a process children ultimately need to navigate on their own, parents can facilitate it.

“Many parents sign their children up to the same after-school activities or buy them the same clothing for convenience, but this can make them more competitive,” says Educational and Developmental Psychologist Kimberley O’Brien. “If you foster children’s independence, they feel unique and there’s no need for them to compete.”

Interventions designed to improve sibling relationships 

A systematic review of studies evaluating intervention programs found that two types of interventions improved sibling relationships (Tucker & Finkelhor, 2017).

The first was aimed at directly improving children’s social skills, including perspective-taking, problem-solving and conflict management. The second trained parents on mediation techniques they could use during sibling conflicts to help resolve them and improve their children’s social skills.

The good news is that the techniques used in these interventions can be applied by parents outside of the clinical context to reduce sibling rivalry. 


How families can make sibling rivalry work for them

Sibling conflict is often portrayed as a problem to resolve, but it can be a valuable tool for growth and development. Here are six ways you can help your children navigate their rivalry and make the most of it.

1. Teach children conflict-resolution skills

When your children are fighting, resist the urge to intervene and solve the problem for them. Instead, teach them conflict-resolution skills to help them do it on their own.

  • Taking turns: Instruct children to calmly use their words to ask for a toy they want rather than snatching it. Sibling 1: “Can I please play with that truck now?” Sibling 2: “I’ll give it to you in two minutes.” An hourglass timer can also be a helpful tool to teach children to take turns.
  • Compromising: When both siblings want the last biscuit or to be the leader of a game, conflict may ensue. Teaching them to negotiate until they come to a mutually acceptable agreement will not only help resolve immediate tension but also teach them valuable skills for the future.
  • Expressing their feelings: Adults are often counselled to use “I” statements to express how they’re feeling rather than blaming another person for their anger or frustration. Children can also learn to say, “I feel upset when you snatch my toy” or “I feel sad when you don’t listen to me.” 
  • Walking away: Children can learn various techniques to regulate their strong emotions when they feel them rising. Teach them to walk away, count to 10 or take several deep breaths until their anger has subsided.

2. Avoid labels

While it might be tempting to tell family and friends that your eldest child is “the sporty one” and your youngest is “a bookworm”, labels can inadvertently create competition between siblings. Instead, Kimberley encourages parents to celebrate diversity.

“Just because you’re into reading books now doesn’t mean you’ll always be a bookworm,” she says. “You can demonstrate to your children that life is a journey by telling them about how you were into books at one point in your life and netball at another. Mapping out your journey as an adult shows children that there are opportunities to change.”

Kimberley also believes that both children and adults should try new things.

“You can encourage your children to try new and different activities to promote an inquisitive mindset,” she says. “Rather than being stuck in one identity, parents can also model trying new things. You could try Latin dancing and tell your children how uncomfortable you felt at first, but that you ended up having a great time.”

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Flower in a Pot

3. Praise loudly and reproach quietly

When your children are being kind to each other or putting the conflict resolution techniques you’ve taught them into practice, let them know: “I’m really proud of you for using your words to ask for a turn with the iPad. Well done!”

If one of your children is doing the wrong thing, try to pull them aside.

“Humiliation is a powerful emotion that can trigger an angry response,” says Kimberley. “If you’ve scolded your child publicly, you can repair it by apologising and saying you’ll do your best to avoid doing it in the future.”

4. Intervene only when necessary

There will be occasions when your children aren’t able to resolve conflicts on their own – especially when they’re still learning these techniques. If the fighting is escalating without showing signs of reaching a resolution, you can use some simple mediation techniques to help them work through it:

  • Ask your children to take some deep breaths (or use another technique that helps to calm them down).
  • Once they’re calm, ask each child to explain their side of the story using “I feel” statements and listen without taking sides.
  • Ask each child to repeat what their sibling said in their own words.
  • Ask them to come up with solutions together and help them come to a resolution. 

5. Give them individual attention

Try to give each one of your children your undivided attention for about 10 minutes a day (or several times a week). They may be less likely to compete with their siblings for your attention if they feel seen and valued.

“It comes down to building the relationship,” says Kimberley. “Every child loves a bit of one-on-one time - it’s a mutual feeling of appreciation.”

6. Seek professional help

If sibling conflict is having a significant impact on your family and none of the techniques outlined here seem to help, reach out to our team of professionals. We can help you find a harmonious balance within your household again.


View article references

  • Kim, J.Y., McHale, S.M., Wayne Osgood, D., & Crouter, A.C. (2006). Longitudinal course and family correlates of sibling relationships from childhood through adolescence. Child Development, 77(6), 1746-1761. https://doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00971.x
  •   Smorti, M., & Ponti, L. (2018). How Does Sibling Relationship Affect Children’s Prosocial Behaviors and Best Friend Relationship Quality? Journal of Family Issues, 39(8), 2413-2436. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X18755195
  •   Vivona, J. M. (2007). Sibling Differentiation, Identity Development, and the Lateral Dimension of Psychic Life. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55(4), 1191-1215. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306510705500405
  • Tucker, C. J., & Finkelhor, D. (2017). The State of Interventions for Sibling Conflict and Aggression: A Systematic Review. Trauma, Violence, & abuse, 18(4), 396–406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838015622438

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