Managing Sibling Rivalry

In the thirty plus years I have been a therapist it is not uncommon to see an adult in individual therapy who tells me, “My parent(s) liked my other sibling(s) better than they liked me.”  Sibling rivalry may last far longer than childhood.  When I think about sibling rivalry, I think of the conflicts and fights that so many families cope with.  But the other side of the coin is those who hold those feelings in end up feeling inadequate or unloved.

When James Dobson, Christian author and psychologist, was presenting to a group of mothers, he explained sibling rivalry this way: what if your husband came home tonight and told you we are going to have another wife?   He assures you that you will love it; you can do things together, and he promises he will not love you any less if there are two of you.   Looking at a new sibling from this perspective, you can see how your child may not be excited about the addition of other children.  Some of the photos of the day we brought my second daughter home from the hospital don’t reconcile with my memories of joy and excitement.  My older, and usually happy, two year-old had an unhappy face in every single picture. So, it could be considered to be fairly normal for kids to resent their siblings, just like it is normal for two year olds to have temper tantrums.  The challenge we face as parents is finding appropriate ways to deal with sibling rivalry.  First and foremost, this means strategies to reduce and if possible eliminate the feelings of resentment.  It also means having tools to defuse sibling rivalry when it occurs.

Feelings of resentment occur because each child is trying to determine who they are and their strengths. They are trying to figure out their role in this family.    In the early years their mirror to this is parents and caretakers.  As a result it is easy to understand how they might feel less important when this attention is split among all the children.   In our busy lives it is difficult to give them all the time they think they need or want. In truth, it is not so much about the amount of time spent but the quality of the time.

Some strategies for parents raising young children include:
  • Help your child understand what she is good at, hopefully not the same things as her sibling(s).
  • Children need individual time with their parents on a regular basis.
  • Families need good family time beyond dinner.  There need to be activities planned around the children’s age and interest.  When these go well, the children learn this is how families play together.
  • Children do not do as well when they are tired, hungry or ill.  These needs need to be considered and planned for.
  • Parents are role models.  If children see you working things out with them or other family members in a constructive manner they will model that behavior.
  • We also serve as role models for management of anger.  If you model constructive ways to deal with feelings of anger your children will also do this.  If you do not manage your anger well please get some help for this anger.
  • Don’t play favorites.
  • Don’t compare or say things like: “Why can’t you do this like your brother?”
  • Teach them you will be fair but that might not always mean equal.  That means that each child will get what they need but everyone may not get something every time.
  • As always in parenting, listen more that you talk.  Even small children will tell us what they need.  We have to be open to listening and to avoid telling them not to feel a certain way or that their feelings don’t matter.
  • None of us were born knowing how to resolve conflict or manage feelings of resentment.  They need to be taught.
  • Reframe things into a positive statement.  “I appreciate that you walked away when your brother was yelling at you.  Good Job.”

No matter how good you are at teaching and modeling, conflicts will arise.  Besides, that is partly why you are reading this article.  So what do you do when things get out of hand?

  • No matter what has happened, don’t yell.  Yelling at children is like trying to steer the car by honking the horn.
  • Get the children to a safe place and wait until things are calmer.
  • If a conflict ensues, both children were involved and no one is a victim, so do not side with either one.
  • When things have calmed down, sit down with the children and process what they could have done differently.  With very young children you will be teaching them how to do this.  As they get more experienced with this process, they will even begin to do this themselves.

The goal is to reduce the incidents of resentment.  There will be times when no matter how hard you try your children will feel angry, jealous, intimidated, or a host of other uncomfortable feelings.  When that happens, just help them process what occurred and how to change it for now and in the future.

Written by Sharon Cook, LCSW, LMFT

One thought on “Managing Sibling Rivalry

  1. This was a very helpful article. Thank you for submitting it! I have a boy and girl who are 7 and 8 years old. It is a challenge to make sure I teach them how to handle conflict and don’t let my preconceptions or other faults get in the way.

    They are old enough now and I’m wise enough now that I sometimes tell them how to talk out their feelings and have them approach the sibling on their own. Then I get involved if it’s not going properly or there is continued turbulence.

    The reminder about modeling was VERY good. I have to remember to model appropriate conflict resolution in front of my children for my benefit and theirs.

    Thank you again for the article and thank you very much for the chance to comment on it. You may use my comments and name if you like.

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