Sibling Rivalry: The First Love-Hate Relationship

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Stop! It’s mine and you can’t have it!” screamed Tommy. “It is too! Let go!” screamed back his brother Mike. Several muffled smacking sounds come from the bedroom and end with Tommy coming out crying and seeking out his mother. This type of situation plays out in most households between brothers and sisters.

Sibling rivalry is competition, jealousy, and fighting between brothers and sisters. It can start as soon as a second child enters the family and can continue a lifetime though it is usually at its most intense during childhood.  There are a variety of reasons why sibling rivalries occur. Some children feel they are getting unequal amounts of parents’ attention or that their relationship with a parent is being threatened. They also may not know positive ways to get attention from their siblings or they may be experiencing a lot of stress. Regardless of the cause, many parents get frustrated by the bickering between siblings and some become concerned about the aggression and wonder what is the best way to stop the jealousy and fighting.

There are some initial steps that parents can take to lessen sibling rivalry. First, don’t play favorites and try not to compare one child to another. Second, let each child be who they are and resist the temptation of labeling or pigeonholing them. Third, try to set up opportunities for siblings to cooperate with one another rather than compete. Fourth, teach children positive ways to get attention from one another. Finally, have the children understand that being fair is not the same as being equal. For example, fairness occurs even when older children get more privileges than younger ones because they also have more responsibilities.

When most sibling disagreements do occur, parents should take a step back and monitor what is going on but not intervene. The reason for this is that children need to learn how to resolve conflicts on their own. When children are able to work out their own solutions to conflicts, they develop important life skills like cooperation, compromise, and seeing things from another person’s point of view. However if a child is in physical danger or the conflict becomes one-sided with one child always being victimized, a parent should intervene.

When intervening in sibling conflicts, parents should model and teach good conflict resolution skills. This should occur during a calm period and not involve yelling or lecturing in the middle of a conflict. Children pay particular attention to how parents resolve their own disagreements. If parents tend to yell and throw things, so will the children. When negotiating a resolution to a conflict, make it a win-win situation where each child gains something.

There are some sibling relationships however where one child is consistently the victim and whose physical safety is often threatened. In these cases, parents need to take an active role and seek professional help from a psychologist or other mental health provider. While sibling rivalries are common, the more severe ones need to be taken seriously as constant victimization from siblings can have a long term negative impact on a child’s mental health.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in August 2013.

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