Sibling Rivalry: Good Kid vs. Bad Kid

by Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor
Sibling Rivalry:  Good Kid vs. Bad Kid

Frequently, I receive calls on the Parental Support Line involving sibling rivalry conflicts. An important thing to remember is that sibling rivalry is a normal emotional state in children. Children compete with each other for their parent’s approval and affection. In fact, adult children still can feel competitive about their parents’ attention. One of our jobs as parents is to teach siblings how to get along with each other.  After all, we want them to continue to have a successful relationship when they are adults.


Here are some specific ways to cut down on the sibling rivalry in your household:

1. Don’t choose between your children. During sibling conflicts, parents should coach the children on how to solve the problem of getting along with each other instead of deciding who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Choosing between your children just increases the rivalry.

If a child comes to you with a complaint about another, coach them how to go back and solve the problem. For example, if one child is complaining that their sibling won’t get off the computer, suggest that they go back to their sibling and make a request instead of a demand. “I’ve got a special project due that will take about two hours. Can we figure out what time I can use the computer for this?”

Don’t decide who’s right or wrong. Remember, The Total Transformation Program tells us we do not need to attend every argument we’re invited to. That can include being asked to join an argument between the siblings. Instead, help your kids develop skills to compromise, to be fair, and to take turns. Develop family systems of how to share. Kitchen timers or odd and even numbered days can help with taking turns. And teach kids skills to calm and soothe themselves while they wait for their turn, like deep breathing, reading a book, or doing some exercise.  

2. Don’t place your child in the role of “good kid” or “bad kid.” Be aware of placing your children into certain roles. Be especially careful not to have one child in the role of the “bad kid” and the other the “good kid.”  No child is all bad or all good. The “bad kid” is very likely to be jealous of the parental approval the “good kid” receives. At times this gets the better of him and he attacks the child whom the parents perceive as being the “good” one. Sometimes it is an unprovoked attack, but usually it is not. Anyone involved in a conflict very likely shares some responsibility. I’ve heard parents tell of stories of the “bad kid” attacking the “good kid,” but after investigating these stories with the parent, it becomes clear that the “good kid” had something to do with setting up the “bad kid.” I received a call from a parent wanting to know an effective consequence to use on her son. She had two boys, one of whom was always causing trouble. This “bad kid” had just physically attacked his brother in the laundry room. She was only interested in consequences for this bad kid behavior. After discussing everything that occurred between the brothers in the laundry room, it turned out that they were arguing over who was to do their laundry at that moment and the “good kid” had taken the “bad kid’s” clothes from the washer and thrown them onto the floor. The “bad kid” is usually the only one who gets punished in these situations.  A danger in labeling a child as the “bad kid” is that they will give up trying to do anything right because they are always blamed for any problems among the siblings. The “good kid” gets a lot of satisfaction from this and reinforcement from the parent from their “good kid” role. Sometimes the “bad kid” is the most emotionally honest of the children. That’s why it’s so important not to decide who’s right or wrong during a conflict, but to challenge your children to find a way to get along with each other.

3. Brush off the teasing or else "Stop the Show." Another common problem among siblings is teasing. Help them deal with teasing by teaching them to ignore the teasing, to ‘kid back’ or agree with the teasing in a humorous way: When a sibling says, “You stink!” They can reply, “Why thank you. That’s what I was going for.” So again, it’s best to challenge your children to work it out between themselves, and if they cannot, require that both children Stop the Show (See The Total Transformation, Lesson 4)  and take a break until they can resume interacting together in an acceptable way. If the conflict turns physical or the kids’ fighting continues to escalate, separate them until they're calm.  If you need to instruct them how to handle a situation more effectively, wait until everyone has calmed down.

4. Develop a culture of accountability in your family. I’ll hear parents say the “bad kid” is teaching the younger children how to misbehave. When the younger children act out, the “bad kid” gets blamed for that too.  As James Lehman says in the Total Transformation Program, it is important to develop a “Culture of Accountability” in our families. Teach your children that they, not an older sibling, are accountable for their own behaviors.

5. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the child who behaves well. Always having to be the “good kid” is problematic too. Watch out that the child who is behaving appropriately is not ignored.  Remember that behaviors that are ignored decrease, while behaviors which receive attention increase. So pay a lot of attention to good behavior, using James Lehman’s Strategic Recognition and Affection technique (See The Total Transformation, Lesson 4).

6. As parents, Role Model how to resolve problems and disagreements in respectful and non-aggressive ways. You set the strongest example for your children.  Have fun times together as a family. Try to eat dinner together without the TV on. While you're watching a movie, playing catch or a board game, you can Role Model peaceful ways to spend time together as a family. Show them how to resolve an argument amicably, as parents.

7. Treat each child as an individual. Finally, sibling rivalry is about the competition for parental attention and approval. Reduce the competition by treating each child as a unique individual and giving each child your attention and your affection. Make sure each parent spends time with each child alone, doing something the child enjoys. Some mothers and fathers have a monthly “date” with each child individually. Remember that one of the best ways to combat sibling rivalry is to tell your child why you love them, what makes them unique in your eyes, and why they are special to you.

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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.


My kids are 4 and 8, and they argue and bicker ALOT. I found this article very informative and helpful. Thanks!

Comment By : Shelley

This is good advice. However, we have been using these techniques, and still have the rivalry. What's the next level of conflict resolution? We have a 15 year old boy with ADD and an 11 year old girl.

Comment By : Working Soccer Mom

Thank you for the helpful tips. I have two boys 6 and 11, and they always expect me to choose sides. This info. will help me to deal (or them to deal) with working it out in the future. Thanks so much! p.s. I do use the praises on good behavior, and it has increased.

Comment By : Mary Ann (momof3boys)

* Sibling rivalry will probably never go away. That is not the goal. The goal is to help your kids learn how to manage it more successfully. It can take a lot of coaching and practice for them to get the idea that it's their job to figure out how to get along with each other--not your job to choose who's right or wrong. If they refuse to even try, require them both to take a break from each other until they have better control of their emotions.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thank you for this article. We have 2 kids, ages 12 and 9, and they are having to share a room, temporarily, which they've never had to do before. This causes a lot of conflict. They really do come running to me most every time they argue, and expect me to "fix" it. I often try to help them figure it out on their own, but sometimes, it seems the older one is picking on the younger one. Like there's a constant conflict going on in her. The younger one is not nearly innocent of causing conflict, but it bothers me that the older one just seems to be waiting to yell at the younger one.

Comment By : leannabeth

This is all well and good. However, the biggest problem I have is my kids getting in my face expecting me to referee. When I try to gracefully "clam-up" they are relentless in trying to engage me. Nowhere have I seen advice on how to get away from a teen who follows you everywhere you go, until they get an answer.

Comment By : Juliette

#5 is a common problem parents often overlook. My 12 yr old recently commented that he should begin to get bad grades so that he could be rewarded for improvement like his older brother (14yr) often is rewarded when his grades improve. The 12yr old has always been a straight A student, while the 14yr recently dropped all his grades to C's & D's while he's clearly capable fo doing better w/ minimal effort. Thanks for the eye opener!!

Comment By : momofboys

* Dear Juliette: I do get a lot of phone calls regarding this situation. You are not alone. In the program, the technique to handle kids who follow you attempting to engage you in an argument is referred to as “Disconnect”. You state what you have to say, and then stop engaging in a discussion with your child. Resist your child’s invitation to continue to argue the point. This can be hard to do. Especially, as you say, if your children keep after you until you give them an answer. Since they eventually will wear you down and get what they want from you, what they now must learn is that this technique of theirs will no longer work on you. You will no longer eventually give in. They will probably need to experience your new resolve many times before they realize there is no longer any pay off in wearing you down.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Hey, I have 2 boys 13 and 9 years old and everyday is a challenge. My younger son wants to spend time with his older brother and hang out in his room with his brother or when he has friends over. My older son wants nothing to do with him, he says he's annoying and cant do anything wright. It's heart breaking to me. And I do make him spent time with his little brother but it always ends up in arguments, frustration and tears. What to do?

Comment By : Conny

Ignoring it all and letting them settle between them works fine for some. I have 15 and 11 year old boys. I have attempted to get little brother to laugh off the teases or to ignore them, he seems unable to do it. It comes to blows all the time now. The 15 year old is twice as big as the 11 year old, but the 11 year old feels he's been the butt of his teasing for too long and has started hitting on his older brother. Then older brother thinks it's a free-for-all and they start whaling on each other. I can't ignore that. Little brother always winds up hurt and crying. I'm afraid that soon it will lead to serious injury.

Comment By : Marie

* To Conny: I would not force anything that usually ends up in arguments, frustration and tears. It can be very difficult for an adolescent of 13 to interact with someone as young as 9. Their interests and skill levels are not the same. When the older boy’s friends are over, allow him time alone with his friends. Find some way to entertain the 9 year old. If the eldest is forced to spend time with his younger brother, he may feel his needs are not as important as his brother's. Even though you say this is heartbreaking for you, do not say this to your eldest son. He may think that in order to make you happy and get your approval, he has to make sure his younger brother is happy and entertained regardless of whether or not he is happy and entertained. This can increase resentment toward his brother. What you are hoping for is not resentment, of course, but friendship. Let your children know that you expect them to be polite and kind to each other, but use family activities as opportunities for the boys to interact with each other and allow their relationship to grow. Eating dinner together is a great time to interact, as are non-competitive activities, such as going to the science museum, certain board games, or finding an interest they would both enjoy that does not accentuate their different skill levels, such as a family camping trip. Remember to never act as though one child is favored over the other. Be as impartial as you possibly can be.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have two boys that argue over everything from the computer to the telephone. I designated one even and one odd. They have to look at the clock and determine if it's an even or odd hour. It works with other situations just use even and odd days of the month.

Comment By : single mom

Great information but I am struggling with my 11 and 12 year boys. The 12 year old is very overpowering, says really mean things, has absolutely no tolerance for any thing his brother does and he is physical every time either hitting, throwing things, shoving, really being a bully. This behavior is not tolerated but that does not stop my strong headed angry son. That puts me in the role of protector which is defenitely adding to the anger from the older. He will say things like "way to protect your boyfriend", "he's a little punk that just hides behind you". I fully agree that my younger son is very annoying sometimes on purpose, sometimes just because. He does not get off scott free but there is no way for me not to get involved because it goes from 1 to 10 in one second so I have to step in to stop the violence. Once I do, my older son will not hear anything I say even when I agree that he has every right to be angry and frustrated but that he needs to express his anger in a non-violent way. I am getting no where and they both think I am on the other's side...I am fighting a loosing battle!! Help!!!

Comment By : Kathy

Very helpful tips - thank you. One of our biggest problems occur when my two kids are riding in the back seat of the car together. Often my son (15) will say or do something (sometimes intentional, sometimes not)to provoke my daughter (10) and she responds by screaming and having a violent tantrum, which is extremely difficult to control from the front seat. My son then often makes negative comments about her reaction, which only fuels her fire even more. Any suggestions on how to diffuse such a situation? Sometimes I have him sit up front with my husband while I sit in the back, but this is not always possible.

Comment By : GoingCrazyMom

* Dear GoingCrazyMom: When you have such an age difference (15 and 10), it’s easy to hold the eldest responsible for any conflicts. As much as you possibly can, always hold them both accountable. When a fight arises between your son and daughter, ask yourself, “What do I usually do?” If you usually try to intervene and get them to stop bothering each other, or try to tell one to do something and perhaps not the other--change that. Don’t do what you usually do. What I would like you to try is doing and saying nothing during the conflict. Set it up so that they understand that you will no longer be getting involved in these conflicts because you expect them to learn how to settle these problems between themselves. You can say, “I expect you two to find a way to get along in the car.” “I will not be intervening.” “You have to work it out yourself.” Or “If this gets really out of hand, you both lose TV privileges tonight, regardless of who started the problem.” So, next time, stay out of it. Be forewarned: they will test you. If they go too far, don’t tell them in the car that they've just lost their TV privileges tonight—that will escalate the situation and leaves them with nothing to lose. If you must say anything, coach them both. Say, “I think you two can do better than that,” or “Why don’t you both take a break?” Do a minimum of coaching, because you’ll find yourself drawn in and asked to decide between them. If it did not go well and they end up losing their privileges, after you get home, tell each one you’d like to speak to them individually for a few minutes about how it went in the car. Do some problem solving with each one around how they calm themselves down, how to figure out how to get along with their sibling, etc. Tell each of them they need to personally try harder. They are going to want you to see how annoying their sibling is. Tell them you want to keep the focus on what they can do to improve things. “Today didn’t go well and you both have lost TV privileges tonight, but we have come up with some ideas on how to handle this better the next time.” Keep them both personally responsible for their own behavior. One of your rules should be that they have to learn how to work out their differences among themselves. If they refuse to even try, tell them there will be a consequence and a discussion with a parent on improving their own skills.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I do have a problem with the good kid/bad kid situation. My younger child is very aggressive and teases his older brother. His older brother is really nice to his brother, including him in playdates with his friends, playing games with him, etc. To tell the truth, my younger son just doesn't deserve this treatment. He's mean, doens't do anything nice for his brother and blames him for everything. He has a smart mouth and can be aggressive. I tell the older son he doens't have to play with him and have even forced the issue, but he does and treats him well. Occasionally he will have enough of his brother and push him or tease back. This is after taking days and days of his younger brother's poor behavior both at home and in front of his friends. My younger son blames his brother for everything and says we never punish him. The fact of the matter is the punishments are different. The older son will take a mild talk or punishment to heart and fix the problem. While the younger son has to have more severe punishments to make him listen and still he doesn't understand why he was wrong. He thinks his older brother gets to do everything. His older brother does have more freedoms and more friends. We have already taken the younger son to counseling but it hasn't helped. They are 14 and 11. What to do?

Comment By : montanamom

* Dear ‘montanamom’: It’s normal for there to be some sibling rivalry. Kids are very attuned to a sense of fairness and favoritism in a family, so here’s where parents should do their best to level the playing field between them. If this is unbalanced, it will increase the conflict and competition between the two boys. Of course your boys have different needs and different skills they are working on, along with different privileges due to their level of maturity. One of the things that you could try to make more equal is the differences in the ‘punishments’ between the two boys. In fact, we don’t recommend ‘punishing’ a child to try to get them to behave. James Lehman writes, “Children cannot be punished into acceptable behavior.” Punishments are designed to make a child feel bad. James says, “Don’t put so much weight on making him ‘hurt’ that you’re not thinking about trying to get your child to learn a new behavior.” The best consequences are those that are connected to the offense. One behavior you mention as a concern is the 11yo teases his older brother. You also mention that the older brother teases the 11yo, although not as frequently. If teasing is a concern, make this a house rule that no one is allowed to break. If either boy teases, handle the consequence in the same way for each boy. The process for consequences is to stop the behavior, have both the boys cool off, talk to each what they could have done differently, then give a consequence. It sounds like, in general, the boys have figured out how to play together—that the eldest does not mind including his brother. The less ‘choosing between them’ you do the better for the sibling rivalry. You might allow them to decide how much time they want to play together instead of forcing the older boy not to play with his brother. Because, what you ultimately want is for the boys to figure out how to get along with each other and stay friends for life.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Kathy: It sounds like your handling sibling issues correctly. There’s an article by James Lehman that will give you more ideas on handling the situation where one child bullies the other: We hope this article will be helpful: The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My 10 yr old daughter has a sensory processing disorder and visual processing delay and she lives with me full time. My 10 yr step daughter lives with us part time. My daughter has been labeled a "bad child" by neighbor kids, kids at school and teachers. She has also been bullied and hit by kids at school, and called names like "sissy" and "bossy" by 2 teachers. My daughter is extremely jealous os my step daughter, who makes friends easily and very athletic, which my daughter is not. My step daughter is passive agressive and pouts while my daughter says whatever she feels at that moment whether it hurts anyones feelings or not. My step daughter is considered the "good child" by my husband (step daughter's dad). My daughter is well aware of this. It's causes tremendous stress in our family and we were separated for 7 months and almost divorced because of it. Whenever there is a conflict, my husband says he's removing his daughter from the house because it's not fair to her. I believe she sometimes eggs it on so my daughter will get in trouble because she's jealous of the attention my daughter receives from me and therapy. My step daughters Mom is a very hands off mom to her. My daughter is receiving therapy and has somewhat improved, but I don't know how to resolve this issue. Thank you.

Comment By : Mom of SPD child

* To ‘Mom of SPD child’: It sounds like the mutual jealousy between these two girls is really putting a lot of strain on the family and on your marriage. It is so hard when you are not on the same page with your spouse, and many people often have the feeling they are not even in the same book. It might help for you and your husband to focus on your common goal (perhaps, for the girls to get along better and deal with their jealousy more effectively) when discussing the girls, and focus on the behavior rather than the feelings. In other words, instead of trying to stop them from getting jealous of each other, work with them one-on-one to come up with better ways they can cope with the jealousy they experience. We call this problem solving. I am including another article on sibling rivalry for more information and ideas. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care. Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now)

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

We are a blended family of 8 kids 4 his 4 mine. We each have a 13 year old son. Issue is my partners 13 year old son bullies my son both at home and at school, namecalling etc. He has also successfully interfered with my sons two main friendships. First a year ago he "poached" my sons friend when he was staying with us for the weekend, he told my sons friend my son was "gay" & "lame". His mate stopped coming around and hanging out with my son at school & started spending time with my stepson at his mother's house. This lasted for 18 months until stepson turned on the boy & made him the butt of racist jokes at school. Now this boy has befriended my son again! My son approached me a few days before his birthday party to ask me if I thought he should invite his step brother to his party. I suggested it would be a nice thing to do as they are the same age. My son's best friend from the city (been best mates since kinder) came down & wammo same situation. This friend was supposed to spend a week with us over school holidays but did not return my it my sons messages, we found out yesterday he is actually staying with step son in the city at his mothers. My son is upset and sick if this happening. My partner, stepsons father, is a little blind to what his son does. He is extraordinarily dominant & has to be in control of all situations. He is smoking, lies constantly, steals, has run away from home and is very manipulative. My partner is constantly approaching him with the question "whatsoever going on for you?" "are you ok" "tell me how you feel". If I try to discipline this child in any way for being a bully/control freak, my partner gets upset and cuddled the child and apologises to him. For the record I get along with and have a great relationship with all of the other children in the house, mine & his.... HELP.

Comment By : lola

* To 'lola': It is challenging when you have a blended family, and even more so when one of the children is bullying another. In blended families, we advise first talking with your partner about the rules of the house so you are both on the same page about what is acceptable behavior in the house. For example, you could come up with a general rule for everyone that name-calling is not acceptable. Once you have the rules established, we recommend that the biological parent take the lead in enforcing the rules and the stepparent take on more of a supporting role. While I understand that this is difficult, it does help in creating a united front of authority. In addition, you can do some problem solving with your son about what he can do when his stepbrother is bullying him, and what will make him feel better in the situation. I am including links to some articles I think you might find helpful: Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting & Is Your Child Being Bullied? 9 Steps You Can Take as a Parent. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I might have missed the information...but I have 9 y/o and 13 y/o boys. The problem I am encountering is, according to one of the boys, always catching the tail end of the problem. The one I catch in the act of violence, teasing, problem behavior claims "but you didn't see what HE just did." Any advice? Thank you!!!

Comment By : donna s

* To “donna s”: This definitely can be a tricky situation. On the one hand, you don’t want your child to get away with being mean to his brother and on the other, how do you hold someone accountable for something you haven’t witnessed? We hear similar stories on the Parental Support Line. Generally, we recommend your focus is on helping your children develop problem-solving skills to work out these situations on their own. Try not to take sides if possible. James Lehman advises you hold each child responsible for their part in the disagreement and stepping away from being the referee for your children’s fights. One suggestion he makes is to set up a “bickering table” to allow your children the opportunity to address their problems effectively. This is discussed in the article Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now). I hope this has been helpful. Good luck as you and your family work through this problem. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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