Sibling rivalry is normal in families with more than one child. On the surface, you have two kids who are at war. They constantly bicker and don’t get along.
There can be many reasons for sibling rivalry, but at the core of this rivalry is a common theme that one sibling feels as if he or she is the victim of the other sibling or is somehow “less than” the other sibling.
As a result, one sibling believes they get less love from their parents and blames that situation on their sibling. This is the nature of sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry is a difficult and sometimes painful issue for many families. But here’s the bottom line: rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life. Your responsibility is to help your kids learn to manage the feelings that come with it.
Understand that if your child doesn’t learn to manage the feelings of injustice, unfairness, and victimhood that accompany sibling jealousy, these issues will be carried over into their adult life and will become even more crippling.
Fortunately, by following a few simple strategies, you can work with your kids to manage sibling rivalry and broker a peace treaty in your home today.
Don’t confuse everyday sibling rivalry with outright bullying. So before I give you techniques for dealing with everyday sibling rivalry, I want to discuss kids who engage in what I call the bully-victim dynamic.
In the bully-victim dynamic, one kid is the bully—usually the one who is older or stronger—and they pick on their other sibling constantly.
Because of this aggression, the child who’s being picked on often develops antagonizing methods of getting back at the bully. Although the child being teased can’t stand up to the bully directly, they develop ways of getting revenge on their more aggressive sibling by saying things under their breath or calling them names.
If one of your children bullies their siblings and has to be the boss and control others to the point of getting physical, it indicates some underlying self-doubt and serious errors in thinking.
The bully is somehow justifying being hurtful to others to make themselves feel better. In these cases, you have to hold all of your kids responsible when there is an argument, but you have to hold the bully responsible for any aggression over and above the bickering.
In other words, give consequences to every child involved, but if there’s a bullying situation, you have to take a stand. And I don’t mean take sides as if you don’t love both of your kids. Rather, you have to say:
“There’s going to be no bullying here. There’s going to be no cursing at each other. There are serious consequences for that behavior.”
In any intervention with a child who is bullying their sibling, you have to challenge their thinking. Say to them quite frankly:
“Why is it that when you get angry, you think it’s okay to hit? What, the rules don’t apply to you once you get angry?”
And then make it very clear to your bullying child:
“When you’re angry, the rules still apply to you, and so do the consequences.”
The bullying sibling will test everybody because that’s what bullies do. Bullies try to exert their power over anybody. But as a parent, you need to challenge those thinking errors directly and give that kind of behavior firm consequences.
In many cases of sibling rivalry, both kids are almost equally responsible for the behavior. One child may start to tease the other or call the other a name, which starts a volley of teasing and name-calling.
As long as you know that there’s some equity in how the behavior is being conducted and who’s starting it, I recommend that you hold both of your kids accountable.
Set up a rule in your house that if fighting among siblings occurs, everybody goes to bed a half-an-hour early. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is or who started it. Hold both kids accountable—after all, it takes two to tango. Just say to your kids:
“You kids know the rules around here; there’s no bickering. Go to your room for ten minutes until we talk about it.”
If bickering—the constant, petty, back-and-forth fighting among kids—is an issue in your house, I recommend that families set up what I call a bickering table.
Here’s how it works. You schedule time each night for your kids who constantly argue to sit down and bicker. So, let’s say from six to six-thirty at night, your kids will have to sit there and argue. And believe me, you will be surprised at how quickly they stop bickering because they’ll feel silly trying to come up with things to argue about.
Even if they run out of things to say, make them stay at that table for half an hour. And let them know that if they don’t bicker during the day, they won’t have to go to the table that night. It becomes a great motivator for kids to avoid squabbling with each other.
How do you stop getting in the middle of your kids’ fights? As long as it’s not a bullying situation, don’t play referee. Don’t become the judge of who’s right or wrong. And don’t try to decide who the worst antagonist is.
Instead, you can say:
“There’s no fighting in the house, and these are the consequences for your behavior. You two kids have to learn to walk away from each other. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re both going to be held responsible for the consequences.”
For consequences, you can limit the use of electronics, phones, going out, or anything else important to your kids. And tell them they’re going to lose time doing those things if they fight.
I always advise parents to have structured free time at night or after school. When your kids get their free time at the end of homework, they choose what they’d like to do. That’s when they get screen time, for example.
And if they fight, they lose some of that time. You can say to all of the involved parties:
“You’ve lost half an hour of your free time because you don’t know how to get along and stop arguing all the time. You can read and hang out, but you can’t use any of your electronics.”
If one of your children is envious of their sibling, I recommend that you try to downplay it. Don’t make it a big deal. I think you ought to say something like:
“Well, you know, that’s natural; we all feel jealous sometimes. Ryan may have done well in soccer, but I watched you do your math homework and get it all done the other night, and I know it was hard.”
Always point out your children’s good characteristics. Mention concrete things you saw and heard them do. And let them know that you’re valuing their efforts just as much as their sibling’s efforts.
Often, if a child acts jealous and feels as if they’re a victim, parents tend to give them more attention, whether they’re the sibling who does the teasing or the one who gets teased more often.
But I don’t think it’s a good idea to give more attention to that child because what you’re doing is rewarding that sense of victimhood.
Instead, try to praise all your children equally. When they get compliments from you, what they experience is your affection. Psychologists call this hypodermic affection, and it’s an effective way to build up your child’s confidence. Many times, a “shot” of hypodermic affection can quickly change the behavior of a child who is acting out of insecurity.
And the more hypodermic affection kids get, the less jealous they tend to be because they feel like they’re being recognized and their needs are being met.
Remember to talk about how siblings are supposed to treat each other. There should be an overarching philosophy that starts with:
“We’re a family; we have to help each other; we have to support each other.”
Parents must model this behavior by being supportive of one another. If mom and dad bicker in front of the kids, then it’s that harder to convince the kids not to bicker.
Talk to your kids about what friendship means, and focus on having your kids help each other out. Work to enforce the sense of “We have to take care of each other; we’re a family here.”
Ideally, a family is supposed to be a safe place where everyone is loved and everyone is equal. Your children may feel jealous of each other, but jealousy is a normal human feeling.
Indeed, normal sibling rivalry and jealousy will not be taken away by anything you, as a parent, can do. But you can make sure that there’s enough love, nurture, and positive regard for everybody, while at the same time setting limits on the amount of chaos that ensues from bickering behavior.
Related content: 6 Ways to Stop Sibling Bickering and Rivalry
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.