Sibling Rivalry: When Everything is a Contest

Posted October 22, 2010 by

“I win!” my seven year-old son shouted triumphantly as he shoved past his ten year-old brother and raced inside the door.

“No, you didn’t,” the elder retorted smugly. “I won. I had my hand on the door first.”

My younger son immediately howled, burst into tears, and then promptly delivered a smart thump on the back of his older brother.

It appears that my kids have gone from the age of brotherly love and entered the phase of militant combatants (except when a mutually-desired goal is at stake, of course). My sons have become competitive about everything from who runs faster to (and I kid you not) who had the largest bowel movement. Everything is a contest. When one “loses,” he clenches his fists adamantly and hollers, “No fair!” or “He cheated!” or just lets fly with a lengthy, loud, “Mommm!” (This even goes for contests with non-human entities, like Super Mario.)

While sibling rivalry* seems to be a rite of passage for those with brothers or sisters, it has resulted in an escalation of fiery outbursts in my house lately, and I have noticed a corresponding eruption of gray hair on my head. I don’t like to admit it, but many times it’s not only my kids who end up with clenched teeth and an elevated voice.

Making everyone a “winner” may be an appealing, trendy theory but it is a challenge at my house: the kids just don’t buy it. Whenever I break up a contest (usually when one of them begins wailing in defeat), I make an effort to say, “Hey, you both tried very hard. Way to go!” give them a hug, or try find some good in the loss (yeah, right). However, what usually ends up happening is that I furrow my brows and roar above their voices, spewing something really soothing like, “Stop it, boys! Just stop it! Not everything is a competition!” This usually follows some inane activity that one would not necessarily consider (nor desire to be) a “contest”: who can eat the fastest or the most, who can race in the front door first, who can get the highest score on their Nintendo game, and yes, even who can pee the furthest.

Thankfully, a multitude of helpful articles related to warring siblings exists right here on the EP website. One which I have found instrumental is “Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Cease-Fire Now).” The bottom line, James Lehman says, is to accept that “rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life,” and that our responsibility as parents “is to help our kids learn to manage the feelings that come along with it.”

Here are four methods that James suggests to manage sibling rivalry:

1.      Hold both kids responsible for their behavior. Give them consequences if they’re unable to come to a cease-fire or walk away from the conflict.

2.     Set up a “bickering table” – a scheduled time and place for the kids to just sit down and bicker. Really. And let them know that if they don’t bicker during the day, they won’t have to go to the table that night.

3.     Stop refereeing your kids’ fights. Don’t become the judge of who’s right and who’s wrong or who the worst antagonist is.

4.     Defuse jealousy – try to downplay it while pointing out your children’s good characteristics.

*An important note is to not confuse bullying with usual sibling rivalry, in which one must immediately address.

Do you have some wee warriors in your home? What techniques do you employ to manage sibling rivalry?


Susan Engel is a mother of two, writer and parent blogger for Empowering Parents.

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  1. Susan Engel (Edit) Report

    Hi, hismineandours (love the screen name, BTW!)!

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my experiences with sibling rivalry. Boy, having step-sisters sounds just as challenging as if they were blood-related. In fact, it’s probably more of a double-edged sword because of the emotional baggage that goes along with parenting step-children.

    I sure wish I knew the secret formula for making all parents agree–whether stepparents or not–on one method of discipline, but the emotional waters are just too muddy for that to ever happen. Discipline is a personal issue and I think step-parents have an ever bigger challenge. Alas–mixed families are just not easy situations to handle. If one of the kids isn’t feeling short-changed, then the one of the parents does!

    My heart goes out to you, my dear. Hang in there and know that you’re NOT ALONE! If you can find a support group, or even one other step-parent, out there, it might help. I know venting my frustrations to a friend who has step-kids has helped me maintain my sanity on more than on occasion … 😉

    Thanks again for writing! Feel free to vent anytime. That’s what we’re here for! 🙂

  2. hismineandours (Edit) Report

    What do you do when the rivaling children are step sisters? I have a 7 year old daughter and a 7 year old step daughter and EVERY thing seems to be a competition. My husband feels like his daughter is getting the short end of the stick because she tends to be very needy of my daughter and want to play with her/be with her all the time. So when I separate or allow one to ignore the other he feels it is unfair. This whole step family thing is HARD!

  3. Susan Engel (Edit) Report

    Whooops — I can’t count. I meant SEVEN children, Donna. Six BOYS was what I was specifically referring to. But no way did I mean to exclude your daughter from the sibling rivalry — I’m sure she’s been caught in the crossfire, if nothing else, of her brothers’ competitive sprees.

    DUH. Boy, do I feel like an idiot. (slinking off with tail between legs)

  4. Susan Engel (Edit) Report

    My goodness — SIX children, Donna?! Holy Huggies diapers. You definitely get the Mom Medal of Honor as I’m sure you have the battle scars to prove that you’ve earned it! 😉

    I like your reality shots about how not EVERYONE can be great at EVERYTHING, how it would make for a very mundane and boring life, and that ALL have our own strengths (and weaknesses). Moreover, that those differences are essential for a stimulating, challenging life! Kudos to you, Donna — I wave my white flag in your honor.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to leave your comment. Keep up the great work, mom — you’re doing a fantastic job! 🙂

  5. Donna M (Edit) Report

    I love reading other people’s stories so I don’t feel alone or inadequate! I have 7 children, 1 girl (18) and 6 boys (16 to 2). They all play sports (except the 4 & 2 yr olds)and are competitive with grades, friends, you name it and it is a contest. The little ones try to compete for attention and toys so they have their own brand of competitioin. I try to show how each child has strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone is good at everything, and I try to use examples of professionals, ie: “I don’t go to the dentist to fix my car, or the car shop to fix my teeth. The pro football player would probably not be a good basketball player”. I tell them that everyone has certain skills and abilities that make them special and important. If everyone could do the same things the same way then the world would be boring and inefficient. Then the boys will say, “well, I am a better hitter, but he is a better pitcher.” There are many skills needed to make the world run and each needs to be recognized. I like competition and think its healthy (if used correctly) since i want my children to strive to be their personal best, but not trample their siblings to get there!

  6. Susan Engel (Edit) Report

    Thanks so much for your feedback, Warrior Mom! Spending some quality time with each child certainly sounds like a win-win concept. Sometimes I think that all of the jealousy/competition is a veiled cry for attention, so that makes your suggestion even more poignant. I really appreciate you taking the time to write — it means the world to me to be able to connect with other moms who are in the trenches with warring siblings. 😉

  7. Susan Engel (Edit) Report

    Wow! What great feedback! 🙂

    THANK YOU, toniacaselman, for sharing your wisdom and experience! I absolutely love your ideas of how to create a culture of cooperation — I will certainly add them to my parenting arsenal. 😉

    And thank you too, 3Kidsmom, for your thoughtful and kind comments. Whew! I’m so glad that I’m not alone with this sibling rivalry/competition stuff. Banning the words, “I win!” in your household sound like a superb idea — I love it!! 🙂

    I’m grateful to you both for your feedback — thank you so much!

  8. Warrior Mom (Edit) Report

    I love your article-so insightful and full of great pragmatic ideas. We have the same problem over here. My five kids are all under 2 years apart and are constantly at each other’s throats when they’re not playing together nicely. Seriously, it’s either one extreme or another. We’ve managed to diffuse sibling jealousy– not rivalry– by spending some QT alone with each one, at different times throughout the week. It’s been a lifesaver…so far.

  9. 3Kidsmom (Edit) Report

    Thank you for addressing this. I didn’t realize how much time I’d be putting in as a referee or I may have stopped childbearing at one child! The boys, age 9 and 5, were constant competitors at every facet of the day as you mentioned in your post. Then my 3 year old daughter was “catching” the “I win” bug. After dozens of times of talking it out, the method that has worked the best is, (ha, and it sounds terrible as I write it, but truely this was my last resort:) is that the phrase, in all it’s combinations, “I win!” has been outlawed in our house. It took about a week to diffuse and for a few months it’s been a non issue. My response to the “I win!!” was, “we don’t say that in this house, no one wins, you are all the same, and we all try hard at everything.” I am serious, this worked. As they get older this may be a sleeping dragon waiting to wake up but this has worked for us so far.

    Thanks for your blog, I love the entire Empowering Parents everything!

  10. toniacaselman (Edit) Report

    While I agree that our culture accepts that “rivalry and jealousy are a normal part of life,” as a child therapist I like to encourage parents to reflect on ways to create a family culture of cooperation. Some of the ways that parents have done this have been to

    (1) Play cooperation games where there are no winners or losers. Check out the many boxed games at

    (2) Create a rule that when one child announces him/herself a “winner” at some kind of real or imagined competition, s/he must then state 2 ways that the sibling (the “loser”) has played/done well

    (3) Create a SIBLING compliment box. Children are encouraged to write down things they appreciate about brothers and sisters. These are read at a prescribed time each week (i.e. Saturday evenings). The child who has placed the greatest number of compliments is recognized/complimented for being generous with praise.

  11. Susan Engelo (Edit) Report

    Thanks for your feedback, eema2boys! I’m SO relieved to hear that I’m not the only mom constantly living on the edge of WW III.

    Like your older son, my 10 year-old competes heavily with his younger brother, yet quickly defends and/or comforts him when he’s threatened or hurt. My 7 year-old is actually the more competetive of the two boys, yet he also tries to soothe my older son when he is upset. Interesting dynamics, wouldn’t you say?

    As you mentioned, taking turns is often the most equitable solution and eases some of the fighting and bickering. Glad that you found something that helps!

    It’s an understatement to say that it isn’t easy raising competitive boys. It’s downright exhausting at times. Alas, I have a long way to go in the consistent discpline department. (blush) We can model appropriate behavior, set boundaries and consequences, and try our best to retain what’s left of our sanity when all is said and done. 😉

    Thank you, again, for taking the time to leave a comment, eema2boys! Best of everything to you and your boys. 🙂

  12. eema2boys (Edit) Report

    I can definitely relate to your article. I have two sons, ages 5 and 2 1/2. They get along for the most part, but when it comes to sharing toys, war breaks out. My older son also claims to not like my younger son, but then he’s quick to comfort him when he’s crying or give him a kiss good night. My younger son just wants to do everything my older son does. I’ve been working with them on taking turns. It doesn’t always lead to peaceful interaction, but it’s better than allowing them to fight all day about something really minor.
    Great blog post!



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