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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