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Siblings (with or without) Rivalry?

camp-counselorIn the classic 1994 book, “Siblings without Rivalry: How to help your children live together, so you can too” authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish make several striking points.  First, your firstborn enjoys all of your attention until you bring home a new baby, which could feel to your firstborn the same as you may feel if your spouse brought home a new younger spouse, and then reassured you by saying, “Oh, I still love you, too.”  Second, the sibling relationship is the longest in the human life span (e.g., we know our siblings longer than we know our parents, our spouses, and our own children).  Third, it is also a very intimate relationship given that close quarters and countless memories are created together throughout the early, formative years.  Fourth, while many adults are fortunate enough to be best friends with their siblings, parents should not simply assume that the sibling relationship will remain strong.  Like all relationships, the sibling relationship needs to be cultivated.  Fifth, the nature of sibling rivalry significantly changes over time.

It is extremely common for siblings to fight intensely, and it is also common for them to quickly “forgive and forget” as they go on to happily play together.  Sibling rivalry occurs for toys, attention, food, and anything else you can think of!  It can be quite upsetting as a parent to see and hear your kids fight with each other.  Should you “jump in” and stop the fight, or should you let the kids “figure it out on their own”?  Of course, these are decisions that will be made based on dynamic situational factors.

“Why Do My Kids Fight, Squabble, and Bicker?”

  • Natural jealousy or competition
  • Changing perceptions of ownership, justice, equality, fairness
  • Changing emotional needs
  • Perception of (or actual) preferential treatment of their sibling by the parent
  • Individual temperaments and personality (e.g., mood, disposition, and adaptability)
  • Role models (e.g., do the children see unusual verbal or physical conflict as a means of resolving conflict in other situations?)

“What Can I Do Before, During, and After the Fur Flies?” Here’s A.T.I.P.


  • “Divide and Conquer” by keeping the children apart for short durations (e.g., 20 minutes) to give everyone “a break”
  • Clearly define “ownership” of certain favorite or delicate toys
  • Try (to whatever extent is reasonably possible) to liberally give your attention, affection, and wisdom


  • For conflict that relates to specific toys or objects, use the many techniques explained in the section below entitled, “Toy Jacking.”
  • For conflict that involves your attention or a matter that requires a “judge and jury,” be patient, listen, and calmly offer your words of wisdom (backed up by your firm “maximum strength parenting” techniques).
  • For conflict involving name-calling, “coach” your kids to speak more respectfully to each other (again, backing your coaching up with your “maximum strength parenting”).
  • Try not to focus on the conflict (e.g., “What happened?”) because that is in the past and will only result in increased volatility.  Instead, try to focus on the resolution (e.g., “What do you want? How can we work this out together?”).


  • If possible, don’t get involved.
  • Of course, you will intervene if there is a physical danger, but if you too frequently and too quickly intervene then the kids may not develop their own conflict resolution skills, or the a consistently “rescued” child may come to feel like he can “get away with anything” and the other sibling(s) could grow to resent the “rescued” child.


  • For conflict that relates to specific toys or objects, you can use some of the “punishment” techniques explained in the section below entitled, “Toy Jacking,” such as “Time-Out for the Toy” or “Time-Out” for the child, but remember that punishment should be used as last resort.
  • For conflict that does not relate to a specific toy, it is, of course, always preferred to teach rather than punish, however when the conflict escalates excessively you may need to use “Time-Out” and/or removal of privileges to interrupt the negative cycle and to make your point that physical aggression/destruction of property will not be tolerated.

What are some general guidelines for managing sibling rivalry?

  • Set firm, “zero-tolerance” policies about certain behaviors (e.g., no name calling, no destruction of property)
  • If appropriate, get input from the kids about the rules (if the kids “own” the rules they are more likely to comply with them).
  • Remember that “fair” does not necessarily mean “equal” (see “It’s NOT FAIR” from the philosophy chapter of this book)
  • Generously give your time, attention, and wisdom
  • Tailor your individual activities with your child to what they like
  • Give your children some time and space on their own
  • Make clear to your children that your love for them has no bounds and that this is not a competition (e.g., it’s not that they each have 50% of your love, rather each has 100%)
  • Help your children understand that you are there to help them, but they need to learn to work together too.
  • Play group games and activities where everyone shares (e.g., having a catch with a ball, board games).
  • Identify patterns and address recurring situations (e.g., if the kids regularly fight over the computer, then make a schedule for when each child is entitled to use the computer).
  • Use a Reward Chart that builds cooperation (e.g., the children earn tokens toward a goal based on remaining “conflict-free” or at least having “reasonable” conflicts).
  • Seek professional help when the sibling conflict escalates to the point where there is possible emotional or physical harm, possible psychological disorder, and/or chronic, broad-based family turmoil.