Sounds of Sibling Rivalry

Causes of Sibling Rivalry and How to Respond

Sometimes, rivalry between siblings can be a healthy cause for growth and development. If siblings see each other and use that as motivation, everyone can learn and grow. Younger children can seek guidance from older children in an attempt to learn and practice. However, sibling rivalry can become destructive if it leads to hurt feelings, alienation, and a lack of feeling sufficient. Sibling rivalry can come from different sources, but there are ways parents can lessen and address rivalry before it gets to an unhealthy level.

sibling rivalry

Causes of Rivalry

One of the main causes of rivalry is jealousy between siblings. Jealousy can be caused by multiple things, such as feeling as if one sibling is getting “more” attention, focus, or material items. Even if a child understands a logical reason for different levels of attention and goods — such as in the case of a sibling with special needs or a sickness — that feeling of not being acknowledged still remains. Jealousy can also arise when siblings are compared to each other directly. Even people pointing out differences as a means of inspiration (“Carl did so well in the spelling bee! I’m sure you can do that too!” or, “Kay’s softball team won! Be happy for your sister!”) can make siblings feel inadequate and as if they have to do the same or better to get positive feedback.

Another source of friction exists when siblings have different kinds of needs. For example, an older child being kept from activities with friends or personal interests because of a younger sibling’s needs can create resentment. Children at different needs have different goals in their development — for example, teenagers want to develop a sense of personal identity, while younger children still need additional security from the family unit. Additionally, some siblings simply have different temperaments than others, which can change the needs they have. A child who is more reserved may require more one-on-one attention than one that is bolder.

Addressing Rivalry at Home

There are ways parents can address sibling rivalry by avoiding certain actions and behaviors that can seem well-meaning, but can actually cause issues between siblings. As stated above, comparing siblings directly can cause resentment and feelings of insufficiency. While praising a sibling’s accomplishments is beneficial, it is best to avoid comparisons such as, “Sam learned multiplication tables a lot faster than Chris did.” Accept that all children have their own pace of learning — the child who takes longer to learn shoe-tying may grasp grammar quickly. This is not to say that if one child plays the piano or soccer, none of the other children can. Instead, children may benefit from playing on different teams or using different method books to teach music. This avoids having direct comparisons that can, however inadvertently, show one child as “ahead” of the other.

Additionally, it is best to avoid labeling each child as “the athlete”, “the musician”, and so on. Even if a child has a clear love and ability for one activity, pigeonholing them as a single activity can lead to burnout. The label of being “the brains” or “the artist” can also cause pressure and a sense of failure in children who may not always live up to that measure.

Teaching children to handle their own conflicts also helps them grow as individuals. It’s beneficial to avoid getting directly involved in normal rivalry unless there is a threat of violence; doing this not only denies children of conflict resolution practice, but they can feel as if one child is the “protected” or “targeted” one.  In actuality, a fight takes two people to happen. Instead, parents can coach kids on what to say and how to express feelings verbally without name-calling, hitting, etc. Parents can also stress there will be consequences and enforce family rules. Children and parents can also work together to create appropriate consequences in response to transgressions.

When arguments get heated, separating the children allows them to cool down. In separate spaces, they can calm down by reading, drawing, listening to music, or some other quiet and solitary activity before being able to resolve a disagreement. Encouraging children to entertain themselves can also foster feelings of independence.

Since attention is at the heart of so many conflicts, consider spending time alone with each child doing things that child enjoys. There is no sense in forcing children to go fishing when they would rather go to a concert. Another idea to grow attachments is to create family and team activities. If the whole family is making music or playing a game together, then everyone is getting attention from it because they can all be on a team.

When Rivalry Gets Beyond What You Can Do

There are times when at-home strategies cannot address the issue. In the cases of sibling abuse or violence, you may need to seek professional guidance from your doctor, a school counselor, church official, or other authority. These authorities can also help in the case of actions related to deeper concerns (such as depression) or if the children’s fighting is causing martial or relationship problems.


Sibling rivalry can be unavoidable for many parents. However, by validating feelings, establishing ground rules, avoiding direct competition, and by creating a cohesive unit, parents can avoid breeding resentment between siblings.