Sibling Rivalry

I still remember the day that my little brother was brought home from hospital. At six years old, it was all that I had wished for. I relished my role as a mini mum and demanded that my parents gave us permission to marry. However, when he became three years old, he transformed into my nemesis overnight. He stopped wanting to be bossed about and started to have strong opinions of his own. I was indignant. Who was this blonde-haired blue-eyed boy that no longer did as I told him to and everyone adored? How dare he shove me out of the limelight? What followed was a decade-long tug of war, pulling between friendship one minute and enemies the next.

The rivalry between siblings is not in the least bit uncommon and can cause a lot of stress for parents who simply want their children to get on. Interestingly, some experts claim that sibling rivalry is vital to a child’s development. It is a safe environment to explore and test the boundaries of others and to learn the art of socialisation.  But is it normal? How much is too much? Is it really good for children? And how do you handle it from a parent’s perspective?


What is it and is it normal?

Simply put, sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition and fighting between siblings. If we were to delve into it from an evolutional perspective, it goes right back to the fight for survival. Except now, this competition is mainly focused on parental love and attention. The relationship between brothers and sisters is often one of the first formed and one that is a constant throughout life. Some siblings are the best of friends; however, others can have a complicated and rocky relationship. Arguments can stem from many things including boredom, tiredness or simply a way of expressing feelings. It is not believed to be concerning unless it becomes out of control.


How much is too much?

It may feel that your children go beyond what is considered ‘normal’ fighting and this can be hugely stressful for a parent. Your children may constantly bicker or have regular physical altercations. The key things to look out for are:

  • Do they express feelings of love to one another in other moments?
  • Is there a particular issue that regularly pops up?
  • Is the level of intensity escalating?


Can it be good?

It might be a relief to hear that is believed by experts that competition and arguments between siblings is healthy. It can teach them communication, negotiation and enhance emotional development. This is all within a safe environment.


How to deal with it

Nobody wants a house of hostility and it can be exceptionally draining if you are feeling that you are on a merry-go-round of arguments. There are some ways of diffusing sibling arguments:

  • Don’t step in. Sometimes it can be tempting to step in and resolve arguments as they happen. But jumping in too quickly does not allow children to settle the dispute themselves. Listen in and see if an argument is settled between them.
  • Talk. If an argument is getting out of control allow some time for it to settle and then encourage siblings to openly communicate how they feel. By teaching them to recognise their own emotions and say them out loud calmly, ‘I felt angry that you won’t share with me’, will allow them to express themselves and listen to one another.
  • One to one time. Set aside time each month where your children get one to one time with a parent. Getting out into another environment and doing something fun will give a child the feeling of being listened to and getting some attention without having to fight for it.
  • Praise the good. As parents we can easily fall into the trap of drawing attention to when siblings are doing wrong. When you see them playing nicely or speaking of each other highly, praise them.
  • Lead by example. Children mimic adult behaviour. If they witness their parents shouting at each other to get their voices heard, then they are more likely to follow the same pattern. Discuss problems rather than fighting in front of children.

Rest assured that most siblings do eventually get on and a dose of rivalry is not going to do them any long-term harm. My brother and I are now closer than ever, although he does like to bring up my fondness of bribery at family get togethers!


Karen Olney


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