How do you deal with sibling rivalry and when do you know it’s gone too far?

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By: Marina Kuperman VillatoroCC BY 2.0
I don’t have the most fantastic relationship with my older sister. Now that I’m having children of my own, I need to address the personal issues I have with sibling dynamics and start to make decisions as to how I would deal with such situations as a parent.

I’m sure there will be times where my good intentions fall flat, and I lock myself in the bathroom under the guise of “needing a moment of privacy” instead of immediately dealing with a temper tantrum. But I want to at least have the intentions, to want to treat my children with respect so that they then can learn how to treat others that way. No matter the sibling combination, how these issues are dealt with in the formative years will continue into adulthood. I hope to do my best to keep the conversation open in our family, so that no one ever feels like what they have to say is not worth being listened to.

What are your opinions and experiences with “sibling rivalry?” What advice do you have for a new mom like myself?Miss Corinne

Comments on How do you deal with sibling rivalry and when do you know it’s gone too far?

  1. I do not get along with my older brother. The standard line that we have about each other is that we love each other, we just don’t like each other very much. And as I approach my 35th year, I’ve made peace with that. And I have adopted other “siblings” that are the uncles and aunts to my sons.

    I don’t have a great answer to what you’re asking (in fact, I’m looking forward to everyone else’s comments!), but I think I know what my parents could have done better and I’m just going to raise my boys to love each other. (And hope that they become friends and not be estranged like I am with my own bro …)

  2. As someone who has had some wicked fights with her sister I’d sum it up as encourage happy time outs. As kids get older teach them to recognize when they to not react and cool down. Happy time outs aren’t punishments they’re just an adult saying “We’re all angry, aren’t we? Let’s spend some time alone and do something that makes us happy. THEN we’ll all sit down and take turns talking about it.”

    Or you could do like my father: Have a “Family Court” where each child presents a case to the parents (Judge and Jury) about the resolution they want. The catch is you HAVE to argue your sibling’s case. My parents made it into such a fun production that it defused tempers. My sis and I either gave up the fight or got too into “winning” that we understood the other sister’s motivations.

  3. I think one of the biggest challenge for my sister and me isthat we aren’t (and never have been) similar people. We’re close in age and we were raised by great parents who tried to get us to get along. My dad finally gave up and let us not get along in peace. My mom continues to try to force us into harmony.

    So from my experience, I’d say keep them from physically harming each other. Teach them to respect the other kid’s opinion, even if they don’t agree, the same as you would teach them to respect any kid on the playground. If they can find common ground, great. If not, let them not get along.

    Also, if your kids don’t get along, be prepared for that to make them sad. I don’t like having no relationship with my sister, but I can’t talk about her with family. Movies with close siblings always make me sad. Then I feel like I’ve failed her and our family. If you’re seeing that with your kids, try to get them to open up to you. Tell them it’s okay to talk to you about family and promise to keep your talks private.

    And then actually keep secrets secret (yeah, that’s my own family drama.)

  4. Coming from a family where I don’t speak to one sibling at all, but have a good relationship with my brother, I have a lot of thoughts on this. My mom has a sibling she doesn’t speak to, as does my mother-in-law, and my partner too. That’s probably not a good start in terms of examples to pass on to our offspring.
    My partner’s narcissistic dad constantly played both of his children against each other, often favoring my partner. I’ve read about this, something like the Golden Child Syndrome. Now my partner doesn’t speak to either his father or his sister.
    In my situation, one child was favored so much that it led the other two to resent and then bond with each other. I’m always sad when I see families that are close.
    When people ask about how my first child is dealing with his new sister (he’s 3, she’s 2 months) I am eager to ask about that person’s family situation. I’m very interested in people who say they get along with their siblings but it’s not very often I find someone who can say WHY they’re close.
    Going into our own parenting philosophy, it’s something that’s discussed often in our house. I don’t want to see my kids with the kind of relationship we each have with our respective siblings. So far, being that they are still so young, our plan of attack is to give them a shared (light-hearted) embarrassment in the pre-teen and teenage years. We figure if they can both be a little embarrassed at our antics, it will give them something to bond over (rather than a common enemy, like I had). For now, we just try to focus on the equality of their childhood experiences (unlike what my partner had).
    Thank jebus we’re offbeat.

  5. You know the other post today about over-parenting? This is where it always gets tricky for me. I feel like it was very easy to moderate my parenting and let my kid figure out his own stuff— when I had one kid. When there is fighting, bickering, teasing, etc involved, I lose my confidence of when to let them figure it out between them versus stepping in. Granted, my youngest is 3 so there is still a lot of stepping in. But it’s hard to know when I’m overdoing it with playing peacemaker between them and when it would be beneficial for them to struggle to their own solutions.

    • The research I’ve read seems to indicate that anything short of physical violence​ they should be left to resolve themselves. This does require a high tolerance for screaming on the part of the caregiver. I’ve tried to follow this with my kids and so far it seems to be working. They’re 5.5 and 8, they play together a lot, they love each other fiercely, fight just as fiercely, and know to only come and get me when someone loses it and whacks the other.

  6. I have a huge family (7 siblings) and it can depend on a lot of things. For example, depending on the siblings- they may go through stages of liking/hating each other> my youngest sister was a blessing to me when she was 2 and I was 7 and I could play with her like my little doll and take care of her. When I was 10 and she was 5 she was a pain in the ass that I prayed would fall off of a tall building. When I was 15 and she was 10 she was a pain in the ass I felt the need to protect. By the time I got married she was my maid of honour.

    Whereas my older brother and I have had a much more tumultuous relationship that has gone from hero worship, to best buds, to strong enemies, to neutral affection.

    My brother was spoiled and given “boy chores” vs “girl chores”. Read- boys had to do manly things that were only required maybe once a week, girls had to do chores every god damned day. He was given gifts on my birthday “because it wasn’t fair to give gifts to just one child” but by his birthday this was forgotten. When he made passing grades he was given money and congratulations- when I was consistently at the top of my class it was just “expected” and a drop in grades was punished. This kind of different treatment can encourage sibling rivalry.

    Suggestions for new moms? Treat your kids the same at each age, as much as you can. As in, “when you are 11 this is the rule” that stays the same for both. Spend time with each of them individually. Support each of their different strengths. Don’t compare them when it could be hurtful, even when you have to bite your tongue until it bleeds (Ie: but your brother is so good at math/sports/cleaning his room). Don’t make the older one “babysit” the younger if they don’t want to and you can avoid it. Punishments should be equal. Give them time away from each other with their own peer groups when you can. Make sure you tell them both you love them, hug them, kiss them, tell them they are beautiful/smart/funny and talented. Encourage them to choose gifts for each other on b-days and other holidays- so they have to think of what the other one likes.

    If you figure out how to do all this, let everyone else know how.

    • I think a lot of this is brilliant, and I have similar experiences with my younger (and only) sister. We have a big age gap, and we went through periods of love/hate. When she first came into the world, I couldn’t stand her. I was an only child for 7 years, and suddenly this kid gets all the attention. When she was old enough to talk we played with each other, but as I got older, she was annoying. She is a teenager now, and we are the best of friends.

      I think the biggest thing you can do to prevent sibling rivalry is always remember that your children are different people. I know, that’s obvious, but my sister and I would fight when we were compared. The younger one is the frilly girly-girl, and I was always compared for being a tom-boy. I excelled in school, and she struggled. There was a lot of competition between us when it came to things like that; we constantly tried to one-up each other to gain the favour of our parents.

      But besides that, my parents just kind of left us alone. We were never forced to play together (probably the age thing), or attend the same extra-curricular activities because my parents understood that we’re different. By not being forced into those things we both learned to appreciate each others differences, and that grew into a beautiful relationship.

      Of course, I think it’s good to encourage spending time between siblings, but if there is no interest, don’t push it. If anything, that will build resentment between the two. My parents made us both know that we are not the center of the universe, and that attention had to be split between the two of us. Sure, it sucked when we were kids, but as we got older, we understood. And now that we’re older, we’re the best of friends.

  7. I had an up and down relationship with my sister, but over time we’ve become close as adults. I recently re-read “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves” and I like how the author talks about a) how raising children brings up our own issues from our childhood and b) how to deal with the feelings/emotions of our kids, especially when it comes to a (new) sibling.

  8. I think there’s a big difference between sibling bickering and sibling rivalry. Rivalry implies a long term ongoing competition between siblings, normally over who is the favored or “better” child. I work very hard so that both of my children know that I love them equally, that I know that they each have their strengths and weaknesses, and that life isn’t a competition.

    But there is endless sibling bickering – who got the last piece of scotch tape, who is in who’s room, who wants to play outside or inside, what movie they are going to watch, etc. They can fight about anything. Sometimes I broker those, sometimes I ignore them, and often they get a “if you can’t stop fighting, you are going to be separated.” The older they get, the more often I tell them to work it out themselves. If they can figure out how to start a fight, they can figure out how to end it. The only thing that is off-limits is that they aren’t allowed to tell each other “I hate you.” (They can’t swear or call names either, but that’s a more general rule). I always say “that isn’t true or kind, so please apologize.” I just want them to know that no matter how mad they get at each other, under it all, they really do love each other. Hopefully that helps prevent bickering from turning into rivalry.

    • An extension of that is “T.H.I.N.K.” before you speak:
      Is it True?
      Is it Helpful?
      Is it Inspiring?
      Is it Necessary?
      Is it Kind?

      (definitely not my words, and I don’t know where this originated, but please cite this if you know!)

    • Hmmm, while the no-saying-“I-hate-you”-rule is noble, and it’s definitely a great idea to teach kids conflict resolution, I don’t think it is a good idea to dictate what your kids’ feelings are for each other.

      If anyone were to tell me that I love my brother, I would say, in all honesty, “No, I don’t.” Because I don’t. At most there is a shaky neutrality.

      But hey, at least I do know how to resolve conflicts! 🙂

      • I just think it creates a poor dynamic to tell someone who you have a relationship with “I hate you.” Those are very powerful words. They can think them, and they can say “im really mad at you” but I hate you is off limits. The good thing is that my kids don’t really hate each other. I think they love each other very much. That said, I never ask them to say “I love you” to each other either. They can establish the perameters of their relationship, but I get to make the rules of decorum for the house.

        • I LOVE “I get to make the rules of decorum” How we treat people is NOT always how we feel about them. There are no rules for how you feel about people, but there are LOTS of rules about how you treat people.

      • My household is full with three sons. They are 14, 12, and 9. They argue quite a bit. I believe they argue because they spend so much time together and they just get tired of one another. I do not believe arguing is a bad thing. I encourage the boys to express their feelings. However, when the arguing becomes just plain mean, I separate them for a “time away.” I have explained quite often that they should fee safe and protected from physical violence and verbal abuse within the walls of our home.Time away gives them time to cool down and miss their siblings. Also, I stay with them as they cool down to address any frustrations they are feeling. So far, so good. I agree that there is a difference between sibling rivalry and siblings who disagree with one another. I allow them to disagree until they call names, hit one another, or say, “I hate you!” Hate is a term with such a violent connotation of wishing irreparable harm to one another. When I ask my son, whomever used the word, if he truly wants his sibling to be hurt in a manner that leaves permanent damage, he say, “no.” I have to admit each of my sons has only used the word perhaps twice in front of my husband and I. While I will not say what they never do when they are away from us, I pray they choose to leave hate out of their words and behavior. This form of parenting is time consuming and does not allow for a lot of free time in the evening after school and work, but I so hope this investment in my sons will help them to choose to be good human beings who choose their words wisely.

  9. I have given this a lot of thought since I found myself the mother of two girls who are rambunctious, competitive, energetic, physical and just 22 months apart in age. I found the book Siblings without Rivalry helpful. I do my best to coach the girls instead of getting in the middle of their arguments and when one kid hurts the other kid I focus energy on the child who was hurt before dealing with consequences for the other kid. While there are definitely consequences for using one’s body to be mean to one’s sister in our house we also spend time talking about alternatives and feelings “I wonder what you could do to help S feel happy instead of sad?” or “Maybe instead of hitting you could use your words and say ‘stop, I don’t like that!'” I try to differentiate between accidents and intentional physical altercations – my girls wrestle a lot with each other and so accidents do happen and feelings get hurt whether it’s intentional or not.

    I also have been noticing lately that my kids do better with each other when we as parents are finding ways to give them individual attention and time. Getting treated like a unit all the time wears on them, I think, and encourages competitiveness. When they each get their own space, time away from each other, and individual attention they have a chance to miss each other and feel less driven to compete for attention from others.

    My brother and I are spaced similarly to my kids, and we’re also hugely competitive, went through phases where we fought constantly as kids, and are now both adults who work hard to connect even though we’re pretty different people from each other in some ways. I value all the experiences we had and the stuff I learned from having fun with him and from fighting with him as a kid.

  10. I would say one of THE best things my parents instilled between my siblings and I was a zero-tolerance policy for hitting. (The same went for my parents- they never spanked us). We could even rough house and wrestle. But NO hitting and the second someone said ‘ow’ you stopped. I am so grateful for that. I’ve seen friends interact with their siblings and they beat each other up badly. Which may even be no big deal when you’re kids about the same size but as you get older and one sibling or the other gets taller, stronger, more vicious or vindictive, actual harm can be inflicted, but the lesson is already learned!

    The other thing my parents strongly instilled in us was ‘no tattling’. If you retaliated against your sibling, you lost your right to come to a parent to ask for help in dealing with them. You could only do so if your sibling did something and you had not yet responded.

    Two lessons I will definitely carry on to my own children when I have them.

    • My sister used to tell my nephews that she didn’t want to hear any sentences that start with the brother’s name. I suppose she would have wanted to hear that Timmy has fallen down the well, but almost all the time, that rule worked fine.

      • I am a pre-school teacher. My rule is
        “Is it hurting someone’s body? Is it hurting someone’s feelings?” If the answer is no, they have to solve their own problems.

  11. I found the book Siblings Without Rivalry to be a real eye opener. It describes ways that parents can alienate siblings, and it’s what most parents do normally, like comparing children or labeling them as the smart one, the lazy one, etc. It gives great advice for preparing kids for new siblings and allowing them to feel jealous and upset and it’s ok.

  12. I think ultimately the best thing my parents did was to treat myself and my siblings as equals, they were hard on all of us about grades, sports etc. But at the same time they offered us all the same opportunities in school and life. This allowed us to grow up without any major “rivalries”, we were all essentially equal. No one got special treatment. My parents were also very firm in that we need to respect our siblings and our parents, despite our differences.

    Now, with that in mind, my sister and I are both notoriously competitive, my brother not so much. My brother and I are more similar in our interests, while my sister and I are more similar in terms of educational and sports desires. We were taught from a young age, that disagreements are ok and are natural, but you need to be respectful of the other person’s view. Debates were encouraged, fighting wasn’t. And, that really has continued to this day. Both of my parents had very little in terms of good relationships with their siblings, and it was their goal to teach us to love and respect each other despite our differences. Ultimately its on us in the end to act like appropriate siblings, yes my sister and I are still competitive, and yes we get into fights because of it, but we know too to say sorry and move on. That was instilled in us from a young age.

    From a parenting perspective though, you can’t force relationships. Sometimes as much as you want siblings to love each other, they just might not.

  13. I am the oldest, my brother ‘J’ is 4 years younger, and the baby brother ‘G’ is 5 years younger than him. I was in heaven when J was a baby. I would crawl into his crib when he woke up in the morning, we would play together, he was the sunshine of my life! When he got to be about preschool age, things got difficult. I blame the fact that I was a bossy little girl (understatement) and J was not having it. I would be kind of manipulative; all he could do to combat it was to physically fight back. When baby G came into the picture, I was about 8, and he was MY baby. I just loved carrying him around, feeding, babysitting, etc. J took less interest in G than I did, and often probably felt a little left out. I remember J and I fighting, ALL THE TIME. Just about until I was out of high school. I’m talking knock-down-drag-out fighting. I remember the first time J cussed was at me. He was an easy going kid, so it was shocking to hear him say “FUCK YOU” when he was about 12. I attribute a few things to keeping us from killing each other:
    Oddly, we were protective of each other when it came to outside influences. We have a very similar sense of humor. I grew out of my extremely bossy pants (mostly). Mom got sick at about this time in life, and it caused us to really bond. We both also started exploring religious faith at the same time, and bonded over that as well.
    We are in our 20’s now, and he is my best friend.
    All three of us enjoy hanging out together. It’s been fun adding to the mix; my husband, and J’s girlfriend all get along fabulously.
    I still have a scar from a bite that J gave me during our rough years, and we have some good stories.
    My parents pretty much left us to our own devices. They were pretty hands-off when it came to our relationship. I think that the example they set of being respectful and kind to each other and to us was the key to our current happy, tight relationship.

  14. I have five siblings, we range in age from 31 to 8, are spread across the US from New Mexico to Maryland and are all super close. I think a lot of this has to do with being raised on a farm and needing to be able to depend on and trust each other completely. Probably helped to also have so much room so that everyone could have their place to hide and chill out for a bit.

    Looking back, the close friendships I have with my adult brothers have nothing to do with how well we got along together as kids. We fought like crazy and even have a few physical scars each to show for it. I think it was mostly our living situation and the modeled behavior of our families that influenced our closeness. We’re not even all that similar; different levels of education, different passions, different opinions about when and how to have families and religious beliefs ranging from Quaker to Atheist. Even different opinions about and histories with, alcohol and drug usage. The 4 of us that are adults have grown up to be actual friends along with being family and I foresee similar outcomes with my two youngest sisters.

    May or may not be important, but our parents never expected the older child to be responsible for the behavior or care of the younger and I think that took a lot of potential stress out of our relationships. I’m not sure what kind of advice there is for this, or even how to give it, but I hope that my experience can give you some encouragement and hope that no matter the personalities of your children, they can be friends! 🙂

  15. Wow this resonates with me so much. I have three siblings and our relationships with each other are extremely odd, tense and uncomfortable. We grew up in a very fend-for-yourself kind of way, where you trust no one and never know what’s the “right” thing to do, with distant and self-absorbed parents. I actually can’t watch “Arrested Development” because it’s too close to the truth. I am expecting my first baby and I would so love for my children to have the relationship that my husband has with his sister. So far, all I have is what NOT to do. I will be watching this post for suggestions.

  16. My brother is 4 years younger then me and when we were little little kids, we got along fine, as I moved into the junior high/high school realm, we started to really not like each other. My brother made fun of me a lot growing up and my father would laugh because he can’t keep a straight face while my mom tried to discipline him but without my dad’s backing, my brother got away with everything and it made me feel like shit.

    We started to get along better when I went away to college, then after he came back from Marine Boot Camp, and now that we live in separate houses, we’re finally friends. I do love my brother a lot and I know he loves me too and would do anything for me if I needed him. I just wish we’d always had a good relationship when we were kids.

  17. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue as it’s something I’ve always been concerned with: how to raise siblings that get along. It also connects painfully to the issues my husband and I have had with his older brother, and the comparison between that and myself and my two younger siblings.

    My brother-in-law seems to have held onto a lot of resentment from his childhood (baby brother got more attention) as well as some pretty horrible views (younger brother isn’t as smart/capable/good enough to be my kids uncle – this being without having kids) and it all hurt a huge amount as time went on. Judgemental attitudes, harmful words, general beating us up mentally and then “apologising” with stuff like “I’m sorry you felt that was a bad thing to say/you were upset/you were in an emotional state”.

    In comparison I am almost surprised at how well my siblings get on. We are such different people but we all encourage each other. Although there are spats now and then, we know where the line is and always hug it out and try and involve each-other.

    I have often wondered what made the difference and I think it’s what we were taught about eachother from a young age: we needed to look after each other.
    I was the big sister (and most people can tell) but I always knew that being big sister didn’t make me right and that my siblings needed to be helped not told off. In the same way when I left for uni, middle sibling was asked to look after our younger sibling. But in the same way younger sibling knew that they weren’t going to get away with the stereotype and that actually sometimes we needed their help too. It was a constant change and evolution of working together and it happened gradually.

    I think I’m going to try that simple lesson with my kids: tell the truth but explain that siblings mean responsibility to care for eachother. It won’t be easy and sometimes they will be mean and steal your toys, but ultimately you are family and need to look out for each other and support the rest. It’s probably not as simple as that, but it’s the only thing I think I’ve noticed might have had an effect.

    Except for you know.. best big sis ever… obviously! 😛

  18. It’s probably super fucked up, but my brothers and I are insanely close. Mostly because my dad pretty much forced it on us. He doesn’t speak to his siblings and it was really important to him that we loved each other.
    When we fought, we had to “hug until we liked each other”. We would legit stand there and hug until we weren’t fighting anymore. We started with pinching each other or squeezing each other really hard. The middle had us on the same side, miserable and hating our dad. By the end we were whispering and giggling.
    It worked for us, but it could have gone horribly wrong.
    Maybe making activities where your kids are rewarded somehow for their cooperation and working together-ness…
    Like designating a specific “chore time” and if they are able to get X amount of things done in X amount of time they don’t have to do Y. Or play games where they’re on the same team.
    Another thing my dad did that was actually super-cool was letting us fight.
    Just be super aware of your kids and their dynamics. Is there one that is a leader, a bully, an instigator? Try to be aware of that and talk to them appropriately.
    I am secret language, Brady Bunch and lunch once a week close with two of my brothers. The other one I barely tolerate. He was an insidious, abusive bully. Because I was the instigator, his bullying went unnoticed. If my parents had stepped in, then he wouldn’t have been able to cause the ever-lasting damage that he did. I also wouldn’t have felt so angry, betrayed and ostracized by my parents for the 20 years it took them to see his abusive side.

  19. I have two older siblings (7 and 9 years older than me). I hated, and still hate, to be considered the little one. Now that we would be old enough to be able to share things, I feel even more left out when I find out, for example, that they go to each other place for dinner without letting me know, even now that I have a partner their age (and my brother has a girlfriend my age). I’ve always dreamt about having a twin sister. I see my man, an only child son of two only children, and I’m envious of how easy communication is between them (althought this is probably an understatement). We don’t know yet if we’ll have children, but I strongly feel the need to protect my maybebaby from this kind of relationship. So from my personal experience what I’ve plotted so far is: hope to have twins, if it doesn’t happen, only one child, or two super close in age (I think not remembering a time when the other one wasn’t there as well is a big part of the deal).

  20. Treat each child as an individual, and don’t compare them to each other. There’s a difference between having a family rule that applies to everyone, and saying things like “You should be able to get good grades just like your sister!” My mom had a rule that every school year, you had to take one “art” class and one “sport”. It applied equally to both of us, but we could choose, and were praised for our efforts in, different stuff. I never got compared to my brother since he was in choir and I chose band, so I could support his stuff and and could support mine. Might not work if both/all your kids are skilled or enjoy the same thing, but encouraging each child to excel at something their siblings aren’t involved in helps foster encouragement rather than competition.
    Eat dinner together/take vacations together. Some of the best memories we both have with our siblings is road trips. I’m sure at the time we were horrible, complainy travel companions, but we STILL talk about that one time we got lost in downtown Quebec (where apparently they don’t like street signs, at least not in 1993).
    Something my husband’s mom always said “feelings are important, but actions are more important” aka you can feel however you want toward your sibling, but you cannot ACT however you want. There were rules for fighting, similar to what some other commenters have said aka you can’t say “I hate you” or “I wish you’d die” and physical altercations were not allowed. She is a family counselor, so there was a lot of emphasis on talking it out and constructive words and the like. My husband and his sister had (and have) serious tempers, so sometimes those rules didn’t stop the fighting, but the two of them do have a really tight relationship besides beating the crap out of each other as kids!

  21. I have no relationship with my siblings, and there are myriad reasons why but one that my mom could have done something about was to give us our own space. I shared a room my whole life, for no valid reason whatsoever (we had enough rooms). There was no privacy. So if you cam, give your kids their own spaces, so they have somewhere to get away if need be.

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