“Give it back!”
“I had it first!”
“That’s not fair!”
Sound familiar? Sibling rivalry is completely normal, but that doesn’t make it fun to deal with as a parent. After all – we enjoy each of our children, and it hurts when they don’t seem to like each other.
“I vividly remember fighting with my older sister over the front seat, the last pudding cup, and what show we were going to watch on TV,” recalls parenting author Julia Cook.
“She always felt it was her job to tell me what to do, what to say, and especially how to act, so I made it my mission in life to find every way possible to embarrass her in front of everyone! The only thing we shared was genetics. I’m pretty sure she hated me most of the time. And I didn’t care much for her either.”
Their relationship survived the sibling rivalry stage, and they’ve grown into what every parent wishes for their children. “Fast-forward 45 years, and hate is the farthest thing we have between us.”
“My big sister is the only person on the planet who grew up in the same world as I did. Although we are polar opposites in many ways, the bond we share is immeasurable. Friends have come and gone throughout our lives, but my sister has been a constant, offering unconditional support, understanding and acceptance. I know that she is forever in my corner, and I am in hers.”
What is Sibling Rivalry?
The term sibling rivalry describes the struggle between siblings for attention, possessions, or simply the upper hand. It’s a normal part of childhood, and believe it or not, it serves a purpose in their development. Competition and conflict can teach kids valuable life skills, so long as trickier situations are handled with care.
Each child’s age and stage of development play a role in their interactions. Little ones may struggle with sharing, while older kids might battle for independence and identity. Understanding your child’s unique needs and capabilities is how you can use a gentle parenting approach to managing sibling rivalry effectively.
Bickering and name-calling can be frustrating and upsetting to watch. A household full of conflict is stressful for everyone. This advice should help guide you through the challenges of sibling rivalry with gentle parenting strategies to help foster respectful and harmonious sibling bonds.
The Gentle Approach to Sibling Rivalry
Here are some specific steps you can take to create a nurturing environment and foster sibling harmony right from the start:
Lay a foundation of love
From the start, show unconditional love and affection to each child individually. You can begin early as you prepare older siblings for a new baby. Let them know they are valued and cherished. This helps build a strong sense of security and reduces the need for attention-seeking behaviors that can lead to rivalry.
Promote sensitivity and empathy
Understanding where another sibling is coming from often helps reduce the occurrence and severity of sibling rivalry. Teach your children to put themselves in others’ shoes and see life from another perspective. Here’s more on encouraging empathy in kids.
Encourage inclusivity and teamwork
While it can be effective to make things into a competition – who can put away the most groceries? who can take the shortest shower? – these can lead to hurt feelings.
Encourage a sense of togetherness and cooperation from an early age. Involve your children in activities that foster teamwork like setting the table together. This creates a shared sense of purpose and builds a positive bond between siblings.
Recognize and celebrate each child’s unique qualities, talents, and interests. Encourage them to express themselves and pursue their passions. By respecting their individuality, you create an atmosphere of acceptance, build each child’s self-esteem, and reduce the likelihood of jealousy or competition.
Teach effective communication
Teach your children healthy communication skills, such as active listening, expressing emotions clearly, and resolving disputes peacefully. Help them understand that conflicts and disagreements are a normal part of life, and provide guidance on how to express themselves respectfully and find common ground.
Whenever possible, try to let your children work out their own differences. If you get involved, you risk creating other problems. Your children might start expecting you to rescue them rather than learning how to work out problems on their own.
You may also be perceived as being one child’s “protector” which can build up sibling resentment. Also, one child might start thinking they can get away with more because they’re always being saved by you.
Always step in if there is danger of physical harm.
Remember those valuable life skills? Sibling rivalry offers plenty of problem-solving practice for life. Julia Cook shares with a laugh, “Thanks to my big sister, I consider myself an expert in this area!”
Try the peace stone practice
The Montessori-inspired peace stone or peace table solution can help kids express their feelings and work toward a resolution. I witnessed this firsthand on a tour of a wonderful accredited Montessori school.
Two 8-year-old girls stormed out of their classroom into the common area. The first girl grabbed a heart shaped stone and abruptly (but not rudely) presented her side of an argument. She used words like when you did X, I felt Y.
When she was finished stating her feelings, she handed the stone to the other girl who shared her frustrations with just as much passion as well as regard for the rules.
The argument came down to the second girl realizing that she had unknowingly hurt the first girl’s feelings. She explained that she didn’t realize it. She accepted responsibility but also gave helpful advice, “Next time you should say something sooner.”
The only person allowed to speak was the one holding the peace stone. They traded it back and forth fairly until both parties had said what was on their minds. In that case, a resolution was made with no interference from a teacher. However, the principal told me sometimes an adult does have to get involved, but they try to let the children work it out for themselves first.
Refrain from comparing your children to each other. Each child is unique and has their own strengths and weaknesses. Focus on celebrating their individual accomplishments and avoid pitting them against each other. This helps prevent feelings of resentment or inadequacy.
Model positive behavior
Children learn by observing their parents’ actions. So, be mindful of how you interact with your partner, other family members, and your children. Model kindness, empathy, and effective conflict resolution. When they see positive behavior in action, they are more likely to emulate it themselves.
If you’re ever in doubt about how to respond to a combative situation in front of your child, tune in and trust your instincts. And when you make a mistake or lose your temper, you can always go back and apologize. Kids will learn that everyone makes mistakes (even mom and dad), and you will be a more relatable example to them.
Practice guided meditation with your child. You can choose from easy to read scripts like this one about understanding and releasing anger or this one about how taking deep breaths can calm the mind and body.
Make each child feel seen and appreciated
When our second child was a newborn, I noticed my older child saying, “Look at me!” more often. It didn’t take a detective to realize that his puzzle-working genius, dramatic jumps from couch to couch, and adorable dance moves were garnering less of a captive audience than when he was an only child. So, I made the conscious decision to spend more pockets of time with him when the baby slept or was with my husband.
This one-on-one time strengthens the parent-child bond and minimizes feelings of rivalry. Engage in activities that your child enjoys and make them feel special and valued.
Humans have three basic emotional needs: See Me, Hear Me, and Validate Me. When a child feels that one or more of these needs are not being met, they will do whatever it takes to get their parents’ attention.
Gently encourage independence
Encourage independence and autonomy in each child. Attachment parenting fosters this type of independence. Allow them to make age-appropriate choices and decisions.
This helps them develop a sense of identity and reduces the need to compete for control or attention. It can also help them appreciate each other for their differences which can help build positive sibling relationships.
Setting boundaries is part of gaining independence. Help your children set ground rules early on.
When I was a child, my mother allowed me to put away my favorite toy or doll before other kids came over to play. She didn’t make a big deal out it, so neither did I. And while I knew I needed to share with my friends or relatives, I appreciated knowing my favorite dolls wouldn’t be treated carelessly.
Explain that fair doesn’t always mean equal
Your children are not the same and their needs are ever changing. There are times when a parent needs to spend more time with one child than another. Privileges allotted are different for older children than younger children.
This approach also helps encourage resilience in your child. Being resilient means being able to handle things that don’t work out ideally and having the ability to find creative solutions to problems.
Gentle Parenting Books on Sibling Rivalry
Need more guidance to combat sibling fighting or encourage compromise? These resources offer useful help from a positive parenting perspective.
Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber
Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life by Dr. Laura Markham
I Want to be the Only Dog children’s picture book by Julia Cook
Maple & Willow Together children’s picture book by Lori Nichols
The Evil Princess vs. the Brave Knight children’s book about family dynamics by Jennifer L. Holm
Sibling Rivalry FAQs
Look for the reason behind your child’s controlling behavior. It may be that they need more opportunities to make decisions or be in charge of their own choices. If so, try to offer them the chance to choose in age-appropriate decisions.
As far as the other child, teach them to set boundaries as mentioned above. Provide guidance in speaking up for themselves and maybe try the peace stone exercise.
If intervention is necessary, remain neutral and guide both children towards a resolution that respects everyone’s needs. Encourage them to find compromises and solutions that work for both parties.
As a parent, you know the difference between good natured roughhousing and aggression. The first is generally harmless, but the latter needs intervention.
First, ensure the safety of both children while remaining calm and composed.
Help your children understand that while feeling angry is natural, physical aggression is not an acceptable way to express it. Teach them alternative, healthy ways to manage their anger and frustration, such as deep breathing, using words to express their feelings, or engaging in physical activities like running or hitting a pillow.
Next, help your children set clear boundaries. Teach them problem-solving skills and encourage them to communicate their needs and feelings calmly and respectfully. If physical aggression persists despite your efforts, consider seeking guidance from a professional, such as a family therapist or counselor.
Whether you should intervene depends on the specific situation and the age or developmental range of your children.
Start by assessing the severity of the conflict and the potential for harm. If the conflict is escalating or poses a risk to their safety, you should step in. Ensure the well-being of both children and separate them if necessary.
If the situation is mild and both children seem capable of resolving the issue themselves, consider taking a step back and allowing them to work it out. This can empower them to communicate, negotiate, and find solutions independently. Offer guidance on effective communication and problem-solving strategies. Encourage them to listen to each other’s perspectives and find compromises.
Regardless of whether you intervene immediately or let them resolve conflicts on their own, use every opportunity to teach empathy and respect. Help your children understand the impact of their actions on each other’s feelings. Encourage them to consider how they would like to be treated in similar situations.
All successful human relationships must have two things: trust and communication. If one are both are missing, the relationship will fail. Build trust and communication by holding family meetings, fostering team spirit, capitalizing on humor, letting the little things slide, and minimizing comparisons.
Preventing sibling rivalry completely is not always possible, but by implementing these strategies, you can create an environment that fosters love, respect, and cooperation between your children. With your guidance and support, they’ll be on their way to building a lifelong bond filled with love and understanding.