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Is There a Such Thing as a Healthy Sibling Rivalry?

June 5, 2014

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If you have a sibling, you most likely have memories about times you fought with them growing up. This is a common occurrence as children mature and learn to assert themselves. It’s to be expected that there will be quibbles over sharing toys, who’s to blame when something breaks, or whose turn it is to take out the trash.

However, some siblings have more deeply-rooted discord stemming from competition between each other. This competition might be over attention, recognition, being “the best child” in their parents’ eyes, or really anything that could be viewed as unequally distributed. This sibling rivalry is often regarded as a necessary growing pain for most children with brothers and sisters, but the question remains: Is it healthy for your children?

Experts tend to agree that sibling rivalry itself is healthy, and even necessary, for children to experience. It gets credit for teaching children how to manage conflicts, share, and get along with others. By first learning to navigate interpersonal relationships with those closest to them, they will be better able to navigate friendships and even romantic relationships down the road, experts say.

Still, hearing your children fighting like cats and dogs can be unsettling for parents. To ensure that the sibling rivalry helps your children learn about themselves and the world, and doesn’t become hurtful or destructive, it’s important to create an environment where children can vent their feelings in a healthy (and equal) way. Giving the impression of favoritism or being on one child’s “side” can lead to resentment amongst siblings, resulting in negative relationships, which studies have shown may lead to aggressive or anti-social behavior. If you find yourself in the middle of an all-out war between your children, follow these tips to help them move toward peace:

Teach your children how to communicate with respect. Teaching a child how to communicate their feelings in a clear, non-malicious way early on in their lives is an important step for them to learn how to have healthy relationships in the future. Encourage your children to speak how they would like to be spoken to and explain that language that hurt their feelings will do the same to their brother or sister.

Don’t get involved. Though it may seem counterintuitive, not getting involved in a squabble between siblings allows them to work it out themselves, developing valuable communication and compromise skills along the way. However, this only applies to words-only arguments. If one or more children get violent, of course, step in to calm the storm.

Treat your children as individuals, not a unit. Though it may be easier to address children as “the kids,” each child has his or her own individual interests and needs. It’s important to give each child one-on-one time, and allow each to grow their own interests apart from their siblings. Fostering this feeling of being special and unique helps eliminate competition. This also applies to praise—children will be good at different things, so instead of comparing one to the other, praise them for the individual things they do well.

Teach your children that life isn’t always fair. When one child gets a gift, a special treat, or extra attention, siblings will often ask to have the same thing. Instead of trying to make everything “equal” to eliminate fighting, explain the reasons behind the seeming imbalance. For example, if Susie got a 100% on her math test and got a gold star, rather than giving her siblings gold stars as well, explain that Susie’s “prize” is related to a specific achievement, and that they’re capable of earning similar recognition for their own special achievements. Not only will it be a fair explanation, but it will also give the other children something to strive for.

What techniques have you tried to reduce sibling rivalry? Tell us in the comment section below!