Sibling Rivalry

"We recently took our two boys on a trip with their cousin, who is an only child. The three boys spent the entire trip vying for position and trying to find their special place in the group. Is this normal?"

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Everyone needs to feel that he or she belongs and is significant. The first place we make decisions about how we belong is in our family of origin. Children are good observers, but poor interpreters. When a new baby arrives, the older child often believes, "Mommy doesn't love me as much as the baby." As children get older, they often mistakenly believe that only one person in a family can have a certain claim to fame. If a child thinks his sibling already has the place of being athletic, for example, he may decide to be studious, musical, or a social butterfly. Children often develop typical characteristics based on their birth order. The oldest child usually tries to be first and boss; the second looks for the injustices and often becomes a rebel, or may try hard to catch up with the first; the youngest thinks he is entitled to extra attention; and the only child wants to be special. If adults are trying to control a situation in which kids are trying to find ways in which they are unique, it is wasted effort. The kids will find their own ways to belong and feel significant.1


  1. Get into your children's world. The oldest usually feels "dethroned," just as you would if your spouse brought home a new lover. The youngest often feels inadequate when comparing herself to the capabilities of the oldest. Understanding how they might feel helps you interact with them with compassion. Never say, "You shouldn't feel that way." Allow children to feel what they feel.
  2. Compassion does not mean sympathy. It is not helpful to overprotect your children and try to save them from the many feelings and emotions they will experience in life. Compassion helps you maintain kindness with firmness while applying any of the following suggestions.
  3. Avoid victim and bully training. This happens when you assume the oldest is always at fault (the bully) and rescue the youngest (the victim). Often the youngest starts a conflict (that you don't see) just to get you to rescue her. Treat them the same. Verbalize faith in their ability to work things out, or separate them.
  4. Make sure that you have one-on-one special time with each child sometime during each day. If a child is jealous of another, let him know that you want to be with each child and his time will come. Tell him that it is okay to feel jealous.
  5. If the situation between the kids gets out of hand, see if you can redirect them into activities, such as contests or relays, where cooperation is more important than competition.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Give positive messages to every child so each knows how special he or she is. For instance, with the three boys mentioned above, one was told, "You're really good at organizing activities." Another was told, "You're really good at ignoring group pressure and doing what you like." The youngest was told, "You sure have figured out how to let these big guys think they're the boss, while you get exactly what you want."
  2. Find activities that stress group cooperation and teamwork. Help the kids discover that things are more fun when they include people who have different strengths.
  3. Make it a point to let the kids know how much you appreciate their special qualities that set them apart from the other kids.
  4. Don't compare the kids in a misguided attempt to motivate them to be like another child. This is very discouraging.
  5. At family meetings and other activities, stress how great it is that we are all different and bring different skills and ideas to the family.
  6. It does not help to read stories about new babies to children under three. They cannot understand abstract concepts. They will understand concrete actions if you spend as much time with them as you do with the new baby.
  7. Don't gush and make a fuss over the new baby in front of an older sibling. This enhances the belief of the older child that she has been "replaced."
  8. Get rid of your "fair button." Kids will push it and use it to manipulate you.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn how to be together and realize that each one is unique and special. Children can learn that everyone is different and that is okay. They can learn how to be resourceful and solve their own problems. Most important, they can learn that they are all loved and that love is not conditional on being one certain way.

Parenting Pointers

  1. Sibling rivalry is normal and happens in just about every family that has two or more children. It is more intense for children who are born less that three years apart. Rivalry increases when parents are competitive, and decreases when parents cooperate respectfully.
  2. Problems result when children decide that being loved is conditional. If parents stress competition, which emphasizes comparing and judging, instead of cooperation, which stresses uniqueness and differences, sibling rivalry can get out of hand. Make sure the message of love gets through and that each child is loved for being the unique human he or she is.
  3. If there is a change in how one child finds belonging and significance in a family, all the other children have to reevaluate their unique places as well. Often when families get into therapy, the "good" child gets worse while the "problem" child begins to behave better. This is normal until each child sorts out his or her special place in the family.

Booster Thoughts

Pam's two children tussled on the floor, punching, threatening, teasing, and wrestling with each other. Every time she tried to get them to stop, their behavior got more intense. She was upset about the sibling rivalry and was worried that her children would never be able to get along with each other.

Her friend Rita had been attending a parenting class. She suggested that Pam accompany her to the class and bring up this problem for discussion. Pam did so and was amazed to find that the other parents all had similar situations. Knowing that brought a certain amount of relief, but Pam still wanted guidance on what to do about her fighting children.

The group brainstormed a list of suggestions. The one that Pam decided to try for a week was to think of her children as bear cubs, scuffling together. It was amazing how much less the children's behavior concerned her when she simply changed her attitude. Instead of trying to make the kids stop, she sat back and enjoyed the show. She realized that her kids were really playing with each other and having fun together. She was the only one who had been upset. As she hassled them less about it, they seemed to have less need to wrestle, although they didn't give up their fun "game" completely.

1 For more information on birth order, see Chapter Three in Jane Nelsen Positive Discipline (New York: Ballantine, 1996).

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.