If you have more than one child, you’ve likely experienced it at some point: Sibling rivalry. It might be arguing over toys or games, fighting over food, name-calling, or even physical scuffles. In many families, it’s all of the above.
Although sibling rivalry can be tough to handle, it’s important to remember that some degree of strife between sibs is perfectly normal.
In fact, sibling relationships are where children develop foundational social skills like negotiating compromise, setting boundaries, and considering other perspectives.1 However, when sibling conflict gets out of hand, it can lead to problems in your family dynamic. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how to deal with sibling rivalry in healthy and productive ways.
6 Main Causes of Sibling Rivalry
The causes of sibling rivalry can vary, but often it comes down to age differences, personality clashes, feelings of jealousy, and competition for resources like toys, food, and attention.
#1 Age Differences
Short age gaps between siblings, like one or two years, can make walking to the bus stop or school picture day all the more convivial. But sometimes small age gaps make it more likely that siblings will feel competitive with each other.
With larger age differences, older siblings may feel resentful of all the direct, hands-on care and attention that littler kids receive. They may also feel parents are more lenient with younger siblings.1
#2 Personality Differences
Sometimes sibling rivalry is simply about a conflict of personalities. After all, living with anyone day in and day out isn’t easy—ask anyone who’s ever had a roommate. Personality differences may lead to problems like:
- Conflict over noise when one sibling tends toward noisy play and one prefers quiet time
- Arguments over messes in shared spaces when one sibling is tidy and one is disorganized
- Arguments over how to spend family time—one child wants mini golf, one wants a movie
#3 Parental Favoritism
A sibling relationship can often feel compromised if kids sense a parent is showing signs of favoritism. Siblings are very alert to any differences in the way they are treated by their parents. This can easily create resentment, hostility, and low self-esteem if they perceive that one child is favored over another.2 Be cautious of how you treat your children when it comes to:
- Parent-child conflict
If you have kids at different ages, consider teaching them that what is fair is not always equal when it comes to what each child needs. For instance, a 3-year-old’s bedtime will be earlier than your 10-year-old child’s bedtime. If your 3-year-old gets upset about going to bed, you have the opportunity to explain to them that as they grow, they’ll be exposed to new household rules or responsibilities––rather than allowing them to assume you’re playing favorites.
Children may feel like they are in competition with each other for attention, grades, or other achievements. When children feel like they need to outperform their sibling to gain recognition or praise, it can lead to harmful competition, pressure to perform, and increased stress and anxiety.
#5 Seeking Connection and Attention
Sometimes children cause conflict with each other when they feel a need for extra parental attention. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, they might even stir up trouble with a brother or sister as a way of getting their sibling to engage—even if it’s negative. For example, a younger sibling may feel that teasing or pestering is the only thing that secures an older sib’s attention.
#6 Stress in the Home
Kids are influenced by their surroundings at a young age. That being said, it’s important for parents to be cautious around the verbal and physical behavior they model in front of their kids to help them develop healthy behaviors and habits on their own. Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have found that homes with greater conflict between caregivers tend to have sibling relationships that include more harmful levels of aggression and tension.2 Therefore, be sure to think before you speak or act, especially in front of young children who learn from their surroundings every day.
Normalizing Sibling Rivalry
Although conflict between your children can feel stressful, in most cases, sibling rivalry is nothing to fear. Sibling relationships play a critical role in early childhood social emotional learning and development, and conflict is a normal part of human interactions.
Siblings provide a unique social context in which children learn how to:2
- Interact with peers
- Manage their emotions
- Resolve disagreements (learn more about problem solving activities for kids)
While parents would love to see their kids getting along all the time, it may be helpful to keep in mind that conflict with siblings is a chance for your children to learn how to set boundaries and stand up for themselves in a safe environment.
How to Deal With Sibling Rivalry
When it comes to parenting with confidence, understanding how to manage sibling rivalry can help maintain a healthy familial relationship. Although you may be tempted to step in when your children argue, it’s best to let them work out their disagreements with each other. Not only is it an important chance for children to develop their conflict resolution skills, but parent involvement can sometimes make sibling conflicts worse.1
How to handle sibling rivalry? When you do need to step in, follow these tips to make sure that your involvement helps heal the rift:
#1 Don’t Take Sides
There’s no need to judge who’s right or wrong. Focus on solutions rather than blaming. Taking the side of the older sibling can make the younger child feel as if you're playing favorites and can lead to a more hostile sibling relationship.
#2 Start with a Cool-Down Time
When kids are in the middle of a fight, they may not be able to communicate effectively with each other or you. Teach them to “take five” before trying to solve the problem, step outside or go to their own rooms, and cool down before talking. When you reconvene, if the argument gets heated again, suggest other effective calming activities for kids.
#3 Teaching Conflict Resolution
To take the heat out of sibling warfare, try to:3
- Help your kids identify the feelings behind the fights
- Encourage them to use “I” statements when sharing their side
- Help both kids practice actively listening to each other until each feels heard
- Encourage them to look for compromises and solutions to the problem that work for everyone
#4 Be Cautious About Playing Favorites
Children may already feel a sense of favoritism, so try remaining neutral during a disagreement. For example, kids will notice if you always suggest your youngest takes the first turn or your oldest gets the last cookie. You might try flipping a coin for an impartial ruling, or suggest that your kids negotiate so that you can step back (“You can have the last cookie if I can pick the show tonight”). If you find yourself favoriting your younger children to prevent a tantrum, consider giving them the opportunity to wait, be disappointed, or allow them to have a tantrum to show your older children that favoritism is not being had.
#5 Help Set Reasonable Boundaries
Setting boundaries with kids is a great way to mitigate sibling rivalry. This could include suggesting how long a turn should be (“You can each pick what to watch for five minutes”), or enforcing reasonable personal space restrictions (“Your brother’s room is his private space”).
#6 Let Them Help Find a Solution
You might say, “You both want to play with the doll. How could we share so that it’s fair for everyone?” Let them practice negotiating a compromise while you’re mediating. With time, they’ll learn to put this skill to use on their own.
Reflecting on Sibling Rivalry
When children experience sibling rivalry, they are presented with an opportunity to practice and develop critical social-emotional learning skills. Working out arguments with a sibling can help children learn how to stay in control of their emotions and communicate effectively while standing up for themselves.
Why are My Kids Acting Out?
Sibling rivalry can escalate into harmful behavior if parents play into it by pitting children against each other, favoring a “golden child,” or encouraging their children to compare their achievements. It can also happen if parents don’t teach kids appropriate skills to resolve conflicts respectfully.4
Sibling rivalry often begins as competition for things like toys, food, or TV time. The more damaging, serious conflicts arise when kids sense that they need to fight for parental affection.4
Take a close look at how you treat your children and consider whether you might be:
- Showing bias unconsciously
- Favoring one child due to gender or age
- Labeling them—for example, “the smart one,” “the athletic one,” and so on
Why It's Important to Address Sibling Rivalry
Addressing sibling rivalry is a fine line to walk. Your children need to learn how to handle their conflicts themselves, and when you intervene, you take the chance of making one (or both!) feel unheard or less valued.
However, healthy sibling rivalry can cross the line into psychologically damaging territory and set your kids up for a rocky relationship long term. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep normal sibling rivalry from escalating into abusive behavior:
- Be clear and consistent about what’s unacceptable – Have a no-tolerance policy for hitting and any other physical violence. Name-calling, taunting, and belittling should be off-limits as well.4
- Watch for signs that one child is being bullied – Sibling rivalry becomes damaging when one child (often the younger, but not always) is constantly being picked on by the other. It’s time to intervene if one child is always the loser and one is always the aggressor.
- Watch for behavioral warning signs – Sibling conflict may be out of hand if you notice that either child is showing signs of stress like depression, anxiety, bed-wetting, fear of the dark, or problems in school.4
- Watch for physical aggression – Another behavioral element you’ll want to look out for is any increase in physical reactions or outbursts. It's normal for kids to act out aggressively with one another because they developmentally don't have skills yet to self-regulate. However, as a parent, it’s critical you intervene to stop the aggression to protect children from doing and receiving harm. This type of parental leadership is vital for healthy family functioning.
When sibling rivalry becomes abusive, it can lead to negative outcomes such as:2
- Increased aggression
- Low self-esteem
- Poor sibling relationships in the long term
If either or both of your children are acting out, showing signs of stress, and creating tension in the family, it may be helpful to talk to a family therapist. This can help uncover factors pushing the friction between your children beyond normal sibling rivalry.
Build Healthy, Happy Sibling Bonds with Slumberkins
Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up, but it can have lasting effects on a child's emotional well-being. By understanding the underlying causes of sibling rivalry and taking steps to promote positive sibling relationships, parents can help their children develop the skills they need to navigate challenging relationships throughout their lives.
Teaching your children to cope with big emotions like jealousy, anger, and fear is the key to helping them treat their siblings with kindness even when it’s tough.
At Slumberkins, we offer a wealth of resources to help caregivers and children build stronger, more resilient relationships. Our Conflict Resolution collection has stories, worksheets, affirmations, and more, all focused on showing children how to manage conflicts without lashing out or shutting down.
- Frontiers in Psychology. Relationships between parenting style and sibling conflicts: A meta-analysis. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.936253/full
- Journal of Marriage and Family. Sibling relationships and influences in childhood and adolescence. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956653/
- Child Mind Institute. Teaching kids how to deal with conflict. https://childmind.org/article/teaching-kids-how-to-deal-with-conflict/
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Sibling violence. https://www.aamft.org//Consumer_Updates/Sibling_Violence.aspx