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Raising Siblings Peacefully

By Jocelyn R. Miller, PhD, Dean Pediatric Psychologist

Understanding the Sibling Relationship

Most parents know instinctively that the sibling relationship is an important one, but they don't really know why or how. Researchers have supported what parents know in their hearts, discovering that:

  • Siblings form a lifelong bond; elderly people are more likely to die if none of their siblings are left living
  • Siblings provide a laboratory for learning about relationships in which individuals have equal power
  • Siblings can teach lessons about relationships with people of the same gender and the opposite gender
  • Having siblings highlights the need to learn conflict resolution skills
  • Siblings teach you about yourself; siblings have a profound effect on a person's self-image
  • Younger siblings form an emotional attachment to their older siblings from birth just as they bond with parents
  • Your siblings are the only ones who know your parents as parents, and as such are important holders of shared memories

Competition vs. Rivalry?

Competition between siblings is natural. Siblings learn to stand up for themselves. Young children compete for parental time and attention, as well as toys and money. Older siblings compete friends, in sports and at school.

Competition that is too intense is called rivalry. Rivalry is an unhealthy relationship in which the sibling is viewed as the enemy. Rivalry destroys family unity. How can you tell if your children are competitors or rivals? Watch how siblings treat each other. Siblings may fight at home all day, but if they defend each other when one has been picked on at school, they are just competitors. Siblings who show no concern for each other when one is ill or injured are rivals.

Many parents today do not draw the line when their children go beyond competition to rivalry. Unfortunately, there are too many negative role models on television of sibling relationships full of cruel teasing and verbal harassment. Parents and children think that name-calling and rejection between siblings is normal and should be accepted.

Parents need to set limits on name-calling and sarcasm between their children.


Factors Influencing Sibling Competition and Conflict

  • Marital conflict - the more the parents in a family argue, the more the children will argue
  • Temperament - children with dominant personalities will struggle for the top dog position over anything, no matter how petty
  • Birth order and spacing - siblings of the same gender who are close in age are more likely to squabble
  • Quality of the child's relationship to parents - children who have a secure attachment or bonding to their parents are less likely to squabble

Channeling Competition in Positive Ways

Our society gives children mixed messages about being competitive. On the one hand, they are supposed to play to win in the athletic arena, but they are not supposed to fight over who has the TV remote. Girls in particular are supposed to share and give way to others, although society's expectations in this area are gradually changing. It is important for parents to accept that competitiveness is normal and healthy. Competing with others in many different ways helps children learn how to assert themselves and stand up to challenge.

  • Create open dialog about competitive feelings. It is OK to say "You really want to win," or "You want to be the best," when you see your child behaving in a competitive manner. This helps the child to verbalize her competitive strivings, and supports her feelings.
  • Find ways for your children to compete directly, through board games and video games, sports, and academic challenges. Make sure that there are opportunities for each child to win by setting up competitions that play to each child's strengths.

Promoting Peace - Parenting Do's and Don'ts

Provide lots of one-on-one time with each child to head off a serious rivalry. If children receive enough adult attention on a predictable basis, they are less anxious to grab adult attention every chance they get, and will be less jealous of the attention that their siblings receive. Be sure that each parent spends special time with each child; do not fall into the pattern of mom going shopping with the girls and dad going hunting with the boys. Boys need time with their mom, and girls need time with their dad.

Create a clear family value that sibling relationships are important and should be marked by love and affection. Expect your children to share and take turns when requested to do so by a sibling. Expect your children to give each other gifts for birthdays and holidays. Expect your children to respect each other's privacy.

Create opportunities for siblings to work together. Perhaps the kids can team up against the parents, in a game where the kids win by collaborating. Use clear expectations and punishments to enforce the family philosophy that siblings may not hurt each other physically or verbally. If a child does hurt his sibling, the punishment should focus on repairing the damage to the other person. When a child has to do his sister's chores, be his sister's servant for a day, or give his sister a back rub, he will remember the lesson learned.

Make sure that each child has a healthy social life and friends of their own. Sibling conflict is often fueled by boredom and by  spending too much time together.

Beware of setting up family myths and rigid roles. "Jonny is the smart one and Susie is the athletic one" can set up deep feelings of resentment and jealousy. Beware of favoritism and over-protectiveness. Parents often have a blind spot for the child who is the most like them in personality, or who is in the same position in the birth order (e.g. oldest, middle, youngest). While younger children do need to be protected from aggression by older and larger siblings, younger children also need to learn skills to protect themselves when parents are not available to monitor.

Beware of playing the role of referee, especially with older children. Remember that it takes two to fight - each child always has the option of walking away. Of ten one child tends to provoke, which parents do not see. Parents only come on the scene when the other child reacts, and tend to blame that child while excusing the provoker.

Beware of making the older child too responsible for the younger. Often, young children do not behave well when their older sibling babysits, as the younger one does not respect the older one's authority. If you must ask your oldest to supervise younger siblings when an adult is not present, make sure that you talk to the younger children about the authority you are giving to their brother or sister. Back up the older child's authority with appropriate rewards or punishments when you return.

Beware of artificial ideas of fairness and equality. The real world is not concretely fair or equal, and the sooner your children adjust to that, the better. Respond to your children as individuals, according to their unique needs. Children whose needs are being met will be less concerned with fairness.


Teaching Conflict Resolution

Supervision and monitoring is necessary for children under age 8 if they have a tendency to get into arguments or physical conflicts with each other. This does not mean parents decide how to solve any problems that come up. Instead, close supervision allows parents to teach strategies before someone is crying.

Think ahead. Remind older children that their younger siblings will want to do exactly what they are doing. Encourage the oldest to select the toy they will share with their brother when he comes over and wants to play.

Encourage children to be polite to each other, to ask if they can play, to ask when they can have a turn, to talk things out if there is a disagreement. "Use your words" is a phrase that parents of toddlers and preschoolers need to use many times a day.

Children can set their own time limit for how long each child's turn will last, thereby heading off arguments. Knowing how to tell when their turn starts and stops gives children motivation to use clock-reading skills. Even preschoolers can vote about how long a turn should last.

Have family meetings with older children to decide in advance how to share larger items, such as the television, video game system, and computer. Some system of rotation ("whose day is it to choose what show to watch?") can work wonders.

"Share, take turns, walk away." Young children should have these common solutions to conflicts memorized.

Negotiation and compromise are more advanced skills that children can use once they are school-age. Teach children how to give up some of what they want, how to meet in the middle, how to create a solution that satisfies everyone.


Creative Consequences

If you are at your wits' end and your children's fighting is driving you crazy, try the following ideas:

  • Lavish attention on the child who appears to be the victim. If one child hits the other, rush off to another room with the victim and make a big fuss over their injury. Ignore the aggressor. This can help to short circuit any hidden payoff the aggressor gets out of the negative parental attention that usually comes when they hit someone. Set a punishment for the aggressor only after the victim is well taken care of.
  • Ground children from each other for several hours or a day. This means that the children cannot be in the same room together, and may have to take turns to eat dinner or be where parents are. They certainly may not speak to each other or throw taunts at each other during this time. Parents must be home with the children throughout the period of the grounding, to supervise that they maintain their distance. Siblings may be begging to play together by the end of the grounding period!
  • When the arguments of older children are too loud to live with, send them outside. This can be done regardless of the weather. Children can return to the house when they have solved their disagreement. This teaches children to control their emotions and their actions while angry, and reminds them that they do not have the right to intrude on parents' peace and quiet with their arguments.

For Further Reading

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish © 1987, 1998

An excellent, easy to-read book, providing insights into raising siblings based on how you and your siblings were raised.

View Dr. Miller's profile.

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