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Sibling Rivalry: Why Do Brothers and Sisters Fight?

There are many different causes to sibling rivalry. Most brothers and sisters experience some degree of jealousy or competition, and this can lead to squabbles and bickering. But other factors also might influence how often kids fight and how severe the fighting gets. These include:

Changing Needs

It’s natural for kids’ changing needs, anxieties, and identities to affect how they relate to one another. For example, toddlers are naturally protective of their toys and belongings, and are learning to assert their will, which they’ll do at every turn. So if a baby brother or sister picks up the toddler’s toy, the older child may react aggressively. School-age kids often have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so might not understand why siblings of other ages are treated differently or feel like one child gets preferential treatment. Teenagers, on the other hand, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together. All of these differences can influence the way kids fight with one another.

Individual Moods and Personal Styles

Mood, disposition, and adaptability — and their unique personalities play a large role in how well they get along. For example, if one child is laid back and another is easily rattled, they may often get into it. Similarly, a child who is especially clingy and drawn to parents for comfort and love might be resented by siblings who see this and want the same amount of attention.

Special Needs and Considerations

Sometimes, a child’s special needs due to illness or learning/emotional issues may require more parental time. Other kids may pick up on this disparity and act out to get attention or out of fear of what’s happening to the other child.

Simulating Parent Behavior

The way that parents resolve problems and disagreements sets a strong example for kids. So if you and your spouse work through conflicts in a way that’s respectful, productive, and not aggressive, you increase the chances that your children will adopt those tactics when they run into problems with one another. If your kids see you routinely shout, slam doors, and loudly argue when you have problems, they’re likely to pick up those bad habits themselves.

What Can I Do When the Fighting Starts?

While it may be common for brothers and sisters to fight, it’s certainly not fun for everyone else in the house. And a family can only put up with some many conflicts. So what should you do when the fighting starts?

Whenever possible, stay out of it! Step in only if there’s a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, you risk creating other problems. Children may start expecting your help and wait for you to come rather than learning to work out the problems on their own. There’s also the risk that you may unintentionally make it appear to one child that another is always being “protected,” which could lead to more resentment. By the same token, rescued children may feel that they can get away with more because they’re always being “saved” by a parent.

If you’re concerned by the language used or name-calling, it’s appropriate to “coach” kids through what they’re feeling by using appropriate words. This is different from intervening or stepping in and separating the kids.

Even then, encourage them to resolve the crisis themselves. If you do step in, try to resolve problems with your kids, not for them.

What To Consider When You Do get Involved

* Separate kids until they’re calm. Sometimes it’s best just to give them space for a little while and not immediately rehash the conflict. Otherwise, the fight can escalate again. If you want to make this a learning experience, wait until the emotions have died down.
* Don’t put too much focus on figuring out which child is to blame. It takes two to fight — anyone who is involved is partly responsible.
* Next, try to set up a “win-win” situation so that each child gains something. When they both want the same toy, perhaps there’s a game they could play together instead.

Recognize The Causes

There are many factors that lead to sibling rivalry.  Some of the most common include:

* Each child is competing to define who they are as an individual. As they discover who they are, they try to find their own talents, activities, and interests. They want to show that they are separate from their siblings.
* Children feel they are getting unequal amounts of your attention, discipline, and responsiveness.
* Children may feel their relationship with their parents is threatened by the arrival of a new baby.
* Your children’s developmental stages affect how well they can share your attention and get along with one another.
* Children who are hungry, bored or tired are more likely to start fights.
* Children may not know positive ways to get attention from their brother or sister, so they pick fights.
* Family dynamics play a role. For example, one child may remind a parent of a relative who was particularly difficult, and this may subconsciously influence how the parent treats that child.
* Children will fight more with each other in families where there is no understanding that fighting is not an acceptable way to resolve conflicts.
* Families that don’t share enjoyable times together will probably have more conflict.
* Stress in the parent’s lives can decrease the amount of attention parents give the children and increase sibling rivalry.
* Stress in your children’s lives can shorten their fuses, and create more conflict.
* How parents treat their kids and react to conflict can make a big difference in how well siblings get along.

Remember, as kids cope with disputes, they also learn important skills that will serve them for life — like how to value another person’s perspective, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to control aggressive impulses.

Helping Children Learn To Work Together

Simple things you can do every day to prevent fighting include:

* Set ground rules for acceptable behavior. Tell the kids that there’s no cursing, no name-calling, no yelling, no door slamming. Solicit their input on the rules — as well as the consequences when they break them. This teaches kids that they’re responsible for their own actions, regardless of the situation or how provoked they felt, and discourages any attempts to negotiate regarding who was “right” or “wrong.”
* Don’t let kids make you think that everything always has to be “fair” and “equal” — sometimes one kid needs more than the other.
* Be proactive in giving your kids one-on-one attention directed to their interests and needs. For example, if one likes to go outdoors, take a walk or go to the park. If another child likes to sit and read, make time for that too.
* Make sure kids have their own space and time to do their own thing — to play with toys by themselves, to play with friends without a sibling tagging along, or to enjoy activities without having to share 50-50.

* Show and tell your kids that, for you, love is not something that comes with limits.
* Let them know that they are safe, important, and needed, and that their needs will be met.
* Have fun together as a family. Whether you’re watching a movie, throwing a ball, or playing a board game, you’re establishing a peaceful way for your kids to spend time together and relate to each other. This can help ease tensions between them and also keeps you involved. Since parental attention is something many kids fight over, fun family activities can help reduce conflict.
* If your children frequently squabble over the same things (such as video games or dibs on the TV remote), post a schedule showing which child “owns” that item at what times during the week. (But if they keep fighting about it, take the “prize” away altogether.)
* If fights between your school-age children are frequent, hold weekly family meetings in which you repeat the rules about fighting and review past successes in reducing conflicts. Consider establishing a program where the kids earn points toward a fun family-oriented activity when they work together to stop battling.
* Recognize when kids just need time apart from each other and the family dynamics. Try arranging separate play dates or activities for each kid occasionally. And when one child is on a play date, you can spend one-on-one time with another.

Other factors to consider

Sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters. It is a concern for almost all parents of two or more kids. Problems often start right after the birth of the second child. Sibling rivalry usually continues throughout childhood and can be very frustrating and stressful to parents. There are lots of things parents can do to help their kids get along better and work through conflicts in positive ways. Read on for tips and resources to help you keep the peace at your house.

What’s the up-side of having more than one child?

Most likely your kids’ relationship will eventually develop into a close one. Working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person’s point of view.

Other Thoughts and Steps to Consider

  1. Never compare your children. This one is a “biggie”.
  2. Don’t typecast. Let each child be who they are. Don’t try to pigeonhole or label them.
  3. Don’t play favorites.
  4. Set your kids up to cooperate rather than compete. For example, have them race the clock to pick up toys, instead of racing each other.
  5. Pay attention to the time of day and other patterns in when conflicts usually occur. Perhaps a change in the routine, an earlier meal or snack, or a well-planned activity when the kids are at loose ends could help avert your kids’ conflicts.
  6. Teach your kids positive ways to get attention from each other. Show them how to approach another child and ask them to play.
  7. Being fair is very important, but it is not the same as being equal. Your children need to learn that you will do your best to meet each of their unique needs. Even if you are able to do everything totally equally, your children will still feel as if they’re not getting a fair share of attention, discipline, or responsiveness from you.
  8. Plan family activities that are fun for everyone. If your kids have good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they come into conflict. It’s easier to work it out with someone you share warm memories with.
  9. Make sure each child has enough time and space of their own. Kids need chances to do their own thing, play with their own friends without their sibling, and they need to have their space and property protected.
  10. Set aside “alone time” for each child. Each parent should spend some one-on-one with each kid on a regular basis. Try to get in at least a few minutes each day. It’s amazing how much even just 10 minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time can mean to your child.
  11. When you are alone with each child, ask them once in a while what they like most and least about each brother and sister. This will help you keep tabs on their relationships, and also remind you that they probably do have some positive feelings for each other!
  12. Listen—really listen—to how your children feel about what’s going on in the family. They may not be so demanding if they know you at least care how they feel.
  13. Celebrate your children’s differences.
  14. Let each child know they are special—just for whom they are.

Seek Professional Help

Go to: “Ask A Counselor” at

In a small percentage of families, the conflict between brothers and sisters is so severe that it disrupts daily functioning, or particularly affects kids emotionally or psychologically. In those cases, it’s wise to get help from a mental health professional. Seek help for sibling conflict if it:

  • Fighting becomes so severe that it’s leading to marital problems
  • creates a real danger of physical harm to any family member* is damaging to the self-esteem or psychological well-being of any family member
  • may be related to another psychiatric disorder, such as depression

Discussion Topics:


One comment

  • Cody says:

    This was the greatest thing i have ever read. I am a teenager myself and have a younger sister, and i want my peace and independence. I am usually a pretty laid back quiet person, and my sister is the exact opposite; She is loud and loves attention. So when i want it quiet and she is being obnoxious i have these anxiety attacks and end up agressivly screaming at her, and i always feel bad after i do it because i know that i have no right to yell at her, but i feel that i was raised that way. My parrents are divorced right now, and when they were married they would fight all the time. It was non stop arguing in my families household. My dad would become very anrgy very easily, and would end up being very agressive and would scream and yell at me for long periods of time about the most rediculous things. I remember one time he grounded me for not putting my gloves on before i walked out the door, or not getting up fast enough for him, or for spitting outside. He would pick me up while he was screaming at me, take me upstairs, set me on my parrents bed, and would shout at me for about and hour at a time. I know that he was treated like that as a child, but I don’t want to end up that way. I feel like I am carrying a bad example down the family even further, and would like some advise on how I can control my anger because now some my close friends have noticed it and I want to make it better. Another reason I may feel like this is that I am insecure about myself. I am a senior in high school now and I am only 115 lbs. I come from a family of short skinny people, and they are all hard asses, and i dont know if they all feel the same way i do. But too many people feel that they should take their agression out on me because they feel that i am a defensless little bitch, and i guess thats another reason why i am so pissed off all the time. I joined the wrestling team back in 8th grade to try and beef up a little bit, and it has helped some, but I just need some other advise on how i can control my anger so i dont resolve my problems in such a negative way like every one else in my family.

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