Managing Sibling Rivalry

It’s finally summer, which for many families means that the children are spending a lot more time at home together.  With increased togetherness often comes increased sibling rivalry.  Sibling rivalry can take many forms, ranging from poking and glaring to teasing and name-calling to kicking and wrestling.  While many parents find these types of interactions to be quite frustrating, it is a very normal aspect of development that actually offers some benefits to our kids.  For example, sibling rivalry teaches children how to problem-solve, express their needs assertively, negotiate, compromise, apologize, and make amends.


There are various reasons why siblings argue.  Often, they are seeking attention.  Kids know that their parents are likely to come running when they are getting loud or aggressive, and even though they know a lecture or punishment might follow, negative attention is still preferable to no attention.  Sometimes kids are seeking their sibling’s attention rather than that of their parents.  They may want emotional connection, or they may be simply trying to alleviate their own boredom; instigating an argument is a way to meet these needs, even if not a very successful way.  Additionally, children may fight out of jealousy or a sense of competition with one another.


Though sibling rivalry is typical, and kids tend to grow out of it with age, parents can help mitigate it and teach more adaptive problem-solving in various ways:


  1. Ignore it.  Unless the argument is overly aggressive or dangerous, stay out of it.  By jumping in too quickly, you are giving your kids the attention they seek and thus unintentionally reinforcing negative behavior.  It also robs your kids of the opportunity to learn how to hash it out themselves.
  2. Give each child your undivided attention for a few minutes every day.  If a child feels confident that they will consistently have frequent moments of connection with you, they are less likely to seek out your attention in maladaptive ways.
  3. Reduce competition.  When we compare children or assign labels to them (e.g., “the reader,” “the picky eater”), we are increasing the competition between them.  Competition and jealousy may make children feel like they need to prove their superiority.  Power struggles and fighting are thus likely to ensue.
  4. Encourage dialogue.  When parental intervention is necessary, allow both children to share their perspectives.  Encourage them to use “I feel” statements to express their experience rather than language that focuses on blaming or name-calling.  If your kids are unable to do this calmly, have everyone take a short break first.  They may need your help to effectively deescalate.  You can suggest calming techniques such as deep breathing, squeezing a pillow, going for a walk, petting the dog, or having a sip of water.
  5. Remain neutral.  Instead of taking sides or offering up a suggestion, ask them what ideas they have for a solution or compromise.  If they are unable to agree on anything, you may consider setting a limit (e.g., “If you can’t share the Legos, I’m going to take them all away.”).  This may help them realize that it is in both of their best interests to come to an agreement.
  6. Establish clear family rules.  Make sure to clearly state and reiterate your family values, such as “Use your words, not your hands” or “We don’t take things without asking.”


Conflict resolution is an advanced skill that many adults have yet to master!  Be patient, be consistent, be compassionate, and praise your kids when you see positive changes.


Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist