Sibling Rivalry

It is such a hot potato – no matter how many books parents read, no matter how much advice they ask and no matter how many hours they spend working out ways to reduce this conflict – it keeps happening!

Firstly our families are our greatest classroom for learning how to get along with others. These relationships are a microcosm of social systems that exist within schools and society. Children are children not grownups in little bodies and so emotional and social competence is constantly being learned. Our emotional states come from our thoughts and we all know how random our thoughts can be. When we perceive that the world is unfair, or that we are excluded rather than embraced and valued, it triggers the primitive mind to perceive a threat and that kicks our flight-fight response. For children this is very strong and given that they see the world through very different eyes to adults who have a pre frontal cortex they are sensitive to unloving words and actions.

When conflict happens, the moment of conflict is not that the right time to explain how to behave better! Imagine that all siblings will be in their red room and they will need time to calm down. Later that day would be a good time to explore the conflict and have them work out what happened and how they could do things differently if it happens again.

Sibling rivalry can occur when there is a change in the state of the emotional worlds like when:

  • boredom sets in
  • hunger happens
  • thirst happens
  • body energy is built up from passivity
  • a power struggle happens
  • the game has run its course
  • there’s an imbalance of winning/losing dynamic.

Helping with conflict

Fighting siblings often need adult help to find a solution to the fighting. Essentially creating a return to a calm and centred place should be the first step. You can help your children to learn a pattern for managing future sibling conflict. There will be times when I suggest that you stay out of resolving sibling conflict – if you always come to help them you may be setting up an expectation that they will always need your help. Sometimes, once all kids have returned to the green room not the red room have them consider solutions to avoid the same thing happening again. It helps if you alternate strategies rather than trying the same one all the time.

The most simple solution to a sibling war that breaks out is distraction, eg. “OK it’s time for morning tea, let’s walk the dog, let’s build a cubby in the bedroom.” My favourite method with my lads was that any conflict meant whoever was involved was given 10 minutes outside. In a calm voice: “Everyone outside for some cool off time – no I don’t want to know who started what, just some time outside.” No need to work out what happened it was just a cooling off time, no blame, no-one’s fault – no raised voices. After 10 minutes I would come back and let them know that time was up most times they did not come back in because they had started a new game. After a while they would take themselves outside when conflict happened – “we’re on our way outside Mum!”

Roosters and lambs in conflict

Our rooster children often trigger sibling conflict because they are stronger personalities and have a tendency to see themselves as most important. Lambs are our gentle sensitive children and to be honest they can develop strength by living with a rooster sibling. Hopefully the lamb will teach the rooster some empathy and consideration for others. I feel it is important to have conversations with your children about treating each other fairly and in a way that we would be ok with. I often reminded my boys that their brothers will be their best mates when they get older – and they have become that. I wonder if that would have happened without lots of reminders of this possibility? Funny the two roosters who fought the most especially during adolescence, ended up living together for six years after they left home and shopped together, surfed together and lived like dumb and dumber!’

Some of the things that need to be taken into account with children’s behaviour is that birth order can have an impact on kids’ behaviour. Another is self-regulation patterns – some kids naturally have better ways of managing their energy. Boys generally need a lot more physicality to keep their energy at a level where they will play well and be more accommodating to other children’s behaviour. Girls often are way more savvy emotionally and using words – indeed often it’s the drowning in words and talking that can create conflict with brothers who can get frustrated and want some peace!

Introverted children need some solo time to refill their energy and can become crabby if they cannot find some solo space. Extroverted children fill their energy cup by chatting to others, particularly older children or adults. They get very frustrated when they cannot find an adult to share their cup filling!

Turning aggression into awareness

If there is physical aggression you need to instantly act in a firm voice: “NO! Hurting each other physically is not acceptable in this house – ever. We use words to solve our problems not our bodies.” I would then separate the siblings to allow them to cool down – and then individually reassure them of your love – and then help them work out what emotions led to the hitting. It’s usually frustration, anger or feeling rejected. This is how we build emotional awareness so that children know that sometimes big ugly emotions can make them lash out. They are not bad, just the choice they made!

Researchers have observed that siblings between the age of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour on average! They followed many siblings from childhood to adulthood and noted how they got along when older. The secret to liking each other later is the balance between the conflict and the fun times they had together. That made so much sense to me. I made sure my lads played heaps together I replaced every lost basketball, tennis ball, totem tennis set, skateboard, bike – we spent hours at the beach, the park or in the bush where they played and had heaps of fun. So give this some thought especially in our screen-driven world – how much fun are your kids having together?

The crucial role of best friends

Now be prepared to be stunned! The best predictor of how well your siblings are going to get on is determined almost before birth in a way. The predictive factor is the quality of the relationship of the older child’s relationship with his or her best friend.

“The kids who play in a reciprocal, mutual style with their best friend were the ones who had good rapport with their younger siblings later.”
(Source: Nurture Shock by P O Bronson & Ashley Merryman)

So essentially the older siblings practise on their friends and then apply what they know and have learnt to their siblings. Now that’s a handy thing to know before you have kids but a bit late when they are all on deck and fighting like hell!

Girl and boy sibling rivalry could have some instinctual influences at play that we simply do not want to change. If the opposite genders fight a lot they won’t fall in love and want to breed! Now that may make you feel a little better.

The common-sense take home message

I am not sure we need researchers to tell us that siblings will fight less if they enjoy each other’s presence and create moments of friendship. It does seem pretty common sense to me. From my experiences and my readings I would say this sums up the five things that will help our siblings get along better as:

  1. Ensure they feel loved, valued and accepted by the big people in their life.
  2. Make sure children play lots and lots with other children and have hours of fun.Surround your children with children who belong to your best friends and family who love you.
  3. Fill your house with your kids’ friends – there is always less sibling conflict when they have friends around!
  4. Accept that family life is a classroom for life and that both joy and conflict are great teachers for our children.
  5. Stop beating yourself up and use novelty and laughter to lighten the environment – surprise your kids with a bright pink wig, a cape, a tiara or a teletubbie suit for the fun of it!


Image credit: ©️ Tomsickova /Adobe Stock –