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Consciously or unconsciously, what role do parents play in creating sibling rivalry?
“Psychologist Oliver James is a big proponent of our conscious and less conscious ‘roles’ in family life and the importance of birth order. In my family I was the youngest of two, and I married a fellow youngest of two. In our own family, it’s the younger children who are well defended – and that can’t be a coincidence. It’s useful, therefore, to reflect on how our own birth order, sibling experience and dynamic with your chosen partner influences your parenting style.” – Dr Marielle Quint at The Soke
“As parents, we often unintentionally appoint ourselves as judge to decide who is at fault. This immediately puts all participants into set roles – with the children identified as perpetrator and victim. Parents tend to blame an older child and take the side of the younger, weaker sibling. The younger sibling then doesn’t learn, and the older sibling feels blamed. This can also lead to the younger one becoming cunning and manipulative. But often we just don’t see whole picture. The bottom line is – never take sides.” – Elaine Halligan, parenting coach, speaker & author of My Child’s Different
“Siblings will be aware acutely aware of parents’ expectations, which may influence their behaviour and relationship with each other. It can create rivalry and unhealthy competition, impacting the wider family dynamic. Parents may think it’s best to treat their children the same. However, it is important to allow your children’s individuality to shine and to adjust your parenting technique where needed. Siblings may have unhealthy rivalry with each other as a result of how they’ve been parented, but if parents make a conscious effort to look at the child they have, then the child will feel understood and more connected to their primary caregiver.” – Kemi Omijeh, BACP therapist
So let’s talk a bit more about taking sides – is it ever okay?
“When it’s clear you need to take sides in terms of safety or when something is clearly wrong, then it’s okay. It teaches children the importance of having boundaries and being able to stand up for what’s not right. Taking sides because you have bias towards one child is what’s problematic. This also impacts on the bond siblings have. Being clear on why you have taken certain actions will determine if it’s appropriate to take sides. We all have different attachments or bonds with individuals, children included, and sometime this is misinterpreted as favouritism. Our children can also illicit different responses in us, and we may have more in common with one child or find one child’s temperament easier. All of these factors make it easier to have favourites or give the impression a parent has favourites. Favouritism really doesn’t help a child’s mental health and wellbeing; issues such as anxiety and low self-esteem can arise as a result.” – Kemi
How does comparing children cause damage to their relationship?
“Sometimes parents are guilty of comparing their children. A child’s most common need is for attention and appreciation. The next most common need is to feel successful or able. If your child is feeling unsuccessful, either socially or academically, this needs to be addressed or they may well take their feelings of inadequacy out on their siblings. It’s important not to compare one child with another – even favourably. If you’re praising one child in front of others, be mindful of how the ones not getting praised will hear that. Try to notice whether one child consistently gets more praise than others, or if that’s how the children see it, as that can inadvertently create sibling rivalry.” – Elaine
What are the main issues younger siblings face?
“It’s more common for a younger child to feel misplaced or at a loss when a new sibling arrives because they may not have the language or emotional maturity to process their feelings. This requires parents to be proactive in validating the child’s emotions. Planning for the arrival of a sibling can be crucial, so make them a part of the journey and help them process as much as they can so they are emotionally invested.” – Kemi
*Want more information? Read this SheerLuxe article on how to prepare for a new child’s arrival.
What are the common issues you see emerging among older siblings?
“Usually mocking and put downs – so attacking a sibling personally. It often happens when a child has poor self-esteem. They may pick on a younger brother or sister because they don’t know what else to do with their feelings. A lot of it is about proving their value.” – Elaine
“Older and teenage siblings also enter a phase where they have to figure out if they actually like each other i.e. if they want to be friends. Teenage siblings can also be strong allies and advocates for each other though, so it’s not always a negative situation.” – Kemi
Can sibling rivalry at home lead to continued disagreements as adults?
“Adult behaviour can certainly be shaped by how parents handle sibling rivalry. If it’s left unresolved, they can still be keen to find fault with others and take pleasure in their discomfort. They may not have learnt how to ‘fight clean’ or how to express or stand up for themselves without injuring others. Some siblings can enter adulthood still feeling the need to prove themselves, resulting in aggressiveness, domineering behaviour and excessive people pleasing. Competitive adults may still be playing out childhood sibling issues. Therefore, children who don’t learn how to resolve conflicts often take those habits into adulthood.” – Elaine
So, how can the cycle be broken?
“Notice and comment on positive interactions between brothers and sisters. Usually, when our children are getting on well together, we don’t even notice it but we turn our attention to them when they start fighting. This teaches them that an easy way to get our attention is to provoke a fight. Second, carve out quality time with each child every week – preferably with each parent. Make it as frequent and predictable as possible. It needn’t be very long, but if the children have your undivided attention at certain defined times, they are less likely to compete with their siblings.” – Elaine
Does emotional regulation play a part in breaking the cycle, too?
“Helping your children be emotionally intelligent is the key to managing sibling issues. When we acknowledge how our children are feeling – angry, jealous, hurt, frustrated, disappointed, inadequate, left out, unappreciated – they learn to identify and process those feelings, rather than taking them out on others. They also learn to consider other people’s feelings. Being able to empathise is essential to getting on with siblings. Encourage them to tell you how they are feeling rather than scolding them for having ‘bad’ feelings. Don’t say, ’Of course you don’t hate your sister. That’s a nasty thing to say’. Instead say, ‘I’m glad you were brave enough to tell me. I think you need a hug.’.” – Elaine
“Children need boundaries to feel safe and confident in their environment and this can be done in a nurturing and supportive way. A lack of boundaries can impact a child’s emotional regulation and their ability to set limits for themself. For example, children may not know if they have gone too far with a sibling if there’s no clear line. It can also influence future relationships if they don’t have a good understanding of healthy boundaries.” – Kemi
What role can parents play in managing sibling discord among older children?
“With older children, it's important to act as a referee without taking sides – like a mediator. It’s important to allow each child to be heard without interruption and with respect. When everyone has been heard, it’s useful to see what each family member can come up with and if possible, reach a compromise. Of course, sometimes there is neither the time, space or inclination for this and children need time to cool off before a more reflective space is found later.” – Marielle
How can parents intervene constructively?
“In several ways. Ultimately, we want to help our children to develop their vocabulary and literacy to translate their emotions. If we can empathise, it helps them internalise and name this process. While we like to think being an older sister is a privilege, it’s helpful to name the difficult and unwanted feelings too. For older children this means setting empathic limits and being clear about expectations. When these aren’t met, all evidence-based psychologists will recommend a ‘time in’ as opposed to a ‘time out’ where you calm and regulate your child’s nervous system (that will be in a state of fight-or-flight) and help the prefrontal cortex develop. Separating the behaviour from the child is crucial. Before any conversation can happen, it’s about being calm.” – Marielle
“Only get involved to unblock channels of communication – not to judge or impose solutions. You will need to prepare them for this if you have been in the habit of being the arbitrator. You could say something like, ‘I know in the past I have gotten involved in your fights and sometimes taken sides. You’re old enough now to come to your own solutions’.” – Elaine
Are there times when parents should just stay out of it?
“We can stay out of squabbles of a minor nature. Many types of quarrelling are temporary, due to bad mood, tiredness, hunger, illness, boredom, with no long-term damage caused – so simply let them get on with it. But definitely try to stay out of the following: being a nuisance, bickering, winding each other up, mild name calling, put downs, pushing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, elbowing, knocking into, tripping up and taking other siblings’ things.” – Elaine
Finally, can a bit of sibling rivalry ever be a good thing?
“While rivalry and conflict aren’t pleasant for anyone, it serves to teach them some potentially valuable lessons – including identity formation and conflict resolution. However, when sibling rivalry is unmanageable or it becomes bullying, the research clearly illustrates there can be a long-term and damaging impact on self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. Taking action to prevent this can mean regularly separating siblings, referring without taking sides or maybe seeking support with an external family therapist. The best part about family therapy is that it is non-blaming – seeing it as a family-wide problem means there probably only has to be some small but impactful tweaks to family life to improve the situation.” – Marielle
Here, counsellor and clinical content specialist at Kooth, Gemma Campbell, shares her tips for building a more positive relationship between siblings…
Find a common interest
As we grow up, siblings might find themselves having other interests away from their family members, and that is natural. To find new ways for siblings to bond, a good tip is to find something they both like and make time for it. It could be as simple as watching a favourite TV show together, playing a video game, playing in the garden, walking the dog or just reminiscing about family memories.
Respect each other’s space
Whether a sibling has their own personal space or has to share it, setting some ground rules can help them live alongside each other peacefully. For example, you might agree they can’t go into each other's rooms without knocking, or that they have to ask before borrowing things. Thinking carefully together about these rules and trying to stick to them can make a real difference.
Have time away from each other
Getting along doesn’t always mean having to be together. Letting a sibling have their own hobbies, interests, and friends can be important so that they can grow as individuals.
Ditch the labels
When we use labels to describe each other like “the smart one” or “the sporty one” it not only opens us up competition and comparison, but it can also limit who children think they are. For example, one being sporty doesn’t mean the other can’t be sporty, too. And it can be really tricky when those labels come from parents, so not using them can be helpful.
Support each other
This is more relevant to adult relationships, but you don’t need to be super close all the time to support each other as siblings. If you can reach out to your siblings when things are difficult, that’s great. But if not, that’s okay, too – you can still be supportive in other ways. A simple message now and again is sometimes enough to make a difference to your relationship.
Accept your differences
Siblings don’t have to be the same people or get along all the time. Sometimes, tensions come from a place of wanting the other person to do or think a certain way. But appreciating differences is often a good way to see each other's unique qualities.