Coincidentally coinciding with National Bullying Awareness Month, Dadvice received a letter from a dad at the end of his rope:

What’s up, Dadvice? I have a boy and a girl, and they are 2 years apart. It seems like I can’t leave them alone – they are always fighting over something.  Is this normal? I guess maybe I could understand if it was 2 boys (well, not really) but a boy and a girl?  She’s as bad as her brother is.  Help! – FedUpDad

Dear, Fed.

Wow. I don’t envy you in the least. One of the hardest battles we have as a parent is keeping our kids safe. If we only knew that we’d have to keep them safe from each other.

Sibling rivalry is described as:

The intense, emotional competition among siblings–brothers and/or sisters that pits one against the other to obtain parental affection, approval, attention, and love.- McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine.

There are two ways of thinking when it comes to sibling rivalry.

  • You have the camp that says that it’s bullying at its worst. When dealing with a schoolyard bully the victim can escape their attacker when the day is over, whereas in the case of sibling rivalry you’re bullied in your safe haven, in your bedroom, at the dinner table, in the backyard, when your friends come over. This is a problem hiding in plain sight.
  • The other side says that sibling rivalry is common and serves a purpose in that it helps to shape us into who we are and teaches us how interact and behave in society.

kidsangryPersonally I think the most important part of the definition of the term ‘sibling rivalry’ is the word intense.  For as much as I think that sibling rivalry is common, I don’t necessarily think it’s right. It may be part of growing up in a house with brothers and sisters, but I think it needs to be watched closely to make sure it doesn’t cross the line into bullying and handled properly if or when it does.

What is handled properly?  This is the important part. Think about how you treat your children. Do you treat your kids fairly? Do you avoid comparing your kids in front of others? Do you pick out each one’s special talents? Here are some things we can do to change our interactions with our children to minimize their feelings of jealousy or rivalry.

  1. Stay away from negative nick-names. Monikers like clumsy or shorty can cause unfair family ribbings, hurt kids, and can cause sibling resentment.
  2. Don’t compare your children’s behavior, attitudes or schoolwork. Never compare or praise one kid’s behavior over another’s. It can create long-lasting strains. Never ask “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or “Why aren’t you neat like your sister?” Kids can interpret such comparisons as: “You think he’s better than me” or “You love him more.” It unfairly puts pressure on the sibling you praised and devalues your other child.
  3. Recognize and nurture a unique strength for each sibling. Every kid deserves to hear what makes them unique. It instills self-esteem and sets them apart from their siblings. Ideally, Nurture a different strength for each sibling and validate it so each child can be acknowledged for their strength.
  4. Be open. Listen to both sides. Listening fairly to your kids is a powerful way to let them know that you respect each child’s thoughts and want to hear all sides. “Thanks for sharing. Now I want to hear your sister’s side.” Build a fair relationship with each sibling so that he or she knows you value each of their opinions and that you’re listening fairly.
  5. Spend alone time with each child. Take the opportunity to seize those individual moments as they arise: Your brother’s asleep. Let’s just you and I go read a book together. Make special alone times for you and each of your children.
  6. Reinforce good behavior. The easiest way to boost sibling harmony: catch them supporting each other. This may not happen often but when it does tell them you appreciate their efforts. They’re more likely to repeat the behaviors because you’ve praised them.

In the end, siblings are always going to feel the need to emotionally compete with each other.  Being informed parents and treating each of our children fairly and equal to each other will help them feel they are obtaining the parental affection, approval, attention, and love they need to grow in a healthy environment.


Special thanks to Whit Honea, author of the book ‘The Parents Phrase Book’, Jeanne Safer, author of ‘Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret’ and