Handling Sibling Rivalry

Contributed by Dr. Giancarlo Toledanes

Children may feel jealousy if they are not receiving what the other is getting, including their parents' attention. This may prompt cries of "unfairness" and lead to fights. However, sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up and, when managed correctly, can lead to healthy relationships between siblings.

Mom deals with kids fighting in the backseat

What can I do as a parent?

As a parent, it is important to treat each child as an individual and not use a "cookie-cutter" approach. Your kids are different - you can treat them differently.

This doesn't mean that you favor one child over the other. Each of your children is special, say things such as " I like how you are good at drawing and your sister is good at singing... we have a family of artists!" Don't compare them to each other by saying things like "You should learn to be good at soccer, like your brother."

Try to understand how each of your children is feeling and thinking. Give hugs, reward good behavior, and spend time alone with each of your children so they are receiving your undivided attention.

  • Give each child individual space for their own toys and belongings. If something the kids are sharing starts a fight, take it away for a while.
  • Explain rules so your children understand: "Your older sister gets to stay up later because she has homework."
  • Know what situations spark jealousy, like birthday gifts: "Today is your brother's birthday so we're giving him gifts but your birthday is next month and we'll give you your gift then, ok?" Children know what's fair and talking to them beforehand can stop trouble before it happens.
  • Let them express their feelings so they learn to manage their emotions. Don't get upset and be sympathetic if they complain or get emotional. Instead of saying, "He's a baby, ¬†you're older and should know better," say "I know you're angry that the baby broke your Lego tower. I'm sorry."
  • Teach siblings to work through conflicts and let them talk to you about their problems. When they're older their siblings can also listen and give them a chance to apologize. Younger children need more help in settling differences, but never pick sides. Praise your children when they solve their argument.
  • You are both parent and referee - make quick, fair calls. Kids can't have their way all the time, and they must learn to share. Do not give in to tantrums.
  • Intervene if things become violent. Make sure your children know such behavior is NOT allowed.

What about punishment?

If punishment or scolding is necessary, do so in a quiet place and away from siblings. Punishing or scolding your child in front of others may cause embarrassment and hurt feelings to the child.

About the Expert: Giancarlo Toledanes, D.O., is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical instructor at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He is a father to a 7-month-old baby boy and enjoying every minute of it. He recommends the book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.