What to know and do about sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry is a remarkably normal feature of family life that can sometimes help to push children to do and be better. But too much squabbling and competition can also be hurtful, and can have lasting effects on how children view themselves and their family relationships.
In fact, a 2021 study on family dynamics links sibling bullying to a lower sense of competence, life satisfaction, and self-esteem in young adults. Earlier research found that being bullied by a sibling doubled the risk of depression and self-harm in early adulthood. While we don’t tend to think of fights and insults between siblings as bullying, the reality is that it can feel that way to a child.
So what can parents do to help be sure that sibling rivalry is helpful — and not hurtful? Here are some suggestions.
Strategies for handling sibling rivalry
Resist comparisons. Every child is different, by definition. While comparisons are natural and inevitable, be careful not to compare in a way that makes one child seem better than the other.
Be aware of your biases. It’s totally normal and understandable that a parent might be particularly proud of one child — or find another one hard to be with sometimes. But be aware of that, and be careful about what you say and do. As much as you are able, try to broadcast by your actions that you love and value all of your children.
Be aware of how life events — and stages — can affect siblings. Even something happy, like a new baby or winning an award, can feel hard or bad to a brother or sister. Not that you shouldn’t celebrate the happy event, but the brother or sister may need a little extra love. And while it’s normal for an older teen sibling to want privacy and to be left alone by a younger sibling, both of them may need some coaching from a parent to avoid hurt feelings.
Celebrate strengths. Every child has something that they are good at; celebrate those strengths, and resist ranking the strengths of your children. You never know how a strength will play out later in life.
Encourage children to find and follow their own interests. Just because one child — or a parent — likes to do something doesn’t mean others in the family will.
Spend some individual time with each child regularly doing something they like to do. Each child should feel like they are a priority and that you appreciate their interests.
If you need to spend more time with one of your children for a particular reason, such as a medical or emotional problem, talk to your other children about it. Don’t assume that they know or understand why you are spending more time with their sibling.
Spend time together as a family, too. Do something like game night, or go for an outing together. Rotate who chooses the game or activity, so that everyone knows that their choices matter and are valued.
Have ground rules for how people are treated in your family. Everyone is deserving of respect and kindness, especially your family members. It’s fine to disagree or even fight, but it’s not okay to be mean. Stick to those ground rules, and have consequences for breaking them.
If sibling rivalry is becoming a problem in your family, talk to your doctor. Sometimes some outside help, such as from a behavioral health clinician, can make a difference.
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About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Claire McCarthy, MD, is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to being a senior faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. McCarthy … See Full Bio View all posts by Claire McCarthy, MD