Sibling Rivalry

How can it be that we all love our children—-all of them—-so much, and they don’t seem to love each other? Siblings will argue about anything— who did what, who gets what, who’s better, who ‘Mommy loves better’. You name it, siblings will argue about it. And the things they say to and about each other! Things you would hope the worst bully in school wouldn’t say seem to come naturally to the lips of siblings. ‘I hate my sister’. (To sister) ‘Mommy never wanted you’, ‘You’re fat/ugly/stupid’ it never ends. And the more parents tell them, ‘No, you’re both good at….’ or ‘I don’t care who started it, I’m stopping it!’ the more they argue. So what is a parent to do? The solution is easier than it may seem. Most sibling rivalry can be diffused if parents are willing to take a hard look at what they say to their children and how parents treat them. Denying feelings, emphasizing the equality of children, and comparing siblings are three excellent ways to ensure siblings are at each others’ throats. Fortunately, once parents are aware of these behavior patterns, they can easily change them and the rivalry between siblings will decrease dramatically. If you don’t believe me, consider the following examples.

Imagine you went to your spouse and said, ‘Darling, I had a tough day!’ and, after relating your troubles, your spouse said, ‘That’s not so bad—cheer up!’ Would you feel cheered, or annoyed that your spouse hadn’t listened? If a coworker let you down by not completing an assignment you asked him to do told you to ‘chill out’, would you relax, or feel more angry? Reasonable or not, we all think our feelings are valid, and having people tell us otherwise will not change the initial feeling for the better—it will only add frustration and annoyance to the mix.

Returning to the examples above, if your spouse, instead of dismissing your hard day, said, ‘Yeah, that sounds tough!’ you might feel more relaxed and happy immediately. If, instead of scoffing at your annoyance, your coworker said, ‘I’m sorry I let you down—I can hear you’re upset.’ You’d probably feel less angry immediately. Children are no different. Dismissing and denying their angry feelings about their siblings will only make them more frustrated.

When faced with the cry, ‘You love So-and-so better than me!’ many parents instinctively deny this with, ‘No, I love you both equally!’ which frequently only seems to add to a child’s distress instead of soothing it as intended? The issue is children do not want to be loved ‘equally’ or even ‘more’—they want to be loved for themselves. If, instead of protesting equal love the parent said, ‘I love you for the way you make me laugh, and your happy smile. I couldn’t love you any more.’ The child is reassured. All children really want to know is that they are loved, and such a statement makes that clear. Trying to fill needs instead of striving for equality covers many other areas as well. Imagine you are eating breakfast with a sibling, and you notice his pancake is bigger. ‘Hey,’ you protest, ‘He got more!’ if someone says, ‘No he didn’t—your pancakes are equal’ you are likely to feel you weren’t heard. And, if someone gives you more pancake to ‘even it up’, chances are good your brother will say, ‘Hey! Now I have less!’ siblings rarely admit equality. If, on the other hand, the parent responded to your cry of inequality with, ‘Are you still hungry? Would you like something else to eat?’, chances are good you will be satisfied—it is more the search for having needs recognized, not the need to be treated the same, that inspires this drive for equality in kids.

Lastly, although it is very tempting and easy to do, comparisons of any kind are hard on sibling relationships. Some parents will say to one child, while the other is out of the room, ‘You are very good at that— your sister couldn't do that till she was much older’, thinking this is high praise. While the child will still hear the praise, she will also hear, ‘I am in competition with my sibling’. And, of course, we can all see the disadvantage saying, ‘Why can’t you be more clean/smart/well dressed like your brother?’ Far from encouraging a child to try harder to achieve the desired goal, more likely it will make the child angry, thinking, ‘My parents love my sibling better’, and kill all motivation while fueling sibling rivalry.

By taking these three steps, acknowledging feelings, emphasizing the individuality of children and avoiding comparisons between children, parents can dramatically reduce the amount of arguing and bickering due to sibling rivalry that goes on in their homes.