Ways to decrease sibling rivalry

How much should parents intervene

Ways to decrease sibling rivalry

Hudson Valley parents grapple with the issues of sibling rivalry in their family life every day.  It takes many forms: teasing, arguing, tattling and nagging.  Is it a natural part of a child's development?  Here's what the experts are saying.   


Why sibling rivalry occurs

 According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, factors that contribute to struggles between siblings include: the children’s ages, their personalities and interests, the amount of time they spend together, and favoritism they may perceive the parent has toward another child.  Gender may also play a role, as same-sex siblings often have interests in the same toys, clothes and activities, leading to more conflict. The size of a family, spacing between children and birth order also contribute to sibling rivalry. “Children who are less than two years apart sometimes have more conflict than children who are spaced further apart,” says the AAP.


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Susan Grencer, a school social worker in the Arlington school district, says that sibling rivalry often stems from children vying for their parents’ love, attention and approval. Younger siblings want the same attention and bond that an older sibling already has with a parent, leading to conflict between siblings. Grencer says it’s important to help children navigate these waters since, “A relationship with a sibling is one of the most important because it’s one of the longest in your life.”


How to handle it

Denyse Variano, Family and Consumer Sciences Issue Leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orange County, suggests the following tips:


  • Let children work out the situation on their own first, as long as it doesn’t result in further conflict.

  • If the conflict continues, stop the behavior and separate siblings until they have had time to cool off.

  • If you know who the victim is, give attention to the victim first.  Let the victim talk about what he/she would like to have happen (to receive an apology, for other sibling to give some space or for sibling to stop the physical/verbal abuse). 

  • Give “natural and logical consequences.” For example, if the aggressor hit the victim over the head, the aggressor could hold an ice pack on the victim’s head.  This helps the aggressor learn a more meaningful consequence for the behavior and can be more effective than taking something away from the aggressor.

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Variano urges parents not to make assumptions if they did not observe what happened and don’t know who the victim really is. If the children are old enough to do so, parents should ask children to sit down and decide what happened. If the children can’t come to an agreement, Variano suggests separating them until they are ready to talk together. 

If a consensus still cannot be made, parents should treat children as if they are both guilty, and dole out an appropriate consequence. Afterward, Variano says, parents should help children develop a plan to prevent the conflict from happening again.


Tried-and-true tactics


Deborah LoCicero is an LCSW and social worker in a local school. LoCicero says that sibling rivalry among adolescents stems from the need to define themselves as individuals. As adolescents’ talents and interests emerge, so does their need to show that they are separate from their siblings.


LoCicero encourages parents to teach conflict resolution skills when siblings are calm rather than during an argument. She suggests that families hold meetings to address sibling issues. During these discussions, children should talk about the behavior that upsets them. 

This strategy teaches children a calm, non-violent way of solving problems.  LoCicero also suggests letting children help decide what consequences should be enforced when disputes occur between siblings. LoCicero says that “Parents need to help their kids react to conflict in a more positive way,” and that parents themselves are models of what behavior is expected. If children see their parents resolve problems maturely and rationally, it helps to reinforce positive behavior among siblings.

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Celeste Jones of Tivoli has two children, ages five and seven and suggests using humor to help children forget why they are mad.  Mark Pizzarello of New Paltz has three children ages three, seven, and 19 and he considers the age and maturity level of each child when giving consequences for negative behavior. So while his seven-year-old may have the Wii taken away, the three-year-old may just need a “cool down” period to regroup. He also notes that conflict is usually short-term and that in other instances, “they are both very quick to jump in and help the other one.”


Parents can choose to look at sibling rivalry as “a way for children to develop conflict resolution skills and healthy communication skills in the safety of their own home environment,” says Variano. By addressing the situation in a non-confrontational way, parents can lay the foundation for healthy, happy sibling relationships.


Michele Anderson is a special education teacher, a freelance writer and mother of four little girls.  She and her family make their home in Red Hook.