Sibling Rivalry

Question

Our two children are 19-months apart.  Sometimes they get along great and other times they don’t.  When does sibling rivalry go too far?

Answer

From Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers we find sibling rivalry a common occurrence in the Bible.

It’s normal for sibling behavior to range from being best friends to wanting to strangle each other.  Healthy rivalry and competition can help bring out each child’s unique strengths and push them towards excellence, but when it gets ugly it’s easy for kids' fights to push their parents buttons.

The biggest question is not how you handle their emotions but what do you do with your own emotions when your buttons get pushed? What do you and your spouse model?  Do you react or respond?  Are you good listeners?  Do you see it merely as a problem to solve or as an opportunity to teach them problem-solving skills, how to share, to deal with their emotions, become more empathetic and manage differences?

Unhealthy sibling behaviors can range from teasing and name-calling, being bossy, unkind and mean, bullying to physical acting out.  Unhealthy sibling rivalry is best dealt with when the kids are young, but the younger they are the more help they’ll need in dealing with it.  Set some simple ground rules such as no yelling, name-calling, hitting, or throwing things and have some clear consequences for what happens when they cross those lines and make sure that each child feels safe.

As you see this as a teaching opportunity you can model for them how to work it out and then let them know that they are responsible for what they do and how they deal with the conflict.  There is no “he made me do it” allowed to justify hurtful words or actions.  If the kids fight over a toy then the “toy” gets the time-out until they can figure it out.

You can help them generate healthy responses. What were their other choices?  What could they have done differently?  Do they need to apologize and ask for forgiveness.  When my sister and I used to fight I still remember my folks having us quote Ephesians 3:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  It’s fifty years later and I haven’t forgotten that.

Make sure they get attention when they aren’t fighting.  In Psychology 101 we all learned that behavior that gets reinforced gets repeated.  Their “nice” behavior needs to get more attention than their “naughty” behavior. Reinforce them being kind to each other.  Acknowledge when they are playing well together and let them know how nice that is.

Dealing with sibling rivalry is a rehearsal for what they’ll face as adults and the skills you help them learn in these situations are essential preparation for the rest of their lives.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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