Sibling rivalry: Why kids fight all the time + what to do about it


Sibling rivalry is probably the thing doing my head in most right now. When my kids like each other, you’ve never met better friends, but it rarely lasts. Before you know it, they are back to bickering and squabbling and generally doing everything they can to make each others (and their parents) lives as miserable as possible. It’s so frustrating, particularly as one way or another, we’ve been trying to encourage sibling harmony for the past – OMG – 14+ years.

Is sibling rivalry yet another brick wall for parents to beat our heads against?

Why do kids do it?

There will always be a certain amount of rivalry attached to being siblings. Fact is, kids spend a lot of time together – more time than they spend with anyone else. Add to that the fact that siblings aren’t the same age, often don’t have the same interests and are effectively in competition with each other right from the start.

“It’s all part of their growth, and siblings are pretty unforgiving,”says psychologist Karen Young, founder of Hey Sigmund.  “Kids have to learn how to negotiate and how not to annoy the world and to get on with people.” 

So, basically our homes are a laboratory for our little ratbags to work out how to get along with other people. Unfortunately, it can take quite a long time for that to happen, so sibling rivalry battles can go on for years. This is mainly due to two factors that often exacerbate sibling rivalry the most: jealously and competitiveness.

Why is there sibling rivalry

Jealousy and competitiveness

Like it or not, our kids are competing for the affection and attention of their parents and, later, each other. No matter how hard we try to be fair in our dealings with them, they will forever be on the lookout for chinks in the fairness armour. This is a natural inclination – it makes sense that biologically children want to be ‘the favoured child’, getting the lion’s share of their parents’ attention. Kids who receive plenty of positive parental attention are better able to manage their feelings and behaviours, develop higher self-confidence and manage life’s challenges.

Here’s how to break the cycle: 7 steps to encourage sibling harmony and find some peace

Of course, most of us aren’t in the business of consciously favouring one of our kids over another. While we can all admit to better liking one kid or another from time to time (the sleeping child, for example), we do our absolute best to treat them equally. To evenly distribute our attention, resources, energy level and definitely our affection. Sadly, this might still not be enough.

Perception creates reality

“Even when parents work hard to treat their children equally, negative implications can still emerge if the children perceive the treatment to be unequal,” concluded researchers from The University of Michigan. So, despite our best attempts at treating all of our kids fairly, they might still believe we play favourites. Perception is nine-tenths of the law.

Why do siblings fight all the time

Adolescence is prime time for kids to be extra-sensitive about perceived injustice. They are also super-extra-sensitive towards the slightest sniff of preferential treatment by one parent to a brother or sister. That plus the fact that unresolved childhood niggles have a tendency to grow into adolescent meltdown. There wouldn’t be a parent on this earth that hasn’t frequently had the “you like him better” and “she’s your favourite” conversation with their kid. The need for kids to compete for privileges, things, status or even love exacerbates their sensitivity towards what their sibling is doing or not doing. Cue, massive blow ups.

The good news about sibling rivalry

The good news is, there is actually some real positives to kids bickering and arguing non-stop. “One of the best things that comes out of [sibling rivalry], is they learn skills that will boost their social-emotional intelligence,” says Young. This includes things like self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

When I hear the “she gets away with everything” favoritism nonsense, I make it a point to ask my kids if they are exactly the same person. “No,” of course they respond. “Well, then, why would I treat you exactly the same, then?” It’s a good way to reinforce that you recognise your child as a unique individual, with custom needs and dreams. It’s actually a positive that we don’t parent our children exactly the same, and they are old enough now to realise that. The concept of ‘fairness’ can shift now, towards recognising equity, not just equality.

Sibling rivalry helps kids figure all of this stuff out. It’s “one of the ways that children learn the importance of sorting out problems independently, respecting people’s feelings and belongings,” says Leonardo Rocker, co-founder and director at Sydney’s Quirky Kid. “Learning how to fight fairly without hurting each other, within the home environment, may assist children in their ability to sort out issues in future relationships.”

So, while we’ll never embrace sibling rivalry, we can at least see it in a whole new light. Our kids are basically teaching each other how to get along in the world. And you can’t be too mad about that.

PART II: Click here to find out what you can do to encourage better sibling harmony.

How big a deal is sibling rivalry at your place?

Feature image and mustard cardigan image by Annie Spratt; sunset brothers by Asaf R

Written by Bron Maxabella

Bron is the founder of Mumlyfe and is so happy to welcome you here. Bron has been writing in the Australian parenting space as Maxabella for more than seven years and is mum to three mostly happy kids and wife to one mostly happy husband. Mostly happy is a win, right?

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