Helping to make life 'calmer, easier and happier' for parents, teachers and children everywhere
Sibling Rivalry - Part One
Why siblings squabble, compete with each other, annoy each other on purpose - and often make you want to leave them at the zoo!
Photo copyright Rachel o3tiy5piork
Any parent of more than one child is probably familiar with all the ways that siblings can annoy and provoke each other – and get you involved in refereeing their squabbles. In fact, over the years you may have got used to your kids bickering and name-calling and fighting a lot of the time. Perhaps you’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that you’ll just have to live with all of the ‘Me first’ and ‘He started it’ and ‘It’s so unfair’ arguments, live with each child trying to get you to take their side in a conflict, live with them kicking each other under the table at dinner, live with each child feeling that the other is your favourite.

What is sibling rivalry?

I probably don’t need to list all of the ways in which your children’s interactions with each other leave you feeling frustrated, or give you cause for concern, or drive you crazy, or all three! - but here are some of the typical sibling issues that you’re probably all too familiar with:

  • arguing and contradicting
  • shouting at each other
  • grabbing, not sharing, not taking turns
  • your oldest child dominating, bossing, correcting, and telling off the younger sibling
  • tattling, often to get a sibling in trouble
  • put-downs, teasing, name-calling
  • being too rough, especially to a younger sibling, ‘by accident’
  • deliberate physical aggression: hitting, pushing, pinching, kicking, biting, scratching, pulling hair, digging in nails, etc
  • being competitive about who’s the best, who’s the fastest, who got the biggest piece, etc.
  • ‘borrowing’ a sibling’s belongings without first getting permission
  • using rude words and/or a rude tone of voice
  • asking parents for reassurance: ‘Am I smarter than…?’, ‘Who do you love more?’, ‘How come he always gets to sit there and I don’t?’
  • deliberately annoying or winding up a sibling
  • ignoring each other
  • siblings obsessed with play-fighting that too often turns into real fighting; this is most likely to become a habit between boys who are close in age

There’s a reason that so many of these behaviours show up in so many families.

Why does sibling rivalry exist?

A certain amount, but only quite a small amount, of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and competitiveness is normal, natural, and inevitable. This is because the drive to survive is hard-wired into our human DNA. One way in which the human species has survived over millennia is by using aggression as a way of protecting ourselves, our loved ones, and our resources. And the drive to practise and improve these survival skills is innate in children and young people.

Humans are also hard-wired to be pack animals. This is because communities (herds, packs, tribes) offer protection, and they make obtaining and holding on to resources easier and less time-consuming. Hierarchies (the familiar ‘pecking order’) develop within packs to establish roles, to clarify the chain of command, and to ease relationships. Your eldest child will probably want to be, and will expect to be, dominant over the younger children in the family, while the younger siblings will want to copy the older sibling.

Possibly you, like most parents in our society, believe that your children shouldn’t behave aggressively towards each other, and you may also believe that they shouldn’t even harbour aggressive feelings towards their siblings. So when your kids are squabbling and shouting, when they’re not sharing their toys, when they’re being rude, trying to get each other in trouble, getting into physical fights, and more, you probably find yourself trying desperately to fix the problem.

Depending on the ages, genders, and temperaments of your children, it’s quite possible that trying to solve the problem of sibling rivalry leaves you feeling exhausted and frustrated a lot of the time. And sooner or later, being human, you may lose your temper over the relentlessness of these minor but very irritating sibling conflicts. If you’re like many of the parents I’ve worked with, you sometimes find yourself saying and doing things you’re not proud of, such as shouting, telling off, blaming, comparing siblings, punishing without warning. Here’s an interesting fact: when I’m talking to clients or to the parents I meet at my seminars, the main reason they give for allowing their children to have more screen time than the parents think is good for them is because it keeps the sibling conflicts at bay. These parents are using electronics as a sedative. Thankfully, there are better ways to reduce sibling rivalry, jealousy, and competitiveness.

Notice that I just wrote ‘reduce’, not ‘eliminate altogether’. Sibling rivalry is not something you can fix or solve or get rid of entirely because it’s an important part of who we are as humans. And sadly, the things we say and do when we’re trying to fix it not only don’t work - they often make the jealousy and rivalry worse! For example, trying to arbitrate in order to get siblings to stop arguing gives them a lot of attention. As a result, many children learn quite early in life that a guaranteed way to get a busy parent’s attention is to deliberately upset their sibling, for example by teasing or by saying something unkind.

The good news is that you don’t have to accept unfriendly behaviour in your children! Living with that unpleasant behaviour is not good for your stress levels, it’s not good for your children’s emotional well-being, it’s not good for your relationship with your children, and if you have a partner it’s not good for the couple relationship.

As parents there are two things we need to do in order to guide our children to quarrel less and enjoy each other more of the time. We need to make sure that the environment we create at home keeps the rivalry to a minimum, and doesn’t unintentionally cause the natural feelings of rivalry to fester and escalate. This doesn’t take as much time and effort as parents may assume, once you know some effective strategies.

We also need to teach and train our children to express their natural feelings of rivalry less aggressively, with words rather than with misbehaviour, and with sensible words rather than with deliberately hurtful words. This also doesn’t take as much time or effort as you may assume.

In short, instead of exhausting yourself trying to fix the unfixable, you can learn and put into practice specific strategies that work to positively influence how your children relate to each other.

Read on to discover one of these strategies…

Strategy One - The Five-Second Rule

This strategy nips many sibling squabbles in the bud, keeping them from escalating. The Five-Second Rule is a rule for parents; it helps you to apply the very important strategy of Descriptive Praise.

Hassles between siblings may feel constant, as if they’re happening all day long. But in truth each bit of misbehaviour, whether major or minor, is usually short-lived; it comes in bursts and is over quickly. This is true of many of those annoying things that siblings say and do to each other. When your child misbehaves, it’s very tempting to react immediately, in the same old way - by reminding, lecturing, telling off, warning, or threatening. This gives your child lots of attention for the misbehaviour, which unfortunately has the effect of reinforcing the misbehaviour.

The Five-Second Rule turns this dynamic on its head. Rather than reacting in the moment, I’m asking you to stay silent until about five seconds have gone by with no misbehaviour. At that point I want you to Descriptively Praise that the misbehaviour has stopped. For example, you could say:

  • ‘Now you’re not interrupting your brother.’
  • ‘I can hear that you stopped complaining about how many strawberries your sister has.’
  • ‘A few seconds ago you were both screaming, but now I don’t hear any screaming.
  • ‘Even though you’re both still angry, now no one’s pulling hair.’
  • ‘You stopped calling him a poo-poo head.’
  • ‘Now you’re looking at the book together.’

If the above sentences sound a bit odd, it’s because Descriptive Praise leaves out the usual superlatives, such ‘Well done’, ‘Good girl’, ‘That’s terrific!’. With Descriptive Praise we say exactly what the child did right or exactly what she didn’t do wrong.

The Five-Second Rule gives your children the positive attention they crave, and need, and deserve. With this new strategy, your children are getting your positive attention for doing things right, instead of getting your annoyed and exasperated attention for doing things wrong.

Important note:
This strategy is only for misbehaviour; if there’s danger involved, don’t wait even five seconds. Take action immediately.

Over time, your Descriptive Praise helps your children to reinvent themselves. They start to see themselves in a new light, as someone who is often tolerant and friendly and kind to a sibling.

copyright © Noël Janis-Norton 2021

Descriptive Praise free ebook

If you don’t yet have your copy of my free ebook that explains this foundation strategy in detail, and that gives you lots of helpful examples, you can get instant access by adding your details here.

Now that I’ve explained about the evolutionary causes of sibling rivalry, in Part Two of this series I explain about the environmental causes of sibling rivalry. This will help you to be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve. You’ll also learn other effective strategies that will help you to guide your children to be calmer, easier, and happier.

As you follow Noël’s recommendations, you’ll be surprised and delighted by how quickly your children will become more tolerant of each other, more patient with each other, and more friendly - most of the time! Not only will your children like each other more and enjoy each other’s company more, but you’ll feel less stressed. Your whole family will be calmer, easier and happier.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us:

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Please get in touch for more information. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

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