Helping to make life 'calmer, easier and happier' for parents, teachers and children everywhere
Sibling Rivalry - Part Two
How to guide siblings to like each other more and squabble less so that everyone in the family can be calmer, easier and happier.
Photo copyright Rachel o3tiy5piork

As you read the following information, a useful mantra to keep in mind is: All Behaviour is Communication, which you can easily remember by thinking of ABC.

Most children, even most teenagers, don’t yet have the maturity to express their needs, wants and upsets clearly and appropriately, so they find other ways to get your attention as they try to communicate how they are feeling. Thankfully, at any age children can be taught the skill and the habit of more mature communication.

Now let’s look at some other ways that the typical family environment sets the stage for sibling rivalry.

What are the environmental causes of sibling rivalry?

The oldest child in the family started out life as an only child. As a new parent, you probably had the time and the energy and the headspace to carry them around a lot and to cater to their little whims. The only child never had to share your attention; they never had to share their toys. They were the king or queen of their world.

Then suddenly, from one day to the next as far as that child is concerned, a new baby comes to live in their house, and they are knocked off their throne, kicked out of their cosy nest. Everything in their known world changes. They no longer get all your attention, and your expectations of them seem to have changed overnight. Suddenly they have to be quiet, they have to wait patiently, they have to be a big boy or a big girl, they have to leave you in peace and play on their own, and most upsetting of all, they have to share you with the newcomer. They have to watch the interloper getting everything they once had. Without a real understanding of what’s happening and why, and without the words to express themselves, they have no choice but to behave in ways that they hope will get you to focus on them again.

As your children grow and develop, the all too typical roles often become entrenched: the eldest gets the bulk of the blame for sibling conflicts, which leads to ongoing resentment, while the youngest learns to get attention by being a victim. Parents understandably worry about the psychological damage that sibling strife can cause. No parent wants their children to live with ongoing resentment or anxiety, but this can easily happen when sibling rivalry becomes a way of life.

Here’s yet another reason for sibling rivalry: the arguing, the fighting, the dominating – this can become an exciting game for some children and teens. This is especially the case when the older child has an extreme temperament - they’ll usually be the one driving the quality of their relationships with their siblings.

As the years roll by, sibling problems tend to persist, although the types of conflict change. Too often, the problems increase. This was not the image of the happy family you were hoping to experience when you gazed lovingly at your second-born child.

When it comes to the sibling relationships in your family, what are your hopes and expectations?

Wherever I am in the world, when I ask parents what they want for their children, they always tell me the same goals. I call these goals the Big Five:

  • Cooperation
  • Confidence
  • Motivation
  • Self-reliance
  • Consideration

How are these Big Five parenting goals relevant to the sibling relationships in your family?


My definition of cooperation is children doing what we tell them to do, the first time we tell them. No child is always cooperative of course. But we can aim for, and achieve, 90% cooperation. There are many benefits to children being in the habit of cooperating 90% of the time. Children who are mostly cooperative get more smiles, they get more hugs, they even get more opportunities to do interesting things and to go interesting places. I’m not saying that it should or it shouldn’t be like this; I’m saying that this is the reality. So you can see why a child who is mostly cooperative will develop stronger self-esteem than a child who isn’t so cooperative (that would be the child who finally does what he’s told after you've repeated yourself several times). And the degree of self-esteem and self-confidence a child has directly affects how he interacts with his siblings.

Another very practical reason for teaching and training 90% cooperation is so we can trust that if something that’s potentially dangerous is happening between the siblings (for example children using toys as ‘weapons’, or siblings goading each other to ignore a safety rule) they will stop as soon as we tell them to stop.


We want our children to be confident that they can handle assertively the inevitable sibling conflicts, rather than accepting an unpleasant situation or expecting you, the parent, to settle their disputes.


We want our children to be motivated to get along with each other (rather than motivated to put their sibling down or motivated to get the most biscuits).


When siblings aren’t getting along, we want our children, with guidance from us, to actively think about possible solutions, rather than relying on parents to keep the peace. We also want our children to enjoy playing by themselves, so that they don't pester their siblings for attention.


We want our children to learn to be kind and thoughtful towards their siblings (most of the time!), rather than being rude or dismissive or belittling.

Keep reading to find out about one of the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ strategies that will help you to achieve all this….

How can we guide our children to have calmer, easier, happier sibling relationships?

Before I explain another of my strategies that will help you to improve sibling relationships in your family, here's the number one piece of advice I tell parents: Even if your oldest child is mature in lots of ways, don’t expect him or her to be mature when it comes to the next younger sibling. Remember, the oldest got ousted from a position of great power! That sense of loss often makes the oldest sibling more jealous, more competitive, and more resentful than the younger children in the family. The younger children, on the other hand, were born into a world of children, so sharing your attention came naturally to them.

Strategy Two - Special Time

You may have heard the saying, ‘Children spell love T-I-M-E’. Every child benefits from spending time with each parent separately. Your child’s need for your undivided attention is as strong as the need for food or water. It’s quite different from spending time altogether as a family, as important as that certainly is. It’s also different from taking your child out for a treat. The kind of time with a parent that each child needs and craves is what I call Special Time.

Below are the main points about Special Time. In the Blog section of our website you’ll find a longer and more comprehensive article that goes into more detail about Special Time.

Special Time helps siblings to get on better

When parents take on board this new habit of daily one-on-one Special Time, they soon report that it improves cooperation and self-reliance, that it reduces resistance, negative attention-seeking, and minor but exasperating misbehaviour, including whingeing, making a fuss when things don’t go as the child expected – and even sibling squabbles.

If you’re like many of the parents I talk to, you probably feel that when your children are in the same room together there’s a fairly constant undercurrent of competition or rivalry; the tension ebbs and flows but rarely disappears for long. Parents often feel that they’re spending a lot of time and energy trying to manage the bickering between the siblings, and it’s hard to really enjoy the children and relate to each one fully. Special Time is one part of the solution to this stressful and unsatisfactory - and avoidable - state of affairs.

When children don’t get the one-on-one time with a parent that they need and crave and deserve and thrive on, they often end up taking it out on a sibling. Therefore, one of the best ways to help siblings to be less annoyed with each other, less on the edge of irritation with each other, is to make sure to build Special Time into each day. Without interruptions from siblings, each child can soak up the undivided attention from the parent. When the sibling rivalry is temporarily on hold, each child is freed up to be their best self. And for siblings who may be in the habit of teasing, provoking or annoying each other, this Special Time alone with one parent is bliss. During that time they can forget about the competition and rivalry.

Until parents commit to putting this strategy into practice consistently, they often can’t believe how effective Special Time can be at helping to reduce friction between siblings. Frequent, predictable, and labelled Special Time helps each child to feel better about himself, and consequently it helps reduce the resentment and rivalry that children too often feel towards their siblings. Even siblings who usually get on well together need and deserve and crave time alone with each parent. Children are at their best when they can relax, knowing that for a certain amount of time they don’t need to share (or fight for) your attention.

Special Time Guidelines:

  • One parent with one child - doing an activity together that you both enjoy and that:
    - doesn’t cost money
    - isn’t in front of a screen
    - doesn’t involve a food treat
  • Frequent - daily, whenever possible
  • Predictable – you and your child both know when it will happen next
  • Labelled – your child knows you chose to do this because you want to spend time with him;
    it didn’t happen by accident
  • Ideally for half an hour each day, but even ten minutes a day is hugely beneficial

The oldest child especially needs Special Time
The oldest child in the family will probably always need more frequent Special Time than the younger children because from the moment she was born she had an exclusive relationship with her parents. Even if at first your oldest child acts as if she doesn’t want it or doesn’t need it, make sure your oldest gets daily Special Time.

Arrange Special Time with the same-gender parent
This is especially important for boys, who frequently spend far more time with their mothers than their fathers. My heartfelt plea to dads: no matter how busy or stressed you are, make time for Special Time with your son or step-son.

My recommendation to mums: if your son cannot have frequent Special Time with his father or step-father, arrange for another male role model to step in (a relative, a family friend, a neighbour, or even a teacher).

Your child’s choice of Special Time activity
Alternate which of you chooses each day’s Special Time activity. If your child keeps choosing the same activity, don’t complain or suggest a different activity. Instead, get creative and make the activity he’s chosen more interesting for you.

What can you and your child do together during Special Time when it’s your turn to choose the activity?

When it’s your turn to choose the activity, don’t choose something that your child would choose. Instead, choose an activity that’s somewhat outside your child’s comfort zone.

Here are some suggestions for activities you can choose to do with your child:

  • Puzzles, card games, board games like draughts, chess, dominoes, scrabble, and backgammon have all stood the test of time. Generations of children and adolescents have found these games stimulating and challenging. These games improve concentration, and they teach strategic thinking and problem-solving. Keep the activity fresh by introducing a new game every couple of weeks. You can buy games for a few pounds at any charity shop.
  • Word games (vocabulary, spelling, riddles, etc), maths games, general knowledge quizzes – these are very popular if you don't make them too challenging to begin with. You don’t need to be very knowledgeable yourself to play these games. You probably know more than you think you know, and you probably know more than your child knows (because we're talking here about general, not specialised, knowledge).
  • Learn something new together.
  • Start a collection that you’ll both enjoy adding to.
  • During family outings, split into two groups after you all arrive at the zoo or museum or fair or sports club. Alternate which child goes with which parent.
  • Share your own enthusiasms. Include your child in your hobbies or pastimes.
    She’ll come to enjoy it as long as you:
    • - let her handle the equipment, instead of just making her watch while you do it
    • - Descriptively Praise her tiny steps in the right direction
    • - give her easy bits of the task to do
    • - take the time to Prepare For Success so that you’re confident that she knows what to do
        and what not to do
    • - keep your child’s part of the job short, so that she experiences the satisfaction of completion
        before she becomes restless
    • - make a point of talking with her about your shared interest at other times of the day as well
  • Whenever possible, when you have to run an errand, take one child with you. Even mundane activities can be enjoyable if you focus your attention on being with one of your children.
  • Involve your child in household tasks. A shared sense of camaraderie can make the chores enjoyable.

Minimising interruptions from the other siblings

The solution is to teach and train what I call Independent Play. This strategy is about requiring the siblings to play in separate rooms for some time every day, before they get on each other’s nerves, not as a consequence or punishment after a fight.

  • Set aside a certain time every day (and twice a day on weekends and holidays) for each child to play in a separate room, quietly, doing a sedentary activity that’s not in front of a screen.
  • Don't give your children a choice about whether to have Independent Play or not.
  • For children who initially hate the idea of playing by themselves when it’s not their choice to, start with a very short period of time, maybe only ten minutes. Over time they’ll enjoy entertaining themselves for longer and longer periods of time.

As you follow Noël’s recommendations, you’ll be surprised and delighted by the radical reduction in sibling squabbles in your home. Very soon, your whole family will be calmer, easier and happier.

Another delightful benefit of frequent Special Time is that away from the siblings, the parent is usually seeing the best side of each child (attentive, relaxed, receptive, curious, etc), which makes the parent enjoy being with the child more and more. And as the parent notices the child’s good qualities, the parent feels more relaxed and confident about himself as a parent: ‘If my kid is this great, I must be a pretty good parent!’

copyright © Noël Janis-Norton 2021

In these two articles, Sibling Rivalry Parts One and Two, I’ve written about several ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ strategies that will help reduce the friction and unpleasantness between your children: Descriptive Praise, the Five-Second Rule, Special Time, and Independent Play. In addition to these strategies, there are many other strategies that also help to improve sibling relationships, including:

United Front
Reflective Listening
Establishing rules and routines
Handling sibling complaints about each other
Dealing with sibling squabbles as they’re happening
Giving your oldest child special privileges
Action Replays
Family Time
Planning your day realistically
Couple Time

I explain about all of these useful strategies in my books and audiobooks. In particular, you might be interested in the audiobook, ‘Siblings With Less Rivalry’ (for sale on the website).

You’ll also find articles about many of these strategies in the Blog section of the website. For videos and podcasts, please visit our Youtube channel and our Facebook page.

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.

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:

In addition to our books, audiobooks and ebooks, we also provide free support materials in the blog section of our website (videos, podcasts and articles), on our YouTube channel and on our Facebook page.

If you would like personalised advice that is specific to your family’s needs, we offer a parenting programme that consists of online private consultations plus in-person home visits.

For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher-training.

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

If you know anyone who might be interested in the above suggestions we are happy for you to share this article;
however, please forward the article in its entirety, including the logo and the last paragraph, and make sure that
Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ is credited. Thank you.

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