Kids fight over everything from the TV to who gets to sit next to Daddy at dinner. Short of locking each child up in a separate room, what's a parent to do about sibling rivalry? 

By Rebecca Kahlenberg and Vicki Glembocki
Updated December 15, 2019

Never-ending sibling disputes can make even the most Zen parents lose it, but rivalry between brothers and sisters is perfectly normal. In fact, a University of Illinois study found that siblings ages 3 to 9 typically have arguments several times an hour

An excessive amount of sibling rivalry can foster resentment, anxiety, and low self-esteem in both kids, says Mary Ann Shaw, Ed.D., the author of Your Anxious Child. But there is an upside to the bickering: "As kids resolve their disputes, they learn how to compromise and cooperate," says Marian Edelman Borden, author of The Baffled Parent's Guide to Sibling Rivalry

We know what you're thinking—that's great, but how do I maintain the day-to-day harmony? Our experts have advice on managing sibling rivalry throughout childhood. 

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Sibling Rivalry in Toddlers

Sibling rivalry can be at its worst when both children are under 4 years of age, especially when they are less than three years apart. Children under the age of 4 depend on their parents a great deal and have a very hard time sharing them with siblings.

The sibling rivalry can be especially severe if you have a newborn baby. "Your newborn is a physical reminder to your older child that he no longer occupies that special baby place," says Yael Sank, a psychotherapist at Soho Parenting, in New York City. "All he knows is that now he has to share his mommy's love with someone else."

Your toddler may also cause fights to get a reaction from you. "At this age, your child realizes that he has the power to make an impact—both positive and negative," says Sank. So a little excitement is probably just what he was looking to create, especially if he felt left out or bored.

Sibling Rivalry in Older Kids

Competition between brothers and sisters can heat up as they grow older—usually at its worst between ages 8 and 12. Siblings who are close in age or who have many of the same interests tend to compete more. Vying for your attention may be the number-one sibling rivalry trigger, but sharing—arguing over space and possessions—is also at the heart of many arguments 

"Home is a comfort zone, and kids naturally fall apart in ways they never would at a friend's house or in school," says Anthony E. Wolf, author of "Mom, Jason's Breathing on Me!" The Solution to Sibling Bickering. Add to the mix a brother or sister—the one person who's always going to be around no matter what—and you have the perfect storm.

Sibling Rivalry with an Age Gap

As the younger child grows older and develops more skills and talents, the older child may feel threatened, embarrassed, or "shown up" by the younger one. This can lead to unnecessary competition or aggression from the older child.

Meanwhile, the younger child tends to become jealous of the privileges his big brother or sister gets as he or she gets older. An older sibling's competitiveness and aggression that arises as the younger one grows and develops can come as a surprise to the younger child and lead to returned hostility.

How to Manage Sibling Rivalry

Here are several ways to handle conflict between your children.

Allow your older child to help care for the younger one. Helping to feed a baby or change a diaper can strengthen the relationship between siblings. Encourage your child to be proud to be a big brother or big sister.

Don't compare your children in front of them. Avoid pointing out your children's differences in front of them. Your child might interpret comparison as criticism and may think that he's not as good or as loved as his sibling.

Stay out of your children's arguments. You may have to step in and settle a spat between toddlers or preschoolers, but older children will probably settle an argument themselves if left alone. If your children try to involve you, explain that they're both responsible for creating the problem and for ending it. Don't take sides.

Let your children know that violence is unacceptable. Make sure your children are made aware that you will not stand for any violence between them. Praise your children when they solve their arguments peacefully. "Each child needs to hear your house rules reiterated," says Wolf. Say to children, "I know that you're upset, but we never hit; you have to use words to let us know how you feel." 

Don't punish one child in front of the other. When it's necessary to punish or scold your child, do it alone in a quiet, private place. Scolding him in front of another child can lead to his being teased.

Set aside areas for each child. Give your children—especially the older one —her own space. Sometimes siblings simply need time apart from each other. Make sure that you occasionally arrange separate playdates or activities for each. And even when they're home together, make sure they each have space to do their own thing without having to share 50-50. 

Spend time with each child. Being proactive about making sure each of your children gets enough one-on-one time with you will go a long way toward ending rivalry. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently foster competition. That means you must resist the urge to compare behavior, abilities, or temperaments—and always stay on message about how your love for each kid is completely equal.

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