Parenting & Families

Sibling Rivalry

In the beginning there was Cain and Abel – every parent’s worst nightmare – the out of control expression of one child’s anger, frustration and jealousy towards their sibling. The problem is a complex one and doesn’t have an easy answer. However there are some things that parents should know about sibling rivalry and there are some things that they can do about it.


  1. Sibling rivalry is found everywhere in nature. For example – baby sharks will ingest one another in the utero until the last and largest one is left standing. The first born baby bird will toss his or her subsequent sibs out of the nest to insure their food supply, and we are all familiar with Darwin’s survival of the fittest as a natural struggle for food and other needed resources that are necessary to survival, not only of the individual, but in effect, the entire species.
  2. The same is true in the human family. The first child has the best chance for bonding , nurturing and having his or her needs met. That means they are getting one hundred percent of what their parents have to give, and in the best of all possible worlds that means a lot of love and attention. Then suddenly without his or her choice, knowledge, and without any options, a stranger is introduced into his or her world. And, not only is this new person requiring a lot of time and attention, but also has replaced him or her as the center of Mom and Dad’s universe. At first the new baby on board is a novelty, and the older child may even enjoy some of the busy activities going on, especially if he or she is included. But in a very little while – usually about two weeks – the older child tires of the novelty and wants his or her place back. However – that is not going to happen – and not only that, but they soon realize that his or her place is gone….forever. And a nagging thought sits on the edge of the older child’s consciousness, that maybe this new baby is loved the best.
  3. Now, this is where things begin to heat up and the first sib, out of frustration, may become duplicit as he or she tries to sabotage and even injure the new baby. A pinch or slap, when no one is looking, hiding the younger child’s toys, or even overt expressions of anger, such as, “I don’t want or like this new baby and I want you to send it back”, are only a few examples of how difficult it can get. The first sib may become aggressive in general, even when the new baby is not around; or regress into more childish and needy behavior, all in an effort to reclaim his or her rightful and now lost place. This competition, if left without remediation, sows the seeds to a lifetime of negative patterns that have their germination in the beginning. Then, if another child is born into the family, the resources of mom and dad’s time and attention in relation to nurturing, bonding and meeting children’s needs are cut no longer in half but, if they’re lucky, in thirds. And so it goes, until by the time the last child is born – the competition for goods and services is very scarce indeed.
  4. To further complicate things, young children are in concrete operations, which means that they are both egocentric and unable to process their emotions critically. Therefore, when they are emotionally upset they strike out reactively instead of thinking about things and choosing the best proactive course of action. Furthermore, their understanding of the here and now is concrete and they don’t really understand the difference between a city, a state, a universe; or life and death. They are magical in their thinking and believe that what is killed today, will rise up tomorrow. Along with this, since the brain is still forming, children might develop patterns based on these early frustrations that could stay with them for a lifetime and influence the way they think and feel about a brother or sister, for the rest of their lives as well as influence their other significant relationships. Sibling rivalry is so powerful that it can even affect the roles that we take in a family and the careers we choose for ourselves in the adult world. For many times, what we pick for our life’s passion is the direct opposite of our brothers’ and sisters’ choices.


  1. Space your children, if possible, three years apart. This gives one child enough time to leave your knee, as he or she reaches for independence, which is the best time to put another child on your knee.
  2. Even though there are times in all of our lives when one child is easier than the other, or that we see something of ourselves or our mate in one child or the other, discipline yourself not to show any signs of outward favoritism.
  3. Parents must parent – this means to step into the adult and even override exhaustion to give each child some private time with mom and dad.
  4. Keep your child in the loop. Explain to your child 1, 2, or 3 when a new child is about to be born, and invest them in the process of how to welcome the new baby and care for it.
  5. Make your child your ally. With a wink and a nod, this child can help you shop for the new baby, choose toys for the new baby, and even special foods for the new baby. If you bring the older child into the process, he or she will be more likely to participate with good will.
  6. Never make one child responsible for the other. No babysitting.
  7. Never make your children share their toys. I can hear the ooh’s and ah’s out there, but what belongs to your children is their possession and only if it is their choice to share, should it be brought into a common area.
  8. Never discount, demean or embarrass your older children. Never tell them to be a big girl or boy, to act grown-up or to be understanding. They are children and they have feelings too. Instead, confirm their feelings with sentences such as, “of course you feel this way, I understand completely”. Empathy goes a long way towards cooperation.
  9. Never compare your children. No competition ever. No family games where one can win and one can lose. This is a family and not a sports arena, and children should be raised in collaboration not competition.
  10. Never tell one child to do things the way, the other one does.
  11. Never compare your children, their grades, their behavior or the way they look. And never tell one child you love that child better than the other, because they are behaving better. This is a form of splitting that can turn one child against the other forever.
  12. Never discuss one child with the other. You don’t like when someone talks behind your back, follow the same courteous behavior with your children.
  13. Don’t manipulate. Manipulation is humiliation and makes your child feel undervalued and they will not trust you, themselves, or others if you diminish their self esteem.
  14. Be fair. This is one of the most essential rules. Children are watching you and they’re very cognizant of even-handedness, as it translates to them that they are loved equally.
  15. Practice and rehearse communication through listening. Let your children tell you how they feel. If you listen with empathy, they will tell you everything, and together you can find ways to problem solve. Invest your child in the process.
  16. And finally, be prepared – when holidays, birthdays and family gatherings occur – think ahead and find ways as a family to come up with some rules, a plan that can nip in the bud any of the regular stressful patterns with which you as a family are familiar, and can handle with love.