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Siblings Don’t Have to be Rivals

Siblings Don't Have to be RivalsSiblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way.
~ Pamela Dugdale

It’s both a silly and sad idea that siblings are born to be rivals. The conventional wisdom seems to be that older kids resent the intrusion of the younger ones and that younger sibs resent the privileges of the older ones. Well, yes. There is an element of that. Most kids at some time or another accuse their parents of loving the other kid best, usually when they are usiing guilt to get something they want. But most of the time such feelings and behavior are short-lived. The sense of family loyalty and love overrides whatever differences spurred an argument.

It’s a mistake to assign the negative label of “rivalry” to what may be simply a matter of learning how to get along. Conflict is inevitable in human relationships. No matter how much we love and care for another person, there will be times when we don’t agree, when we both want the same cookie, when we can’t quite believe that the other person holds some idea or value or goal that makes no sense to us. Children in a family are no different from adults in that respect.

What is different is that children in a family usually can’t get away from each other to take a break when they are angry or hurt. Unable to get in the car for a drive to cool off or to call or visit a friend for sympathy or to just find another cookie, or toy, or TV show, young kids are trapped in the same house, dealing with the very person who got in their way or angered them. Lacking the skills to manage their own emotions or to negotiate differences, they do what all immature people do – they yelp. Give them a while and they usually settle down. If they want someone to play with, they figure it out. In the process, they learn something about how to cooperate, how to share, and how generally to get along. Knocking heads is not only a normal part of growing up, it’s an important forum for learning how to negotiate human relationships.

Sibling rivalry is different. When kids become rivals, jealousy and resentment underlie the whole relationship. Every disagreement fuels the larger issue. Kids who are rivals find it hard to like one another. It’s as if there isn’t room in the family for both of them.

What transforms normal tussles among kids into rivalry? Usually it comes down to one of these three factors:

There really isn’t enough love to go around.

Some kids are born to adults who really can’t manage the multiple demands of multiple kids. Other parents take a dislike to a child who isn’t what they expected, who looks like someone in the family they don’t like, or who was the result of an unintended pregnancy. Kids who know in their pores that they aren’t loved or are being actively or quietly rejected will vie for whatever attention they can get – often at the expense of the kid or kids they think do get whatever love and care the parent can offer.

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Fighting pays off in terms of adult attention.

In some families, fighting gets adult attention more reliably and more fully than getting along. If the children aren’t getting enough positive attention from their folks, they will settle for negative attention. Even being punished and scolded is better than no attention at all. Parents can quite inadvertently provide a payoff for fights. Yelling at the kids for fighting, trying to sort out who started it, punishing the kid who appears to be the aggressor or sympathizing with the one who appears to be the victim are all examples of the kind of negative reinforcement that can in fact keep the fights going.

An adult supports it.

In some families, the kids become stand-ins for adults who are fighting. Each adult chooses a “champion.” Dad smirks when his son takes on his daughter. Mom eggs on her daughter when she argues with her brother. The kids’ argument may start over something fairly minor, such as who has to feed the dog, but it escalates because the parents are taking sides to make a point with each other.

Incidentally: The kids’ genders don’t have to match up with the parents’. Often adults take the side of the kid most like themselves. Dad may choose his daughter to do his fighting. Mom may root for her son. In a family where the kids are the same gender, each parent will side with the child (or children) they favor. When their chosen child “wins,” they feel like they’ve scored a point. Sadly, everyone loses the togetherness and warmth of a loving family in the process.

Regardless of the reason, it’s sad when parents can’t let siblings be friends. Their kids don’t learn that they don’t have to be alike to like each other. These children don’t develop the skills that come with having to negotiate or the sensitivities that come from going too far, apologizing and giving each other another chance. They don’t understand that they don’t have to agree with each other all the time in order to get along or that there is room for bickering even among the best of friends.

Growing up feeling loyal to each other is so much better. Kids who are friends with their sibs know there will always be someone in their corner. When kids can count on their brothers and sisters to watch their backs, to be there for them in tough times, and to invite them in on fun times, they feel more secure in the world.

Our job as parents is to give our children the gift of each other’s love and support. We do that by giving them all the love and attention they need and deserve, by role-modeling healthy ways to resolve differences, and by not involving them in any negativity between ourselves and their other parent. Kids who are taught to get along with the other people they live with through their growing years are well-prepared to have healthy relationships and families of their own someday.

Siblings Don’t Have to be Rivals

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Siblings Don’t Have to be Rivals. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.