Parenting Skills: Sibling Rivalry

parenting skills | August 15, 2018 | Pennsylvania Counseling Services, Inc.

sibling rivalry
competition among siblings for the attention, approval, or affection of one or both parents or for other recognition or rewards, such as in sports or academics.


Many times, children create conflicts with siblings to get their parents’ attention. To a child, a parent’s love represents safety, security and power. When a child feels a sibling may be more important, jealousy and competitiveness take precedence over kindness and patience, and sibling rivalry emerges.

Additional problems can also arise in step-sibling relationships because the child has to adjust to a new parent, new siblings and sometimes a new home. Often, there’s a shift in the child’s position in the family. They might move from the oldest to the middle child and no longer have the most privileges or move from the youngest to the oldest child with no preparation for the additional responsibility.

With step-siblings it’s important that both parents reassure the children that their value has not changed, even though their position in the family may have.


Many child development experts recommend that parents don’t intervene in their children’s rivalry until it’s necessary. Because so many conflicts stem from the need for a parent’s attention, intervention often has a negative effect. Children learn that playing the victim will get them what they want. Each child becomes determined to be the victim the next time to gain the parent’s attention. This sets the stage for more fighting.

Taking Action

Although it’s best to allow children to learn to work through their differences, it’s important that you get involved in their disputes when:

  • a child is happy about their sibling feeling hurt or sad

  • a child talks seriously about hurting their sibling

  • siblings intentionally avoid each other

  • a child finds satisfaction in humiliating a sibling in front of others

  • a child appears afraid to be with another sibling

Any of these signs can indicate a problem more serious than normal sibling rivalry, and it’s important to determine the cause. If your child won’t talk to you, or if problems persist or intensify, it may be necessary to speak to your physician or seek professional help.



Sometimes it’s possible to determine who started an argument, but when rules are broken and you can’t determine who’s at fault, the fairest course of action is to make both children deal with the consequences. Of course, it’s important to vary the penalty by age. It doesn’t work to take away a toddler’s texting privileges any more than it does to tell a teenager they can’t play with their stuffed animal.


If no rules are broken but both children come to you with opposite versions of what happened, don’t choose sides. When age-appropriate, take the role of mediator to help the children work out their differences. This is an excellent opportunity to teach children how to negotiate and compromise. Children who learn how to work through conflicts in healthy ways will find it easier to manage anger and jealousy as adults as well.


Often, our children’s arguments stir memories of our own childhood conflicts, causing us to identify with a particular child. If you were the younger child, you may instinctively rush to the rescue of your younger child, no matter who’s at fault. If you were an only child, you may expect your children to simply feel fortunate they have a sibling.

It’s important to separate your own issues from those of your children and realize their rivalry is not related to your childhood success.

If you or someone you know needs help managing sibling rivalry, we can help. Check out our outpatient services page for a full range of treatment options including individual and family counseling.