Sibling Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry

Let’s talk sibling rivalry.


Coming off the holidays, I witnessed my fair share of sibling fights and I’m guessing I am not alone here. It’s such a common struggle, yet often can be super challenging to navigate during the heat of the moment.


Something that’s been helpful for me to remember is that sibling fighting is normal and healthy. In fact, it’s actually useful behavior too.


Research shows how sibling rivalry builds emotional intelligence, boosts social skills, and helps them learn complex lessons around communication, problem-solving, impulse control and conflict resolution. So just knowing that helps lesson the trigger for me personally.


But there is a whole lot more to sibling dynamics that I learned the hard way.


Siblinghood and the intense feelings that surround it offer many opportunities for growth and understanding for both our kids and ourselves.

Witnessing your kids fight is triggering. Why is that?

When my daughters got to an age where every day was a fight for what’s “fair”, I found myself acting as a constant referee. I thought I was providing fair and equal treatment, while ensuring no one got hurt. But the fighting seemed to grow and grow and I got less and less patient as an arbitrator.


I started to reflect on my own experience as a sister growing up and my expectations around what it should be like.


My brother is much younger than me, so our relationship back then wasn’t as close. I had always wanted a fairy-tale sister experience because I thought having one would mean an instant, permanent best friend.


My unconscious expectations and desires for my daughters was causing my reactivity and unfounded interjections to their fights, rather than providing space for their individual feelings and an opportunity for skill building. More on that in a minute.


I also realized how I identified more with one daughter, who is shyer and more agreeable, whereas my other daughter is much more outspoken and direct. And in this way, I was unconsciously casting one as the more powerful or “bad” one and the other as the weak or “good” one that I needed to protect.


This unconsciousness caused a laundry list of problems for both kids, not to mention how it made their rivalry much worse.

Why taking sides in sibling fights backfires

Siblings activate attachment needs and abandonment fears. In terms of attachment theory, kids are always looking to ensure how their needs will be met. It’s evolutionary hard wired in all of us for survival when we are young. The addition of a sibling sets off an alarm that there is now competition for my parents love and attention.


Taking this understanding and applying it to my above example, you can see how I was activating this fear in both kids. For the one who always felt like she was in trouble, it created even more aggression towards her sister as she sought my unconditional validation. For the other, who I gave more empathy towards, I was beginning to build assumed inadequacy and a victim mentality within her. 

So what do we do when our kids fight?

There are different strategies for different situations your children might be in, but here are a few key strategies to help get you started:


  • 1- Special Time. This continues to be a multi-beneficial strategy for so many childhood challenges. For sibling rivalry specifically, it is the #1 strategy because we know that siblings activate our attachment insecurities, so fighting is a sign they are feeling insecure and disconnected from us. For those of you who are not familiar with this strategy, “special time” is dedicated alone time for each child with one parent.  There are no distractions (no phones especially) and no rules. Just time for you to enter your kids world for 10 minutes and allow them to direct the play or conversation. This builds connection and security, and therefore decreases the feeling of insecurity.


  • 2- Wait. It is amazing how often our kids will actually solve the situation by themselves, if we can tolerate the discomfort for a few more minutes. There is an incredible article I wish I had come across much earlier in my parenting journey by Janet Lansbury called, The Parenting Magic Word. In this article she talks about the power of waiting when it comes to our child’s development. This philosophy applies to sibling arguments beautifully, until things start to escalate. When that happens, your job is never to solve the problem, but to help slow things down using the next couple strategies below.


  • 3- Never blame or compare. Never take sides. Never. Even if it seems so obvious to you who is right or wrong. We almost always never know the full story or understand all the little things leading up to the fight. Instead of focusing on any blame, use this as an opportunity to teach problem solving. IF fighting escalates towards any kind of emotional or physical harm, then firmly stop the situation and manage it by separating them while describing what you see, “I see two girls arguing over the iPad and we are going to take a break before we go further.


  • 4- Name the wish. Help your kids understand their feelings behind their behavior by naming what they are wishing for and not getting. There is always an unmet wish, whether it is a tangible item like a toy or an intangible need like more freedom or validation. For example, “You wish you could have the same dress as your sister, huh? I know that feels hard to see something that you want and someone else has.” Doing this displays empathy and creates connection between you and your child.

The fighting itself is never the issue

The key message I hope you remember from all this, is that the fighting itself is never the issue—it’s the story behind the fighting behavior, for ourselves and our kids. Our job as parents is to start to understand that story for each child. Then we can help them learn how to tolerate and regulate their feelings about it, while learning problem solving skills in the process. This will allow them to understand and build healthy relationships later in their lives.

parental triggers