Trying to stop sibling rivalry can feel like an endless battle. In some families, children’s fighting and arguing can ruin every evening and weekend. With parents treading on eggshells worried about the next outburst.

Siblings bring out the worst in children. A child may be mature, well behaved and exemplary at school – or when you take them out on their own. But put them in a room with a sibling and all hell can break loose, with the child acting like a cross between a screaming banshee and a vicious demon.

Sibling rivalry is one of the big issues when parents come to me to seek parenting help. Many parents are both embarrassed and appalled – in equal measure – by their children’s behaviour. Which appears ten times worse when they go out in public and are under the scrutiny of friends, family members or complete strangers.

It is useful to understand two very important truths. Firstly almost every child will feel jealous of a sibling at times. It’s a normal, natural emotion, and when you have two or more children, sibling rivalry is pretty universal. It’s also true that a big proportion of sibling arguments is to get your attention. Nothing feels quite as good as having your parent side with you and tell your sibling off. Now that’s power!

So what can you do to stop sibling rivalry?

1. Teach children to sort out their own arguments

Remember children need to learn how to communicate with each other and sort out conflicts. So, if your children argue or fight, insist they talk to each other and work out a solution. But it’s important to show them how to do it. It’s ok for you to act as a mediator, as long as you don’t take sides or try to make suggestions. Next time your children have a big argument, get each child to talk, one at a time, to explain their point of view, give them a chance to reply to their brother or sister, once again, without any interruptions. Then challenge them to work out a win / win solution that they’re both happy with.

2. Stay out of sibling arguments wherever possible

Explain to the children that from now on, you’re not going to get involved. Try to ignore arguments and don’t go running to sort them out. Once you’ve taught the children to sort out arguments, expect them to resolve their own disagreements. Tell them they’re welcome to argue but if the noise is disturbing you, send them to a squabbling place (usually one of the children’s rooms) You may like to ask them just to tell you what how they decide to resolve it when they’re finished.  

3. Praise your children when they get on

Most parents give their children lots of attention when they’re arguing or fighting and say nothing when they play well together. As the saying goes, energy flows where attention goes – or what you pay attention to, you get more of. So, always notice and comment when the children are getting on well. That way they hear lots of praise for being kind to their sibling, sharing, sorting out arguments and playing nicely together, and they begin to get on better, because you’re constantly providing them with ‘evidence’ that they’re friends and team mates.  

4. Be careful not to side with one child or treat one sibling as the favourite.

It’s not OK to treat one child as the ‘devil child’ and one as the ‘angel.’ Older children may be stronger, but younger children often wind the older child up. A lot of sibling rivalry is where the child who is treated as the ‘favourite’ is given rough justice by their jealous sibling. Treat your children equally. Give each child the time and attention they need and notice and comment on their good points. So they feel good in their own skin, and don’t need to put their sibling down to feel better about themselves.

5. Try to spend 15 minutes’ quality time with each child every day.

That way each child can predict some time with each parent and get your undivided good attention. If you can’t give them 15 minutes, give 10 or even 5 minutes. If you don’t give each of your children a daily chunk of your undivided attention and where you’re happy and playful, they’ll fight for your bad attention. Because your bad attention is better than none.

6. Empathise with your children when they’re struggling.

Really listen to your child’s frustrations. Siblings can be so hard to deal with. However, don’t try to sort it out for them. Remember your job as a parent is to help your child develop the skills to cope with life. So, empower your child to tell their sibling about their frustrations and work on solutions.

Gradually, if you put these steps into practice, you’ll find your children get on much better. You’ll find you can improve the peace and harmony at home, stop sibling rivalry (most of the time) and you can go out (or even on holiday with another family!) without being worried about your children letting you down with their constant bickering and arguments.

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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