Sibling Rivalry – What’s a Parent to Do?

by Jennifer Saba, Ph.D.

Chances are, unless you are a free-spirited collegiate hanging out in Daytona Beach, this past week of Spring Break has brought you closer to your family.  If you are a parent, this has meant a lot of time with your children.  And if you have more than one child, chances are that they have spent some time arguing, bickering, and generally making you long for your Spring Break of yore. 

Sibling rivalry. Normal, yes. But what, if anything, can a parent DO about it? Is there a way for parents to help their children and reduce the stress that everyone feels when siblings fight?

For the answers to these questions, I turn frequently to the book, Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Faber and Mazlish, who co-wrote the widely acclaimed, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, found that they were unable to contain the section on sibling rivalry to just one chapter. It was just too hot a topic among the families that they interviewed.  So they wrote this book as a way of helping parents help their children learn to live together. 

The origin of sibling rivalry is thought to be the deep desire for the exclusive love of one’s parents.  Children naturally want to be their parents’ one and only love. The presence of another means that there might be less of everything for them.  Faber and Mazlish contend that when you add the envy, resentment, and the personal frustrations that they can only take out on a sibling, it is no wonder that “the sibling relationship contains enough emotional dynamite to set off rounds of daily explosions.”  One of my favorite ways that they illustrate this is through this initial exercise: 

“Imagine that your spouse puts an arm around you and says, ‘Honey, I love you so much, and you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another wife (husband) just like you.’ 

The reader is then instructed to give their reaction to this and other follow-up scenerios involving this “new wife.”  

This amusing but eye-opening exercise demonstrates the powerful feelings that siblings bring to their relationships, leaving parents to wonder whether it is possible to ever tame the wild beast of sibling conflict. To this the authors say yes, parents can make a difference.  Parents can change how they respond to their children, to reduce competition, to allow anger to be expressed healthily, to avoid putting their children in “roles” that limit their potential within the family.  Chapter by chapter, the authors provide anecdotes and role plays from their intensive parent workshops and illustrate throughout the book, in clever cartoon form, “before” and “after” demonstrations of responding to sibling conflict.  

One of Faber and Mazlish’s major ideas about how to handle conflict is to allow children to express their feelings about their siblings, even if they are unpleasant ones.  Parents should remember that children have the right to have their feelings, even strongly negative ones.  Remember, feelings are just that – feelings.   They are different from actions.  Parents help their children by teaching them how to express anger without hurting. There are several ways that parents can do this.

1. Instead of dismissing negative feelings about a sibling, acknowledge the feeling. 

Instead of…

Child: “Mom, Jack said I’m stupid!”

Parent: “Oh, just ignore him!” 

Put the feeling into words: 

Parent: “A comment like that could make you mad!”

Child: “It did!” 

2. Give children in fantasy what they don’t have in reality.

Instead of:

Child: “Send the baby back!”

Dad: “ You don’t mean that, you know you love her”

Express what the child might wish:

Dad: “You don’t want her here. Sometimes you wish she’d go away.” 

3. Stop hurtful behavior. Show how angry feelings can be discharged safely.  Don’t attack the attacker. 

Instead of:

Child: (punches baby sister)

Parent: That’s a terrible thing to do! She only touched your blocks! 

Show better ways to express anger:

Parent: (stopping child) “No punching! Tell your sister how angry you are with your words, not your fists!”

Child: “Stay away from my blocks!” 

Although these ideas were not 100% guaranteed to work every time, in general parents found that when they allowed their children to express bad feelings about each other, good feelings resulted, and when parents insisted on good feelings between siblings, bad feelings resulted.  

In a funny, very readable way, Faber and Mazlish offer many other ideas to help parents create more harmony at home and experience less stress and frustration themselves. 

But you will have to read it for yourself.  Right now, I have to go.  I hear some fighting in the next room…


Faber, Adele & Mazlish, Elaine. (1998) Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. Harper Collins Publishers.