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13 Smart Ways to Stop Sibling Rivalry Before It Starts

Updated: Jan. 13, 2023

Sibling rivalry is inevitable to some degree, but it doesn't have to take over your home. Read on to find out what top parenting experts recommend to stop sibling rivalry in its tracks, and even prevent it before it starts.

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Spend time one on one

Most parents are stretched to their personal limits daily, and it can feel overwhelming to put one more thing on the to-do list. Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in parenting and teens, as well as co-author of Teenage as a Second Language, suggests that parents schedule one-on-one time with each child in order to prevent chaos between siblings in the home. “Rivalry is all about kids wanting their own time—it’s primarily about the child receiving acknowledgment and recognition from the parents,” she says. “Whether your child enjoys a game of catch outside or curling up with you to watch a movie, pay close attention to the amount of individual attention each child is receiving.” It could be the key to more harmony at home.

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Make time for family fun

In a busy world where free time is hard to find, fun often gets put on the back burner. According to Dr. Greenberg, spending quality time with family doing an enjoyable activity can create an atmosphere that quells sibling rivalry. “Make sure to set aside time for family fun, because it shows children that families don’t have to be characterized by competition or rivalry,” she explains. Dr. Greenberg believes in the power of maintaining regular family traditions, such as a weekly movie night or game night. “People by nature love tradition, it doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, but something your individual family enjoys can really change the tone at home,” she says. Find out how birth order affects your health.

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Know when to intervene

Every parent with more than one child has found themselves in the middle of a heated conflict over a toy, a harsh word, or mean glance. It’s incredibly tempting to play referee in sibling conflicts, but Dr. Greenberg cautions against rushing to intervene. “If it’s not physical, try not to get involved until it is,” she advises. “Parents often add their own negative energy to the conflict, making the matter seem more serious than it is. Often times, children will resolve the issue on their own, and sibling rivalry without parental involvement teaches negotiation skills,” she explains. Courtney Ferenz, PsyD, clinical psychologist, says modeling positive conflict resolution can give children valuable tools to use when the opportunity presents itself. “When you do intervene, model problem-solving skills by listening to each child’s perspective and facilitate the process of brainstorming about compromise,” she advises. Check out the 18 skills you learn growing up in a large family.

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Give them a space of their own

All siblings desire to be seen as individuals with unique goals and talents. According to Dr. Greenberg, not only do children need their own space, such as a bedroom, but they also need their own time to enjoy activities as an individual. Whether a child finds fulfillment in playing a sport, or a musical instrument, children need the option to have something, and some place, that is just for them. “Having the time to do their own thing allows kids to be themselves, and that’s important,” she says. When a child feels fulfilled and seen as an individual, with unique abilities, it diminishes the need to strive against a sibling for power within the home.

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Celebrate differences

Life can be difficult for children with siblings, especially those close in age. It is tempting for parents to place blanket expectations on their children, based upon an older sibling or their own childhood, but this can lead to a damaging view of their own individuality. Celebrating each child for who they truly are can go a long way in making a child feel seen and important. Dr. Greenberg stressed its importance, saying, “In this world we need all kinds of people doing all types of things.” She continues, “We need to celebrate the differences in our children—the most delicious meals are made from many different ingredients—and it’s no different in our homes. Differences in our children only add to the beauty of our families.”

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Encourage reciprocal celebrations

You don’t have to look too deep into the family photo album to find a picture of one child being celebrated and his or her sibling scowling in the background. While it might prove to be a funny moment to capture, it actually sets the stage for resentment and anger between siblings if they are not encouraged to genuinely celebrate one another’s accomplishments. “This is actually a skill that will serve them well not just in life with a sibling, but in the future as well,” Dr. Greenberg says. “Studies have shown that in marriage, it’s more important to have a supportive spouse in times of success than even in times of sickness or difficulty.” Parents can encourage siblings to celebrate one another by ensuring that each child is celebrated for individual successes regularly, and the celebrations are focused on wide-ranging achievements. Small celebrations for things such as acts of kindness parents have witnessed, academic success, or completing their weekly chores on time can be opportunities for children to cheer one another on.

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Keep communication appropriate

While parents might slip on this one from time to time, it’s important to keep the communication between yourself and your child in check. Dr. Greenberg cautions parents to resist the temptation to confide in their child inappropriately, saying, “As tempting as it is, don’t confide in one child about a difficult sibling. It can breed animosity and anger between children.” How you speak to your child both in front of others, and in private, matters as well, and she warns parents not to claim a favorite, even in private. “There should be no secret conversations about a child being the favorite—even if you tell both children they’re the favorite when you’re alone with them. It sets up an environment where sibling rivalry can thrive,” she explains.

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Resist the temptation to label

There is an unsettling tendency in parents today to place labels upon their children, both negative and positive. The problem with this practice, explains Dr. Greenberg, is that it isolates children from opportunities. “If you label one child as ‘the smart one’ or ‘the kind one’ then no other child in the family feels as though they can be smart or kind,” she said. She continued, “When you label your child you close off an entire arena of enjoyment to the other children, and it robs them of opportunities.” Even positive labels can have negative consequences, and parents need to keep their observations to themselves, while encouraging all of their children to seek out activities that interest them as individuals. This is why you shouldn’t call your kids smart.

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Give age-appropriate responsibilities

For some families, the older siblings are tasked with caring for those younger in the family. Dr. Greenberg believes this causes resentment and discord in the family unit. “Older children need chores and responsibilities that are suited for their age group, but being considered the live-in babysitter should not be one of them. They’re not the parents of the younger siblings, and should not have to take on that responsibility,” she says. Dr. Ferenz advises parents to give opportunities for team work between siblings. “When you’re in the grocery store and the kids start fighting over which cereal to buy, try having them take turns pulling items off the shelves that are on your list. Encourage them to think as a team,” she recommends.

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Resist the urge to compare

A parent that utters the phrase “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” might be doing more damage to the delicate sibling relationship than he or she realizes, according to Dr. Greenberg. “Parents must resist the temptation to compare the children to each other and to a specific parent, as well.” She continues, “When we compare a child to a parent, saying, ‘You get that from your father’, it implies favoritism. All kids want to be seen as individuals and celebrated as such.”

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Discipline them separately

While not all moments will offer the opportunity to discipline children in private, parents should try to do so whenever they are able. Dr. Ferenz explains, “Children often delight in getting each other in trouble. Try to avoid reprimanding your child in front of other family members, especially siblings. It often leads to embarrassment, anger, and retaliation.” If another room is not available to provide privacy to speak with your child, simply pulling them to the side and speaking quietly will suffice. It is important that children feel respected and heard, even during moments of redirection. These are the 11 things parents say that ruin their kids’ trust.

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Hold family meetings

Not only do siblings need to view themselves as a team, they need to know that they are part of the larger family team as well. “Older children, especially teenagers, might benefit from family meetings. Consider scheduling weekly meetings as a way to take the temperature of the family,” Dr. Ferenz suggests. “Ask what is going well and what isn’t. This provides an opportunity to compliment each other and provide feedback. Everyone in the family can choose something to work on.” Find out what your birth order reveals about you.

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Catch them being good

It is far too easy to focus on the negative as a parent, and more often than not, the negative is what provokes a reaction in parents time after time. This can be a dangerous habit to fall into, according to Dr. Ferenz. “Sibling conflict can be disruptive, often requiring intervention from a parent. However, when busy parents have a moment of peace, they often want to savor it, and miss an opportunity for positive reinforcement.” Dr. Ferenz believes that pointing out positive behavior can go a long way in preventing sibling rivalry. She recommends occasionally rewarding them with something special for good behavior, like a trip to the park. She recommends that parents make sure to point out the specific positive behavior before offering the reward, for example, “I really like the way you’re playing together today. Let’s take a trip to the park.”