Sibling rivalry

Arguments between brothers and sisters are normal.

They are one of the ways children learn how to work out differences, be fair, respect each other and get along with others. It’s also one of the ways they learn to sort out problems.

It’s important for parents to be good role models, and to help children work things out fairly and without hurting each other until they learn to do this for themselves.

This will help them learn to sort out issues in other relationships in the future.

How to reduce conflict between siblings

You can reduce conflict by helping each child feel equally loved and valued:

  • spend special time with each child
  • comment equally on their achievements - eg: a piece of art work, a report card
  • don’t compare your children with each other
  • focus on each child’s strengths and skills
  • allow each child to have special things of their own that their siblings don’t touch
  • give each child something small when buying gifts rather than one big thing to share
  • make sure a child is not always left out of games
  • if children have friends over, try to have a friend for each child to play with at the same time
  • teach children to be kind and thoughtful to each other - eg: making cards or presents for birthdays
  • make time to have fun as a family
  • help children find an outlet for their feelings - eg: active play, sport, music or creative activities.

Rules and routines

Have clear, simple family rules and routines that encourage fairness and respect for others

It helps to:

  • let your children help set rules for how people treat each other - eg: ‘We always take turns’, ‘We never hit people or call them names’, ‘We say sorry’.
  • agree what will happen if rules are broken - and be consistent in how you respond
  • be a good role model by following family rules yourself
  • have household routines - eg: who washes the dishes on certain days, where everyone sits for meals.

See Step 2 of the 7 Steps to Safety kit on the Department of Children and Families website.

What to do when there is conflict

Some parents think it’s best to let children work out their own differences but children are not born knowing how to resolve conflict.

If you let children ‘fight it out’, it often means the oldest or strongest child always wins.

This can encourage bullying - and the other child might learn to give in all the time.

Teach your children the skills they need to work things out fairly and reduce fighting. You can:

  • help children calm down before trying to resolve the conflict - it’s hard to reason when you are caught up in strong emotions
  • help each child name their feelings
  • let them know you understand how they feel
  • sit them down and remind them of any family rules about how to treat each other
  • let each child give their view of what happened so they can feel heard - without you taking sides
  • resist the urge to say who you think is right or wrong, or to focus on blame
  • support each child to express themselves to their sibling, saying how they feel and what they would like to see happen - don’t let the other child interrupt
  • help them come up with a solution once they have listened to each other
  • be less involved once your children get better at working things out fairly
  • encourage and praise them when they do well - eg: ‘You both did a good job of working that out fairly’ - it builds their confidence in sorting things out
  • once they have the skills, trust them to sort out their differences on their own - only get involved if they are having trouble, if there is bullying or a child is at risk of harm.

If it’s more than sibling rivalry

If an older child or teenager is abusive or violent it can be an attempt to control and have power over others in the home, including parents.

It’s very important to protect younger or vulnerable children.

Contact a counsellor or a youth mental health service for support - doing this early can help your child get the help they need. 

If there are serious risks to family safety you may need to call the police.

Don’t do this just to scare or shame your child. It will damage your relationship with them.

Parents don’t always report the matter to the police due to shame, guilt or fear of being judged.

While you may be reluctant to involve police, it’s best to keep your family safe and help your child learn that violence is not OK.

More information

Find out more, including where you can get support to deal with rivalry between your children, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017