As far back as the legendary competition of Cain and Abel, siblings have competed for the love and attention of their parents. Generally, the competitive outbreaks are intermittent, contextualized by periods of love and affection; the rough times are mainly short lived and without major injury.
Regardless, whether gentle and infrequent or persistent and hostile, sibling rivalry is a puzzle to many of us.
In my work as an executive coach, I speak with many exasperated parents who feel guilty that their “poor” parenting skills allow such unattractive competitiveness. I propose instead that this rivalry is natural, healthy behavior that is better embraced and guided than regretted and suppressed.
Many instincts drive modern sibling rivalry. Birth order and developmental stage impact its expression; children compete to define who they are. Older children may try to preserve the dominance they enjoy from early physical, emotional, and mental advantage. Conversely, younger children may rebel against older siblings, fighting for independent expression and a share of the family voice.
Also, children benefit from parental attention. When this is scarce, their instinct is to compete for the limited resources. Our stressful lives can limit the availability of parental kindness and, at the same time, impede a child’s ability to manage natural tensions without resorting to hostility.
How, then, do we as parents help make sibling rivalry a force for good?
Parental example is a powerful means of influencing rivalry behavior. Families that model tolerance and peace should not be surprised to find it in their children.
As parents, we should acknowledge and listen to each child’s unique needs. Celebrate differences, praising each child loudly for their unique talents and achievements. Equal treatment is not appropriate, but equal attention, love, and praise are.
We should look for and reward good behavior and be prepared to model kind and peaceful ways to address and resolve conflicts.
We should try very hard not to compare our children with each other, including in subtle, non-obvious ways. Rather than have them try to clean their rooms quicker than each other, have them race against the clock. Rather than rewarding the child who gets the highest grades, create incentives for any of your children who improve in a class. Don’t get involved or pick sides. Even perpetuating a nickname that implies comparison, like “Speedy” or “Handsome,” can be unintentionally harmful.
If you recognize that your own stress is exaggerating natural tensions, be kind to yourself. It takes courage to own this. Don’t reproach yourself or describe your condition with harsh self-criticism. Take active steps to remediate, and celebrate the fact that each family has built-in stress detectors, like sibling rivalry, that are early warning systems. If you can, show your children that you understand how your impatience or distraction is part of the problem. Modeling this in an active way without letting shame detract from your important status within the family is an invaluable life lesson for all involved.
Your guidance during calm moments is more valuable than your desperate attempts to calm a violent outburst. Use happy times to discuss and model awareness and appreciation for different styles and personalities within the family.
Of course, dangerous or hurtful disputes must be stopped, ideally by diverting the energy toward more fruitful discussions. Decide if a conflict is harmful and, if not, either watch quietly as your children develop their own conflict-resolution skills or help them to negotiate toward a win-win situation.
Celebrate peace when it returns, and reward your children generously when they find their own path to a safe and mutually fruitful outcome.
I hope that this article helps you to appreciate the value of sibling rivalry and provides you with strategies for channeling it positively toward healthy growth for the entire family. Even as we guide the development of our children, we advance our own insight and strength as caring, engaged adults.