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Sibling rivalry

4-minute read

Sibling rivalry happens in most families and there are many reasons for it. But it usually gets better as the children get older. It is important to have clear family rules and to stop any fight before crying or bullying starts.

What is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is a feeling of tension between siblings (brothers and sisters). You might see it, for example, between your toddler and your new baby, or between a younger child and an older child.

Rivalry between siblings often includes fights over something they both want, but it can also be attention-seeking. Children might compete for your attention through teasing, arguing or telling you about something bad the other has done. They might see a situation as unfair and want to complain. While it can make you uncomfortable, sibling rivalry can be an important way for children to learn how to be fair and work through problems.

Sibling rivalry often peaks between 2 and 4 as children understand their surroundings and siblings better. As children get older, sibling rivalry often improves.

Age and fighting

The way in which children fight depends on their age and stage of development. Children under 2 will tend to fight over objects like toys and whose turn it is. At this stage, children can’t reason well with other children so they are more likely to do something physical like push or bite.

Some conflict between siblings is normal. But it can become a problem if the fighting gets out of hand.

Why do children fight?

Sometimes children see things from different perspectives. For example, an older sibling might see teasing as funny when the younger sibling doesn’t. Toddlers, especially, have very intense and raw reactions to things. Siblings can get into arguments or feel resentful over their parents’ time and attention. Children, especially younger ones, might fight because they don’t have the language and communication skills to solve the problem. They may aggravate each other out of jealousy or simply to see what reaction it provokes.

If you have a new baby, it can be hard for your toddler. Toddlers can’t understand why they feel jealous or how to cope with their feelings towards their new sibling. They might start to go backwards with toilet training or using a bottle, or jump on you when you’re breastfeeding.

This can sometimes be disruptive and start to affect family life. Arguing can stop family activities and children might start to physically hurt each other.

Tips to manage sibling rivalry

What you do when your children aren’t fighting is just as important as when they are. Be a model for healthy relationships and social skills. Talk to your children about managing angry feelings. Seeing you solve problems in positive ways will help them in their relationship with their siblings.

It’s important to think about what each child needs. It’s true that children need to feel you love them both equally, but that doesn’t mean always treating them in the same way. Children need different rules and boundaries depending on their age and personality. They need to learn to share, but it’s also important for them to feel they have some things of their own that are special.

Having clear family rules is important, and makes life easier for parents. The best rules are the simplest — children need to know what is okay and what isn’t. You can remind your children of the rules when disagreements come up.

Try to put rules in a positive way — what they should rather than what they shouldn’t do. For example, ‘we use kind words’ instead of ‘we don’t say mean things’. Tell your children when they are doing something good. Let them know you’ve noticed. You can also be a good role model for how to get along with others and how to sort out issues without yelling or lashing out. Keep your cool.

It’s important to stop any fights before crying starts. Tell older children that you will talk about it later when everyone is quieter. Treat each child fairly. Don’t compare children in a negative way, for example, blaming one child as the troublemaker. Work out the reason for the fight and come up with a plan of action. Use the family rules.

For toddlers, it can be helpful to find jobs for them so that they feel involved in family life. Having one-on-one time with your toddler helps them feel special. You can ask them for advice such as what their baby sibling might want to wear. If your toddler says no, don’t force the issue unless it’s important.

When to get help

It’s a good idea to get help if things get too aggressive, too frequent and too hurtful. If children are being intimidating, bullying or physically hurtful, fights need to be stopped straight away.

If you feel overwhelmed, it’s important to get help. Start by talking to family and friends. Talk to your doctor, or call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to talk to a maternal child health nurse.

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Last reviewed: August 2021

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