What is sibling rivalry?
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.
Some children argue more than others because of their temperament (personality) or because they are still learning how to get along with others.
Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up. Arguments between brothers and sisters can help them work out differences, be fair and respect each other.
Age and fighting
The way in which children fight depends on their age and stage of development.
Children under 2 years will tend to fight over objects like toys and whose turn it is. At this stage, children can't reason well, 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.
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.
Toddlers and a new baby
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.
Toddlers have very intense and raw reactions to things. 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. You should try to:
- Talk to your children about managing angry feelings.
- Be a model for healthy relationships and social skills.
- Solve problems in positive ways — this will help them in their relationship with their siblings.
- Try to keep your cool.
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 do 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.
What to do when there is conflict
It's important to stop any fights before crying starts.
- Tell older children that you will talk about it later when everyone is calmer.
- 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.
Keeping toddlers involved
For toddlers, it can be helpful to find jobs for them so that they feel involved in family life. 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.
Having one-on-one time with your toddler helps them feel special.
Is it more than sibling rivalry?
It's a good idea to get help if things get aggressive, too often. If children are intimidating, bullying or physically hurtful, fights need to be stopped straight away.
Looking after yourself
If you feel overwhelmed, it's important to get help.
Start by talking to family, friends or doctor.
Resources and support
Parenting support is available by calling the numbers below:
- Parentline Australian Capital Territory: (02) 6287 3833
- Parent Line New South Wales: 1300 1300 52
- Parentline Queensland and Northern Territory: 1300 30 1300
- Parent Helpline South Australia: 1300 364 100
- Parent Line Tasmania: 1300 808 178
- Parentline Victoria: 13 22 89
- Ngala Parenting Line Western Australia: (08) 9368 9368 (metro) or 1800 111 546 (regional)
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: July 2023