Q.  My wife and I each have a child from previous marriages living with us (ages 14 and 12). We also have two children from our marriage (ages 4 and 9 months). The kids all compete for attention from us. They fight with each other over such things as TV time, as well as computer time or who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. A favorite cry is “it’s not fair.” Could you help us understand sibling rivalry? Is it normal? Are there things we as parents can do to minimize the rivalry and help the kids build strong bonds with each other?


A.  Sibling rivalry is normal. It’s common for brothers and sisters to fight for attention– who gets control over the TV or computer, who gets the best grades and many other issues too. Younger kids often want equal privileges with older siblings. Some kids envy a sibling’s talents or skills. Sibling rivalry includes name calling, tattling and constant competition for the attention of parents.


Researchers do mention some negatives about sibling rivalry such as: too much rivalry can lower self esteem and contribute to unwanted behaviors such as drug abuse as adults. Other sources suggest that troubled sibling relationships in children can lead to damaged adult relationships with each other. At some point when the rivalry is more than healthy competition, you’ll want to minimize it and help your kids build strong bonds. I have the following suggestions:


Ways to Minimize Sibling Rivalry:

  1. My favorite way to build bonds between kids is to put them on the same team. As they work hard to win at a game, they are bonding. You can also say things like “You two are a good team.” Give them praise as they work together on a household chore or a fun activity such as building a Lego item. Praise could be something like “You two are an amazing Lego building team.”


  1. Stay calm when kids are fighting. Help them find ways to solve the conflict themselves. Praise the children when they find a solution together.


  1. Avoid frequently praising one child while criticizing another.
  2. Avoid paying too much attention to one child versus another.


  1. Set a good example in interactions with your spouse or other childcare givers. Model the behavior you want to see from your children.


  1. When you hear “it isn’t fair,” don’t give a long explanation. For example, when one child gets new shoes and the others don’t, you can simply explain that, “This time brother or sister needed shoes but you did not. Later you will get something when you need it.” Leave it at that.


  1. When kids won’t share, use my mother’s tactic: If I wouldn’t share candy, my mother said, It tastes better when you share.


  1. Develop a schedule for who gets to choose the TV show, who gets to sit up front when only one parent is in the car and for other activities that are part of the squabbling.


Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you minimize sibling rivalry and help your kids to have stronger bonds with each other. 


Betty Richardson, PHD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.


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