Three Meaningful Responses to Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is not natural. We are not born with preprogrammed circuitry that says “Thou shall be rivals with your sibling.” It is neither inevitable nor something that we have to live with. Unfortunately sibling rivalry arises in many families. How does this happen and what can we do about it?

Rivalry occurs when there is perceived scarcity of a desirable object. A zero sum moment follows: I win only if you lose; you win only if I lose.

Children will vie for objects. The objects change as the children grow but the perception of scarcity perseveres: I want it, there is not enough for everyone, I must assert control and ownership.

As parents we have limited resources, especially time. Don’t lose hope. We can take significant actions to prevent rivalry and to dissolve it if it occurs. Here are three: 

Celebrate differences—Children whose unique strengths are recognized and supported grow in self-esteem and fulfillment. Perceived scarcity falls away. There is no motivation for rivalry for children are seen and nourished for who they are. Celebrating differences implies flexibility in family values. We cannot compare children against a rigid standard. “Why aren’t you more like your brother” is a recipe for rivalry. 

Proper boundaries—Boundaries become places of learning and growth when they emphasize relationship and not objects. They must match the child’s age-specific capacities. And they must be framed so that the child knows our love is not compromised by the sibling rivalry. “I love you.  I know it is difficult to give up the object, but we always have one another.” This doesn’t mean the child will melt in your arms (though that does happen). In the long run, however, they will get it that the most important “thing” is who we are together.

Make sure your children know that their love counts—Seek their opinion. Listen when they speak. Show them great respect. Laugh at their jokes; ask questions about their stories. And give whatever time you can without reservation. When they know their love counts they are contributing to the abundance of relationship and thus much less likely to obsess about scarcity.