Sibling Rivalry: How Much Arguing is Too Much?

What is Sibling Rivalry?

Do you often overhear your children arguing about whose Legos are whose, or do you ever feel overwhelmed by your children constantly coming to you about escalated arguments for which they can’t find a compromise? While it’s highly likely that your children do argue from time to time, how much arguing is too much? And how can you as a parent help your children stop arguing over such frivolous disagreements?
Sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up with siblings; it is the jealousy, competition, and fighting between brothers and sisters. According to the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, sibling rivalry naturally starts after the second child is born, presumably due to some level of jealousy or newfound competition.

What Causes Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is large part due to the nature of family dynamics. When your second child is born, it is natural for your firstborn child to feel jealous of their new sibling’s attention. If your children don’t experience jealousy issues over your attention, consider yourself lucky! According to C.S. Mott’s Children Hospital, jealousy is totally normal. As your child goes through their more advanced developmental stages, they will naturally be able to handle splitting your attention with siblings better on an emotional level. 

When your children are younger, they don’t necessarily have the language and emotional capacity to clearly communicate that the amount of attention, responsiveness, and discipline that each child is getting feels unequal or unfair. In response, they may lash out at their siblings, who they naturally blame for the decrease in attention. The younger child can be seen as a threat between the older child and their relationship with their parents. They can also pick fights with siblings simply as a response to being bored, frustrated, tired, or hungry. This can almost certainly improve in time, as your child matures by learning how to communicate clearly and regulate their emotions.

Sibling rivalry also stems from your children trying to form their own unique interests, personality, individuality, and place within your family. When your children feel challenged by one another, discussing differing opinions is actually an exercise that allows them to communicate their thoughts and identity, grow into themselves, and determine their separate and common interests over which they can bond over. The good news is, with some guidance from you, it is likely that your childrens’ relationship will naturally improve as they mature!

Your relationship with your children plays a big role in sibling rivalry as well. It’s important for your children to each receive equal, or fair amounts of attention from you, and that they know how to communicate that they would like more attention. The key here, though, is that the attention you give your children is an equal amount of positive attention. The time you give your child while having disciplinary conversations with them should not count as equal attention.

C.S. Mott Children’s hospital explains that when a child’s behavior reminds a parent of a relative they have animosity toward, it can subconsciously affect the way that parent treats their child. If the child is acting difficult in the same way a disliked relative does, a parent might give that childless positive attention, and be harsher when it comes to punishments. If that child is then initiating sibling rivalry as a response, it could be a sign that the parent needs to take an internal emotional inventory and correct their behavior to handle their child who acts difficult in a way that is fair to them.

Additionally, children tend to be more naturally aggressive with siblings in families where parents tend to respond to conflicts aggressively or less calmly. Parents are childrens’ best role models, so it’s important to teach your children that responding to conflict in a physical way is not a healthy or effective way to learn to compromise and resolve conflicts together. Instead, give them the tools to recognize how they are feeling, and how to verbally communicate those feelings to their siblings in a calm and empathetic way!

What are the Pros of Sibling Rivalry?

While it might be frustrating to hear your children argue over little things such as who gets to hold the remote, or who gets the half of a candy bar that is a mere centimeter larger than the other, there actually are pros to sibling rivalry!

For one thing, children with one or more siblings can greatly enhance their social skills by partaking in sibling rivalry. Think of it this way: do you think single children or children with siblings would be better at problem-resolution in interpersonal conflicts with peers by the time kindergarten rolls around? According to a five-year study done by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, the answer is more likely to be those with siblings. 

Children who grow up having to debate their opinion or side of the story in any conflict are really developing social and emotional skills that allow them to create their own unique identity, and stand their ground to find their own place in the world. They learn the skills of cooperation and how to see others’ points of view at an early age. Further, the more a child exercises their right to voice their opinions to others, the more they can learn how to regulate their emotions and effectively communicate in ways that other people will better understand their thoughts and ideas. Children with siblings can learn to better read people, differentiate between those who are empaths and those who communicate more aggressively and predict others’ responses based on how they choose to express their personal arguments. All of these skills can be extremely helpful when trying to make meaningful connections with children outside of your family in the classroom or on the playground!

What Can Parents do to Help?

Fortunately, there are a lot of things parents can do to help when kids won’t quit quarreling. While you can’t necessarily control what your children feel strongly enough to argue about in real-time, you can significantly influence how they argue, and how often they argue. 

The stress you feel and the stress that your children feel both affect the frequency that the people in your family will argue with one another. Children are smart and perceptive and can take on some of the stress that you carry with you at home. It’s important to keep your work and other stressors that happen outside of the home separate from the time you spend with your children. Maintaining your mental, emotional and physical health as a parent and role model will show your children how to lead a healthy and happy lifestyle, and positively affect the way your children treat each other, too!

Furthermore, the way that parents talk to their children can substantially influence how children feel toward their siblings. For example, it’s important that parents don’t play favorites or compare siblings to one another. When a parent verbalizes that one child is not as gifted at a sport or academic subject as another child, it can be extremely damaging to their relationship and self-esteem. By saying things like, “Why can’t you get A’s like your brother?” the parent is really creating competition and hostility between those siblings. It’s crucial to familial relationships that each child is recognized as an individual with separate interests and abilities, and that one child is not “better” or thought of in higher esteem than another. Letting your children be who they are without labeling them, and encouraging them to appreciate each others’ differences can make a world of difference in decreasing sibling rivalry.

It’s also important to create family time together so that your children can bond with each other, and have more time to find their unique place in your family as a unit. Having regular family dinners, game nights, trips, or weekend activities together promotes shared positive experiences that can create stronger connections and fond memories between your children. Making time for family, such as having regular family dinners, also provides more opportunities for your children to see that you give them fair and equal attention, by showing an equal amount of interest in their lives. You can also facilitate resolutions to any arguments that come up, and teach your children how to solve problems in real-time in a way that leaves them both feeling good about their compromises!

Another way to decrease competitiveness and arguments between your children is to create activities in everyday life that encourage them to work together instead of competing with one another. They can work together to create a new lunch dish, pick out a present together for a family member, race against the clock to clean up toys together, walk the dog together, etc. Creating as many situations for your children to work together to accomplish a task or win a game by working as a team will set your children up for success overtime when it comes to learning how to get along. You can teach your children how to positively ask for attention from one another, how to share, and how to peacefully play together as a team.

One last tip for decreasing sibling rivalry is to monitor the time of day and common situations that cause your children to argue most. Do your children typically argue right before lunch or around dinner time? Maybe they are more susceptible to picking and engaging in fights when they’re hungry. Do they typically fight right before your youngest child’s nap time? Maybe it would be best to encourage independent playtime until your youngest feels better rested and ready to engage emotionally with their sibling. If you really take the time to understand the situations in which your children tend to argue and the underlying causes, you’re well on your way to a household with a healthy amount of sibling rivalry!

Encouraging a Healthy Amount of Sibling Rivalry

When you overhear your children arguing, one of the best things you can do is first see if they can work out a compromise on their own. Sibling rivalry encourages the building of unique identities, forming opinions, and learning how to communicate your thoughts and feelings in an effective way to someone who disagrees with you. When your children argue, they are really learning how to declare their space and identity in the world, which is a skill that will help them as they go to school, join sports teams, and make real friendships.

If you want to help your children argue less, teach them how to take a calming breath in the moment, realize how they are feeling, how to communicate how they are feeling, how to listen to the other person and empathize with them, and how to compromise with others. It’s also important to keep your own emotional inventory in check by making sure your stress doesn’t stress out your children, that you treat your children fairly, you spend equal amounts of time with your children, and that you are a good role model when it comes to conflict resolution. When you practice and preach respect and empathy when it comes to disagreements, your children will be sure to take note!

Here are some books about siblings

Sibling Rivalry