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Sibling Rivalry: Tips for Exhausted Parents

HI Mark - we have finished the course and I must say a BIG thank you! It is working....doesn't always go smoothly but has been really helpful for us and I am very grateful. Now I have another issue that doesn't seem to really be addressed within your course.

I have two boys - 16 (Junior) and 13 (8th grade). They are at each other constantly - picking verbally away until it escalates into an argument with shouting and yelling. The younger one knows how to goat the older one. Of course, they each think we take the others side and treat them differently.

Here is my question.....I'm upstairs - they are downstairs - I hear the argument beginning and by the time I get downstairs they are yelling at each other and shoving (of course the other one started it and swore or pushed me or something - and of course they both deny it ). I didn't hear nor see what just happened and I don't know who is telling the truth. If I say "just stop fighting and one of you go upstairs and one go downstairs," I am accused of not punishing one for hitting or swearing - "I always get punished and he never does" …etc......even though I didn't see it or hear it. Sometimes my 16 year old will go into a verbal rage because I don't give the younger one consequences. It totally raises my blood pressure and I am caught in the middle. What is my course of action? HUGE THANKS!!


Hi T.,

What you’re referring to is sibling rivalry (which is covered in the audio portion of the online eBook).

“Ignoring” behavior is an over-rated parenting strategy – but when it comes to sibling rivalry – it is often the best strategy. Here’s a two-part plan:

1. Don't take sides. If you intervene in squabbling, it should never be on one side or the other. Never intervene on one side or the other unless there is possible harm. By harm I mean the possibility of causing injury, not minor pain. Say, "The two of you stop it” …rather than, “Michael, stop hitting your brother” (which sounds like you’re taking sides).

2. Never listen to what went on. And I mean never. Again, the only exception is if there is potential harm to one or the other child.

When rivalry is present, here are the four common issues that kids are really fighting about:

1. Expressing competition. We live in a competitive society and sibling rivalry is an extension of that. It’s a way for kids to compete with each other and learn how to manage their own competitive behavior.

2. Getting a parent’s attention. This is the most common issue that spurs sibling fighting.

3. Jealousy. One sibling may be jealous of the other (what the other one has, how the other one looks, or how well the other one does in school).

4. Teasing. Sibling fighting may take the form of teasing. By doing this, they test the limits of what’s socially acceptable. In the family, kids can test what they can say by judging what kind of pain it causes. Though children may learn important lessons about how to interact with other people, there are other ways to learn that are less hurtful.

Here’s a list of helpful tips that parents can use to reduce or stop sibling rivalry:

Avoid favoritism. Some researchers believe that perceived favoritism is the greatest cause of sibling rivalry. So avoiding it helps immensely. This can be challenging since parents may favor certain traits in teenagers over other traits. That means teenagers who have the favored traits become favored.
  • Hint #1: Pay attention to each child and determine what kind of attention is needed. Consider that teenagers are different and need different things at different times. An exact minute for minute accounting of your attention is not essential. Sometimes a child may require some extra time.
  • Hint #2: Give each child his or her own special time with you. During this time, make sure no one else is around to compete for your attention.

Don’t take sides, don't be the judge. When they’re fighting, tell the kids, “I want you two to work this out,” and walk away. Don’t get involved in the fight.

Don't pay attention to the fight; stay out of it. If they are fighting for your attention and you don't get involved, they will learn other, hopefully better ways to get your attention.

Know when to intervene. Sibling rivalry can develop into abuse if one sibling regularly victimizes the other. If you follow all of the above, this probably will not happen. But if you’re still struggling with this situation, be alert. Check to see if someone is really getting hurt and who’s too helpless to stop the abuser. The abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual. If it’s going on, your response must be prompt and significant. This must not be allowed. If you can’t stop the abuser yourself, seek outside help—a counselor, a friend of family member, or the police or other authorities if you can't stop it any other way.

Make clear that ongoing conflict is unacceptable. When the fighting has stopped, say something to the rivals like, “I’m unhappy with the present level of fighting and I want you two to find a way to work this out.” If a fight is just beginning, you may give the rivals a group goal so they can work together for a positive outcome.

Offer problem-solving strategies when the teenagers are not fighting. It may be necessary to work with each child individually, but be really careful that you are not inadvertently playing into the rivalry by giving the desired attention. Offer support without saying whether the child is right or wrong. Ask what the child thinks the fight was about and how he or she might avoid this kind of fight in the future.

Remain positive. By finding something positive about each of your teenagers on an ongoing basis, you’ll reduce the level of sibling rivalry.

Teach empathy. Empathy is the opposite of sibling rivalry. The more sensitive siblings are to each other’s emotions, the less they’ll challenge each other as rivals.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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