How To Eliminate Sibling Rivalry

“A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.” an ancient quote proclaims.

Parents can derive much comfort from the universality of sibling rivalry. At the very beginning of time, the first two siblings, Cain and Abel, did not get along with each other, and as a result Cain killed his brother! Fortunately, we can rest assured (hopefully!) that our children are not about to murder their brother or sister. However, this reassurance provides little comfort in the face of constant bickering, teasing, and fighting.

What can we parents do to eliminate sibling rivalry?

In evaluating any behavior it is useful to examine the emotions and thoughts that precede the behavior, in order to fully understand and rectify the issue at hand.

What thoughts are likely to be occupying the mind of a mother or father whose children are fighting? Very often the parent takes responsibility for the children’s misbehavior and concludes that it is a personal failure in him or herself. The thought process travels along these lines: “If my child can behave in this manner, then it must be my fault, and therefore I am a failure as a parent.”

As a result of the parent’s feelings of inadequacy, the parent will try to “fix” the child, who rarely responds positively, and his behavior generally deteriorates further. As the parent becomes more enraged, he or she often becomes angry at the perceived cause of the feelings of incompetence – the child!

When parents allow themselves to correctly feel less personally and totally responsible for every aspect of their children’s behavior, much of the anger would be eliminated from the above scenarios.

Once the negative emotions of anger and frustration are no longer in the picture, a parent can move towards the next productive step: Don’t get involved!

With the exception of serious physical damage, or youngsters under the age of 3 or 4, it is best for parents not to intervene in an argument in which they were not involved. When toddlers do require their parents to step in, it should be done simply to separate the combatants, and not to take sides in the fight. Firmly removing the toy that has caused the conflict, or placing the children in different rooms to play will teach toddlers that they will not win points in the competition for parental love by drawing their parents into their rivalry. If mother or father had a habit of attempting to settle each fight by playing umpire, it will take some time to unlearn those habits, yet it can be done.

Obviously, it is not advisable for parents to become indifferent to their children’s bickering. Just as parents do with other developmental learning skills, they can help their children best by rooting from the sidelines and not jumping into the field.

The common outcry and initial reaction of parents reading this advice is, “Oh, no! The fighting will get worse if I don’t stop them!” Perhaps it will. In the long term, which is usually a period of several weeks, the sibling rivalry will diminish significantly.

The bottom line is that parents cannot always be there for their children during confrontations. Children must learn to deal effectively with their differences independent of their parents.

Your children will learn essential social skills when they are forced to figure out how to negotiate their differences on their own. That is a priceless lesson that parents can only teach by stepping back.


  1. Does this count when my children ages 7 and 9 are physically fighting? Someone always gets hurt and the bickering ALWAYS turns into this type of fighting. Do I still stay out of it?

  2. Hi Tami,

    Great question! If you have the required toughness to stay out of it, that would generally be ideal. If you know you can’t help yourself from intervening, then choose a consistent method of dealing with it, i.e. “Both of you into your rooms for x minutes”. Assuming there will be no broken bones, and nobody is using a metal baseball bat as a weapon, they will learn to deal with each other in a better manner, over time. (I know, the time can’t come fast enough!)

  3. marg martin says:

    Thank you for refering to the sory of Cain and Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is not an isloated one. Many names in the Bible come to mind when I think of rivalry. Sarah and Hagar, Isac and Ishamel, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul. Thank you for the article!

  4. I’ve found that our best method of dealing with bickering over a toy or rules of a game is to sit both children side by side on a step or bench for a set number of minutes (we use the average age between the chldren in minutes. i.e. 6 minutes for my 5 & 7 year olds). I’ve yet to have an incident where they haven’t solved the problem themselves in that time of close proximity.

  5. When my children fight over toys we first decide who “owns” the toy. That child decides if he/she is going to share with the other sibling. They almost always do share, but sometimes they don’t. They like haveing a choice. (When the table is turned they remember if the other shared or not.) In real life, people don’t share everything, they have to work for it. Life isn’t always fair. We sat down one day and all the children decided which toys were “theirs”. I explained to them that they don’t have to share that they have a choice. After they got used to the new way of doing things we very rarely have any trouble.

  6. Lori, that is an interesting method. So, in your home, all toys are ‘owned’ by a particular child? We have some toys that are owned personally by one child, and others that belong to the family as a whole.

    I do understand you point, after all, how many of us are interested in sharing our new car with our friends or siblings?

  7. My husband and I have two boys, ages 15 and 13. We have a good relationship and dh and I don’t fight or yell at each other. The boys are generally well behaved and “good”. However, my boys fight ALOT – several times every day. I feel like I need to change the way that I respond to their fighting. While I encourage them to work out their problems and differences themselves, I always intervene when the fighting turns physical, which is often. And the older they get, the more damage they can do to each other.

    I usually resort to punishing them when they hit each other, because that is the line I draw. They know I don’t allow hitting. I usually take away priveleges. I don’t hit or spank them and neither does my husband.

    Can and should I really leave them alone to work out their differences – even if they hit each other? When do I have a responsbility to step in? I would really like to change the dynamics of this problem and experience success in my boys solving their own disagreements. What is the best way to approach and deal with our problem?

  8. My duaghter cannot breathe without her brother picking on her. He really loses it and hits her, He says dreadful things and seems to be totally out of control at the time. It is definitely focused on my daughter. She is only 14 months younger, but much the same size and intelligence. She can give him a run for his money on every level but she is not aggressive. I can’t leave them alone because he will really hurt her. They are 10 and 11. Whay do I do?

  9. You’ve got to get through to your son that it is unacceptable for him to become physical with your daughter – you must do whatever it takes. Tell him it is the same for her – she is not to physically harm him so it’s not you taking sides. Their fueds and your trying to protect her all the time are only dividing them more and may perhaps cause your son to resent her more for the “poor baby” attitude he may sense toward her. Hold your ground – physical abuse is unacceptable especially from a boy to a girl! He is not fighting with his equal who is enjoying it too! Then you must also talk to your daughter about standing up for herself and not allowing abuse/bullyin/unwanted physical touch – she is a canidate for an abusive relationship if this is considered normal to her! OF course siblings fight but this isn’t healthy for either of their future! Keep seeking wise advice and FOLLOW THROUGH. IF their father is present he needs to TOW THE LINE with your son and back his words with predetermined consequences. God Bless!!!!

  10. I asked the question on the 3rd about the fighting with my 7 and 9 year old. I guess I should have pointed out that the 9 year old is a boy and the 7 year old is a girl. I just read your post on being firm with the boy to not fight with his sister, so now I am confused. Should I or shouldn’t I ignore their fighting and let them figure it out? They fight pretty equally but my daughter seems to cry louder.

  11. As a general rule of thumb, it is best for parents to let children work out the rivalry on their own. I believe this would apply when the rivalry is ‘fair’ in that both children start up with each other somewhat equally.

    In the case of Anne, where once child is clearly the instigator (Is this your case too, Tami?)- the rule of thumb would be different. Then a behavior modifiaction program should be put in place for the child who is initiating the fighting.

    I have the basics of an article about behavior modification written- if my small souls go to sleep early tonight, I hope to be able to post the article on the site this evening. I’ll link to it here:)

  12. Well, sometimes my daughter starts it and sometimes my son does. He is MUCH stronger than she is. My other concern is, I have a 14 month old daughter that watches the fights. I don’t want her learning from them. My husband is their step dad and the kids just don’t respect him as much as me and will refuse to listen to him at times. That is also very frusterating since I could use the help. Thank you again.

  13. When children are dangerously engrossed in fighting, and you are worried that one or more will be seriously hurt, you MUST separate them!

    You can say, “Max and Andrea, it’s time for a cooling-down time, each of you go to your own room right now.”

    Later, you can ask each of them for suggestions regarding how to avoid future wrestling matches, or how each would have preferred their sibling to have reacted based on the original situation.

  14. i just read about the older brother who is much stronger
    my daughter knows how to push his buttons and he is very quick to explode and so he will push, shove and put his hands hard around her neck
    it is quite frightening when this happens and i lose it and scream for him to let go
    what other reaction should i have
    i am frightened for her sometimes
    i do talk to him and he does try to stop
    what can i do to control my reactions or is that appropriate when someone is hurting the other?

  15. I too am having trouble with my son (9) hitting his sister (13). I am going to start a “fine” when he hits her.
    Because in real life if you hit another person, you can go to jail and get fined.
    I am starting it this week….I will let you know if it works!!!
    I pray everyday for guidance to end the rivalry.

  16. My three kids – Mimi (13), Joe (7) and Dave (4) have given me two lovely opportunities to try NOT intervening just in the time since I started reading this article. I failed both times, but I plan to try try again. My downfall is that I always assume that the younger child is getting clobbered – emotionally or physically – and I throw in MY weight to even things up. NEVER WORKS. Mimi asked me last week. “Why is it always about what Joe feels?” and Joe on a completely different day remarked, “You just think Dave’s a little angel.” I’m whipped. I’m instinctively a micro-manager, a multi-tasker and a guilt sponge. My parents were both alcoholics (fascinating, vibrant and wildly unpredictable) and as the oldest child I kept trying to control my brothers’ behavior so we could all stay safe. Years of therapy later, and actively working my Al-anon program, I still find my greatest challenges to my childhood are in the way I respond to my children. My son Joe screams – it completly undoes me. My daughter Mimi uses sarcasm on her brothers – I have to bite my tongue in half not to shoot a withering retort. My son Dave gets overwhelmed in a family of much bigger VERY VERBAL people and sometimes kicks, hits, pushes. As I rush into the room, he turns to me a says, “I DID use my words. He wouldn’t LISTEN.” I love my guys and I know I can do better. You really think doing less will help?

  17. cynthia says:

    Dear Fellow Parents,
    I have two children who are eight and six. I homeschool and previously taught five years in the public school setting in special education. I read this article and then had to return and respond because there are several things parents can do to help address these concerns.
    Please teach and model how siblings can act and speak to get along. Give them specific directions on how to communicate what they are thinking and appropriate responses. Help them figure out how they are feeling by restating in a more productive way what they said, and then asking them if what you said is how they are feeling. Sometimes fighting stems from miscommunications that are easy for an adult to see and nicely point out. Provide suggestions or help them come up with ideas that can alleviate problems with sharing or playing nicely. These are important life skills and children should not have to reinvent the wheel or guess how to have good relationships.
    Please also define and keep certain perameters of speech and behavior. Examples include: no hurting. If one child hurts another on purpose then they should have a very serious consequence, unless they are playing rough and both enjoying it.
    Tell your children that you expect them to get along. They will be family all of their lives and can be best friends. Illustrate for them how wonderful it will be when they are grownups and they can rely on each other for friendship and in times of need. For instance, how great it wil be when they are grown ups and they can call each other up to go play tennis or go to church together with all of their spouses and children.
    Reading the Bible and discussing good choices and poor choices and their consequences within families can be very helpful. Stories that model good family dynamics help children picutre what they can emulate even if it doesn’t exsist in their lives today. Pleae read stories or have your children read stories that include good Christian dads. Finally, reading stories about missionaries and martyrs helps set examples and helps children appreciate what they have in all areas of their lives.
    In Christ’s Love,

  18. I have a 2 year old and a 6 year old, both girl’s. They are exactly 4 years apart, born in the same month. My 6yo is VERY possesive about her things (panic attack like). So much so, that I had to move her out of their room and into a shared room with her brother (15yo). So now the 2yo does not have any access to the 6yo’s things. To eliminate a bit of fighting, we made the rule that if she is not willing to share it, it stays in her room. The 6yo will play with anything and everything of the 2yo’s, BUT absolutely refuses to share with the 2yo anything of hers. She also hurts my 2yo, i.e. smacking her with a towel, poking her with a pencil, etc. There is always a consequence, but it doesn’t seem to stop her from doing it again. She speaks ugly to her but is very sweet and loving too her when she wants to be.

    The 2yo is a bit too young to be left to work it out with the 6yo. Can anyone offer any advice to help us reduce this daily fighting. There are nights when they go to bed that we are just drained because it was a non-stop “drill seargent” day!

    Thank you in advance. 🙂

  19. Kirsten Lyders Horak says:

    I was looking at sibling rivalry because I have a 20 mo. old and 4 yr old that have begun the verbal and physical fighting. Because of the age of the youngest, I have to separate even when it’s not physical -later on it will fall into the “annoying category”. I read some entries of others that clearly fall into the intervention category – i.e. family counseling. This option may be out of the budget of many so the cost of putting a child in a juvenile detention center must be weighed and how that will affect the finances…and the emotional toll on everyone. What I’m saying is delaying with treatment now, may lead to greater problems in the future. Siblings fight, but the perameters we put around it as parents are important. I recognize that my youngest pushes buttons for my older one and she acts out and hits. That’s different from my oldest just hitting. I’ve seen a lot about teens and rivalry, but not much about the youngsters.

  20. So what is a good one line response for my fighting boys when one or the other comes whining to me because the other hit him?
    Is it ok to say “sorry, I’m not getting involved. Work it out”? Even when I know they will ‘work it out’ by going back and hitting the other (getting revenge).

  21. Ellen C. Braun says:

    Hi Mary,

    I would stand nearby, and say to the whiner, “What would be a good way to ask Jack to stop hitting you?”

    Because you’re standing right there, and hopefully you’ve taught them this before, your son will likely say, “Jack, please do not hit me”

    Then, you can turn to Jack and say, “Jack what is the right thing to say after you have hurt another person?”

    And Jack will say, “I’m sorry”

    Yes, it will take time, however even if you can eliminate 20% of their fights because you teach them to speak civilly with each other and work out their differences… you will have gained tremendously!

    Good luck!

  22. Hi,

    My issue is managing two boys age 10 and 3 who both pester each other and fight. I’m an only child and a girl; so this is very difficult and frustrating to me. The three yr. old is a screamer and just loud all the time/never quiet, and the 10 yr. old is a yeller and impatient. I of course feel like I caused this and am miserable at the height of a fuss. Some of our worst fusses have been in the car where the 3 yr. old is bothering the 10 ten yr. old and neither will be quiet and I lose it and am yelling as well. I have recently made a change in the car that seems to be working. My ten year old weighs over 100 pounds; so I let him move to the front seat to separate the two so that the 3 yr. can’t reach the the 10 yr. This seems to be working so far.

  23. Hi there, this is an interesting thread! I think I get that I should let me kids work it out–is it just my response to the CONSTANT noise of fighting whining (MOOOOMMMMY! Aline took my X!…MOMMMMMMMYYYY! Alex touched my seat!) that I need to change? I mean, if I truly IGNORE this noise, will it go away? In our house the bickering goes on and on and on and I am slowly going insane. Help!

  24. When my kids fight, I will intervene if there is physical violence or name-calling, neither of which we allow. They often fight when they are hungry, so sometimes I impose a ceasefire until they’ve eaten a snack, then ask them to figure out a way to work it out with each other and repair their relationship (I use that phrase a lot). When there’s hitting, pushing, shoving, etc., *both* of them lose their screen time for the day (or the next day if they’ve already used it). That way, I don’t have to decide whose fault it is, and they share responsibility for keeping their relationship on track and safe. I do sometimes help facilitate discussion and communication (e.g., “do you hear how hurt he was by what you said/did?”) and may suggest hugs or apologies if they seem ready.

  25. I have a 5yr old and a 3 yr old boys. They are both home all day and they bicker alot. Sometimes I intervene (“Say will you please share that toy with me”). And sometimes I leave them alone. The 3 yr. old screams alot and I know sometimes he is overreacting. But sometimes my 6 yr. old will bite my 3 yr old (very hard, or scratch him hard). Then he will tell me that he bit him because he got bit first (but its never as hard). But my 6 yr. old is also VERY bossy and ALWAYS telling him what to do (he even threatens him) So what should I do with them? Interven or not? I don’t always know what the argument is about and I can’t run out of the bathroom or abandoned my 3 month old to go check on them (but I also don’t want him to bite!)?