Taking The Bite Out Of Sibling Rivalry

Raising Daughters | Sibling Rivalry


Sibling rivalry isn’t just about squabbles—it’s an opportunity for kids to learn empathy, compromise, and the profound bond of unconditional love.

Decrease sibling rivalry by changing your intention from figuring it all out to teaching kids skills to handle their conflicts on their own.

School’s out, kids are home, and thus there is the possibility of an uptick in sibling rivalry.

Dr. Jordan discusses some of the reasons behind sibling fights.

Parents have a big part in this pattern, oftentimes taking too much responsibility for their children’s conflicts and becoming part of the problem.

Parents can decide to change their intention from figuring the conflict out and doling out punishments to teaching skills so you can slowly but surely turn their fights over to them. This entails becoming an unbiased mediator, not caring who started it, whose only desire is to help them figure out a win-win solution. Since no one is punished, this eliminates a lot of the tattling behaviors.

You can teach kids how to advocate their needs and wants but also hear their siblings’ needs. They can then learn how to brainstorm win-win solutions that work for both. Thus, they become responsible for their spats, not you!

Dr. Jordan ends by describing how sibling relationships are like a two-sided coin: on one side is the rivalry, but on the other side is the love and care they have for each other. Don’t overfocus on the fighting and miss out on all the times they show kindness to their siblings.

Find more information about raising children on Dr. Jordan’s website www.drtimjordan.com

Listen to the podcast here


Taking The Bite Out Of Sibling Rivalry

I am here with a new episode of the show. I’m so glad you stop by here and tune in. I want to talk about a topic that is topical because, for most of you, school is out. Summer is upon us, which means that your kids are going to be home more, which means that there is more opportunity for an uptick in sibling rivalry. I thought I would spend a few moments here giving you some information about why sibling rivalry happens and, even more importantly, what you can do about it to prevent it and also to handle it. One of the reasons is because we, moms and dads, are sometimes part of the problem. Sometimes, if we don’t handle our part, the sibling rivalry will not get better.

I heard a story about a woman who was in police officer training. She was preparing really hard to make it. One of the last things she had to do was to go in for this in-depth interview with several members of the police academy board. They were going to determine her fate. Was she going to be a police officer or not? They gave her some situations to figure out. The first one was this, “You’re on a routine patrol and you see a car traveling at excessive speed. It’s swerving back and forth, so you pull it over. You discover that the driver of this car is your brother. What do you do?” Without hesitation, the woman said, “I tell mom.” Apparently, she was accepted immediately to the program.

If you don’t handle the sibling rivalry stuff, there’s a decent chance it’s going to persist throughout their childhoods and also into adulthood. As many adults can probably attest to, including myself, those situations, rivalries, and relationships oftentimes persist throughout their lives. Why does sibling rivalry happen? I could talk about this for a long time. Let me touch on a couple of highlights.

Feeling Left Out

I saw a girl in my counseling practice not too long ago. She was having a lot of struggles at home, power struggles. She was about seven years old. She had 2 younger siblings, 2 younger brothers. One of the things I asked her at one point was, “How do your brothers get noticed at home? How do they get attention?” She said one of her brothers was really loud. That’s how he got attention. The other one got attention because he always had problems. He had some health problems, apparently. I asked her, “How do you get attention? How do you get noticed? How do you get loved at home?” Her answer was, “I get it by getting in trouble.” A lot of the sibling rivalry in her home was her way of saying, “What about me?”

I remember years ago when our daughter, Kelly, was in kindergarten. Her two younger brothers were at home. She had a brother who was 20 months younger and then another one, 4 years prior to that. There was a baby, TJ, and then Kelly. She was going off to school all day and her brother, TJ, was in preschool. It was 2 or 3 half days a week. He was home a lot. We noticed that Kelly was getting rough with her younger brother, John, who was about fifteen months old at the time, which was unlike her. She’s a very gentle soul. We crabbed at her about it a little bit. We finally stopped and thought, “I wonder what’s going on here.”

One day, when we noticed she was being rough with John, we said to her, “I wonder if what you’re saying when you’re being rough with John is that you’re feeling left out because you’re at school all day and your brothers are both home.” Kelly didn’t say to us, “You guys are amazing. I can’t believe you. You have a window into my soul.” She didn’t say all that, but she gave us that half smile like, “I don’t know.” We said to her, “If that’s true and you feel left out because you’re at school all day, then tell us. If you want some special time, ask for it.”

My wife and I both decided together, “Let’s make sure we pull her aside and give her some special time without her having to ask.” We took her out on some special dates and some walks. I took her out to breakfast. The misbehavior went away. She was really asking for love and connection. She felt left out. That’s common.

Anytime you see an uptick in sibling rivalry, I would remind you that kids tend to reflect the adults around them. If there’s more anger and fighting within your kids, I would look at two things first. Number one, I look at myself. What’s your mental health like? Have you been happy? Have you been present? Have you been more angry, crabby, distant, or distracted? If you’ve been those things, then sometimes, your kids will respond by creating more sibling rivalry that will reflect your inner world of disharmony.

Kids tend to reflect the adults around them. Click To Tweet

I also would look at your marriage. How are things between mom and dad? If things have not been good, if there’s been crabbing, fighting, anger, distance, coldness, and things like that, or tension, oftentimes, that will be reflected in your children. Oftentimes, it will look like more sibling rivalry. Clean up your issues so that you are present and happy with them. Also, clean up anything going on in your marriage so that you’re not adding that to your kid’s load.

The Need To Be Heard And Noticed

I’ve also noticed a lot of younger siblings, the youngest one, who oftentimes will tease their siblings, provoke their siblings, or trigger their siblings in any way they can. They learn that early on. Oftentimes, what they’re saying is, “I’m the low man. I’m the low woman on the totem pole here. I want to be heard. I want to be seen. I’m being dragged to everybody’s soccer games, their basketball games, and all their activities. I’m this 3-year-old, 5-year-old, or whatever. I don’t have as much say so, it seems, in this home.”

What those kids need is to be heard. They need to be seen and they need some more say so. That’s one of the reasons why we used to do weekly family meetings. It was to make sure everybody in the house had an equal say in things. Everybody had a chance to put their two cents forward, even the youngest one. That was very empowering for them and for our youngest son, John.

Sometimes, younger siblings will provoke the older ones and create sibling rivalry because they want to be noticed by them. They look up to their older sibling. Their older sibling has a friend over and then they say, “We don’t want to play with the younger one.” They feel left out, so then they’ll create all kinds of mischief to try and get to be noticed. They want to be included. I encourage the older siblings to spend some special time with their siblings so that they’re not so “needy” for their attention and time. It’s okay to want to play with your friends when they come over, but if you haven’t spent any time with the younger one, you’re asking for trouble.

Lacking The Skills To Handle Conflicts

Also, last but not least, one of the reasons why there’s sibling rivalry in homes is that kids lack the skills of knowing how to handle conflicts peacefully and cooperatively. They lack skills for learning how to create win-win solutions with each other. They need to be taught that. That’s part of our job as their parents. One of the things that happens a lot in our homes is that a parent will hear their kids fighting. They will storm into the room with a head of steam because they’re frustrated because this is the eighth time this has happened. They will start to bark orders like, “Who started it?”

A lot of times, we even figure out what we think is what we know, which is, “It’s this one who started? You’re at fault.” We start to get into this control mode where we become the judge, the juror, and the executioner. We know who started it. We get one person in trouble. We send them off and/or we stand there and say, “Give your brother this,” or, “Give your sister that.” We solve it for them, which, at the moment, may quiet them down. When you walk out of the room, twenty minutes later, there’s another fight because we haven’t taught them how to take responsibility for their rivalry and their conflicts.

I heard a story about a little boy who was about five years of age. One day, he was crying. He came into his mom’s room. He said, “My little sister was pulling my hair again. It hurts. I want you to do something about it.” The mom said to him, “Your sister is only fifteen months old. She doesn’t know that pulling hair hurts. She doesn’t know that yet.” That didn’t quiet or mollify the older boy, so he stomped out of the room. About ten minutes later, the mom hears the younger sister crying in her room. She walks in and the older brother’s standing there with a handful of her sister’s hair in his hand. He says, “She knows now.”

We’ve got to teach them how to take care of their problems on their own. We need to shift our intention from going in and figuring things out of, “Who started it? Who’s right? Who’s wrong?” and punishing one of them or solving the problem for them. We need to shift out of that intention to, “My job is not to figure it out. I’m tired of being the policeman or the policewoman. My job is to be an unbiased mediator who can sit you guys down and teach you how to talk to each other and figure things out on your own. I need to teach you the skills so I can slowly but surely back myself out of the job of being involved in this. It’s not my relationship.”

Raising Daughters | Sibling Rivalry
Sibling Rivalry: We’ve got to teach children how to take care of their problems on their own.


It doesn’t take that long for kids to learn those skills. We need to sit them down and let them know, “Talk to your brother. Tell him how you feel. Tell him what you want. Brother, listen. Mirror back what you heard her say and then tell her what you want and how you’re feeling about what’s going on.” Once both people have put their needs out there and they’ve both heard them, it’s much easier to figure out a solution that will work for both of them. It’s a “win-win.” That’s your job. It is to teach them how to listen to each other, express their needs, listen to their sibling’s needs, and then try to come to a solution that works for both of them. We’ve got to trust that they can do that because a lot of parents don’t think their kids can.

I heard a wonderful story one time about a little boy named Johnny. He used to hang out at the local corner market with his older siblings and their friends. The owner of the store noticed that there was a problem going on. What would happen is the older boys would always tease little Johnny. They always tease him about not being very smart. He was stupid. To prove it, they would offer this little boy his choice between giving him a nickel or a dime. The little boy Johnny always took the nickel because they thought he thought it was more because it was bigger. They would laugh and walk off.

One day, after Johnny grabbed the nickel, the store owner took him aside and said, “Those boys are making fun of you. Are you aware of that? They think you don’t know the difference between a dime and a nickel. They think that you think that dime is less valuable because it’s smaller. Is that why you’re grabbing the nickel because it’s bigger?” Johnny looked around to make sure his brother and his friends weren’t there. He turned to the store owner and said with a big grin on his face, “I realized if I took the dime, they stopped doing it, and so far, I’ve saved $20.”

See From Other Perspectives

We’ve got to give them skills and trust that they can do it. Let me give you two examples. I remember years ago, our daughter, Kelly, got a new bicycle. She was about six. We put training wheels on it. She was having some struggles with doing it. She wasn’t trying very hard or using it much. Our son, TJ, wanted to try it. The first day, he rode that easily, and then he asked to take the training wheels off, which we did. He rode up and down the street the very first time he ever got on a two-wheel bike. He was riding her bike.

At one of our family meetings, Kelly brought up that she was upset because TJ wasn’t asking her to use the bike. He was taking it and sometimes, she did want to ride it. He listened and told her how he wanted to ride that bike because his little three-wheel thing wasn’t doing it for him anymore. What they worked out was that Kelly was okay with him using it as long as he asked permission first and he would put it away when he was done. That worked for both of them. Problem solved.

I remember a long time ago, we had an interesting situation. We had 2 sisters who were at 1 of our summer camps. We were talking about skills for resolving conflicts peacefully. We were teaching the kids some steps about how to talk to each other and listen to each other. The younger sibling said he wanted to talk to his sister about something. He asked permission and the older sister said, “Sure.” The two sisters went into the middle of the circle.

What we said to the kids was, “We want you to show us what happens at home, but we want you to switch roles.” We had the younger sister become the older sister and the older sister become the younger sister. We said, “Show us how your sibling acts when there’s a fight or when there’s something going on. Go ahead. Show us.”

It was very interesting because the younger sibling, who was acting like the older one, started barking orders at her sibling. She was being really bossy, angry, and very critical. The younger sibling starts wailing. It was the older one acting like the younger one. Both of them were exaggerating what they thought their siblings were doing. The younger one was showing how mean the older one was and the older one was showing how whiny, out of control, and exaggerated the younger one was.

We played it out for a while and then we stopped. We asked them how they were feeling, having noticed how they felt by having played it out. Both the girls got teary-eyed. Both of them said they didn’t realize how the other one felt. The older sister didn’t realize how hurt her younger sister was and the younger one didn’t realize how her actions were affecting her older sister and getting her in trouble all the time with her parents.

They made some commitments to each other about doing it differently. They went back into the circle. I checked back with them about a month later and things had gotten a lot better. Sometimes, siblings need to get into the shoes of the older or the younger one to see things from their point of view. That might motivate them to do it differently also.

Raising Daughters | Sibling Rivalry
Sibling Rivalry: Sometimes, siblings need to get into the shoes of the older or the younger one to see things from their point of view.


One-On-One Coaching

I also think it helps sometimes to do a little bit of one-on-one coaching. I remember sometimes taking one of our kids aside because maybe one of them was tattling on the other one. Maybe the younger one was bugging the older one when their friends were over. We did a little win-win negotiation and that was fine.

I took the older one aside and said, “Do you understand why he is doing that and why he’s bothering you and your friend’s over?” I talked about his need to be connected. He wanted to be included. He liked playing with his big sister. He looked up to her. I told her, “You don’t have to play with him 24/7. I understand that. You don’t have to play with him every time your friends come over. That’s okay. If you don’t spend any time with him and he feels left out from your life and disconnected, then you’re asking for mischief.”

I encouraged her to spend some time with him. He liked to draw and color. I encouraged her to do that with him and go out and play basketball with him. If she did that, sometimes, he wouldn’t be so needy for attention. There are always times you can take one aside and do some coaching to help them understand things in a different way. 

As the summer begins or no matter what time of the year it is, when you start this, I would sit your kids down and tell them what you’re going to do. I would say to them, “When you guys get into fights, sometimes, I go in there and I’m always upset and angry. I end up trying to figure out who started it, who’s right, and who’s wrong. I blame one of you. I get one of you in trouble. I’m tired of doing that. I don’t think you guys like it either, do you?” The kids will say, “No.” I’d be like, “That’s great. Here’s what you can expect from me from now on. If I hear you guys squabbling, I may let it go on for a while and let you guys try to figure it out. If I choose to come in and get involved, I want you to know all I’m going to do is be an unbiased mediator,” and explain what that means.

I’m like, “All I’m going to do is listen and try and help you guys talk to each other. I’m not going to try and figure it out. I don’t care. It’s not my fight. You guys are old enough to do it yourselves. The most I’ll do is coach you guys to help you try and find a good solution.” If you let them know ahead of time when the time comes, then it’s easier for you to go into that role. They will very quickly realize that they can’t get their sibling in trouble by exaggerating, tattling, and all that stuff. You’ve removed a big reason for some of the sibling rivalry. That in and of itself will help a lot.

By you coming in calmly, it’s amazing how our presence and our energy affect kids. If you walk in there with a head of steam and you’re frustrated, annoyed, and angry, then that adds to their steam. If you walk in there calm, cool, and collected, and get down their level, say, “What’s going on?” talk to them in that way, and maybe put a hand on their shoulders, that helps a lot not always, but usually.

Raising Daughters | Sibling Rivalry
Sibling Rivalry: It’s amazing how our presence and our energy affect kids.


There may be times when they’re too mad or too whatever to talk about it. I’d say, “Why don’t you go to different parts of the house? Go outside or whatever. When you get yourself calmed down, come back and we’ll figure out how to handle this toy problem.” Probably and mostly, they’ll never come back because it’s not about the toy. It’s more about the competition between each other. It’s about whatever is going on between them. If they do calm down enough, then you can come back and say, “Why don’t we talk about this? We can talk about this at the next family meeting tomorrow night. Maybe we can take a day to cool off and do some thinking about it.” That helps a lot, also.

Two-Sided Coin

The last thing I want to mention here is something I learned from my mentor, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, during my fellowship training a long time ago. He said something that is really true and something I want you to keep in mind. Sometimes, we focus and overfocus on the rivalry part of our children’s relationship. That’s the part that’s annoying and frustrating.

The truth is that sibling rivalry and sibling relationship is a two-sided coin. That’s what Dr. Brazelton taught me. On one side is the rivalry, the fighting, and all that. On the other side is the caring and the love they have for each other in the relationship. I don’t want you to overfocus on the rivalry and miss out on the ways that they treat each other nicely. The times and the ways of the arc, they do care for each other. I would try and focus more on those times and acknowledge them for that as opposed to acknowledging the rivalry part.

Sibling rivalry and sibling relationship is a two-sided coin. One side is the rivalry and fighting, and the other side is the caring and loving. Click To Tweet

I have one quick story to let you guys go. It’s a funny little story about siblings. I heard about this woman who discovered she was pregnant. Her four-year-old son overheard his parents’ conversation talking about it. He didn’t say anything until a week later when the family friend asked him if he was excited about the prospect of a new brother or sister. He said, “I know what we’re going to have, too. I know what we’re going to name it.” He said, “Where are the names going to be?” The little boy said, “If it’s a girl, we’re going to call her Emily. If it’s another boy, we’re going to call it quits.”

Good luck with your sibling rivalry this summer. Shift your intention. Turn it over to them after you teach them the skills about how to handle it themselves. My guess and my promise is you’ll have a much more happy and peaceful home this summer. Check out my website for any information about the stuff that I do, books, retreats, and my parenting classes. It is www.DrTimJordan.com. If you know anybody else or any of your friends who have issues with sibling rivalry in their home, please pass on this episode to them. I will see you back here. Thanks for stopping by.


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