Family Therapy UK

Sibling Rivalry


Competition between siblings is very common. Sibling rivalry can serve a useful purpose in helping children deal with disappointments, negotiate relationships and to learn that not everything in life can be fair or equal. Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up in a family. It's important to be aware of how powerful sibling rivalry can become. If sibling rivalry becomes a persistent problem, it's worthwhile tackling it before it gets out of control.

Normally, talking to the children concerned and making small adjustments in your relationship with the children can control the rivalry. Try to give each child an equal amount of time and attention. Spending separate time with each of your children can make them feel special and appreciated. Helping your children to feel valued and special will save you lots of problems in other areas of their lives too. Children will constantly judge how fair you are being in your parenting - for them it is about how much you love and value them.

Some children seem particularly sensitive to issues of closeness in families particularly if there have been family disruptions such as illness or divorce. Children expect relationships to be fairly conducted within a family. If they feel they are being treated differently they may react badly. Don't expect them to be helpful and happy if they feel they are being treated unfairly.

Signs of sibling rivalry may be constant arguing between children, fighting, and defiance towards parents or withdrawal. Withdrawal is where children spend long periods of time on their own away from siblings, parents and friends. In more serious cases, the fighting and arguing may become aggressive and dangerous and the withdrawal more marked. Children, who feel they are treated badly compared to their siblings, may develop more general difficulties in relationships with peers, siblings and other family members.

Sibling rivalry can develop for a number of reasons. Here are some common causes. They are not in any order of importance:

Age Differences In Children

The birth of a new child can cause rivalrous feelings in brothers and sisters - particularly if they are close in age. It helps if you prepare the children for the new arrival and involve them in planning and discussions well before the event. Warn the children that there may have to be some changes and that at times you will not always be so freely available as you were. Once the new child is home, spend time with the other children too. Involving them in some aspects of the new baby's care can help them feel more involved with you as well as the baby. Remember to praise them for any help they give. Praise them for their patience and understanding when you simply must "see to the baby".

Older children can feel pushed out too. Don't assume that because you have a teenager that they will not feel rivalrous towards the new baby. With older children you can talk and help them understand the changes that will need to be made. Some of this discussion will be about practical things such as keeping the music down, not being so available to run them to their friends, planning ahead more etc. Let them know you still love them and that there is still a place in your life for them.

Where you have children with a wide age difference, sibling rivalry can occur over the different rules, allowances and sanctions you use with the children. For instance, younger children may complain that their older sibling has a later bedtime, or more pocket money, or does something more exciting. Older children may complain that younger siblings get away with things they never could have. If children feel one child is loved more than another, they will feel hurt, whatever their age.

Being clear from the start about rules and privileges and how they change over time, will help children see you are being fair and reasonable. Explain to the children why you have different rules for children of different ages and competence. Try not to make everything the same for all children. Older children should have more rights and responsibilities. By being clear about rights and responsibilities at different ages, you will help your children feel clear and comfortable about your rules. You will also help them develop a responsible attitude and to accept that they cannot have everything their own way in life. It also gives them something to look forward to as they get a little older.

There will be times when children will not be happy about a particular decision you make. For instance allowing one child to stay out later than another. Although children may complain, they will understand if you clearly explain your decisions to them. They may be angry about your rules at times - but if you are clear and fair in your dealings with the children, they will normally accept it. If you find you are having difficulties managing the children, you may find the leaflet "Dealing With Difficult Behaviour In Children" a useful read..

Children often get upset when a parent takes sides with one child over another. Older children can feel resentful when they are disciplined over hitting a sibling (or some such matter) when they feel the younger child has wound them up. These can be difficult matters to resolve to everyone's satisfaction. If you are generally fair in your judgements, your children will cope with the occasional mistake on your part. If a child remains upset about your rules, think about whether it is time to change them. If you feel that the rules need some adjustment sit down with your child and talk the situation through. Changes in rules often occur around birthdays. For instance, you may relax a rule about what time a child comes in when they become sixteen. As parents, it's a good idea to think about rule changes or modifications when conflict with children arises.

Asking older children to look after younger children can cause resentments - particularly if the age difference is small. On the other hand, when the age difference is large, older children can enjoy the responsibility of taking younger children out from time to time or earning money for babysitting.


Most parents try hard not to show favouritism towards a particular child in a family. Unfortunately, real life is not always that simple. Sometimes, parents do favour particular children. Children (like adults) are very perceptive when it comes to relationships and notice subtle relationship differences between parents and their siblings. Most parents want all their children to feel good about themselves, but from time to time it can be useful to do a mental check on how you are being towards each of the children. A good way of checking this is to ask your partner, or another adult who knows you and the children well, whether they think you are favouring any of the children. Check on how much time you spend with each child. Ask yourself how you are feeling towards each of the children and what you can do to counter any relationship difficulties that may have occurred between you.

For instance a father may enjoy sport. His son may share that interest, but not his daughter. It may be easier for him to relate to his son and involve him in some aspects of his sporting life. As a result, he may be spending much more time with his son than with his daughter. His daughter could feel left out and a disappointment to her father. Resentment could follow. Finding out what interests his daughter, and showing an interest in this, will help her to feel valued and important in his life

Divorce/Family Breakdown

A divorce can cause sibling rivalry, particularly if one child has been seen as a problem to the parents. Siblings may blame them for the divorce and the "problem" child can harbour feelings that they were to blame in some way. Rivalry can erupt when children are split between the parents i.e. one child with mum and another with dad. In these circumstances, it is very helpful if parents work together for the benefit of the children.

Another aspect of divorce is the arrival of new partners in the parents life. Their introduction into the family can be very difficult to manage for all concerned. If new children are being introduced as well, there can be a period of severe relationship difficulties as everyone adjusts. This situation demands great sensitivity from the parents.

In newly formed families, where there are children from more than one relationship, children will most often want the uniqueness of their relationship with their natural parent to be preserved and acknowledged, certainly to begin with. They will closely watch how their natural parents behave towards any new step-siblings.

Talk to the children about their feelings on a regular basis. Talk to your partner about any differences in their management of their own children and yours. Spend some separate time with your own children and talk to the other natural parent about any difficulties they may encounter with the children. You may find my leaflet on divorce in this series helpful to read.

Fostering and Adoption

Where children are being fostered or are adopted into an existing family with children, serious sibling rivalries can develop. Children who are fostered are often emotionally needy and may demand enormous amounts of time and attention. If you are going through this process, you should have received some training from social services and be able to access help and advice.

Whatever help you receive, you may be surprised at how powerful these feelings can be, and how difficult they are to deal with. This is a major reason for fostering placements breaking down. Make sure you ask for and get as much support from social services as possible.

Serious Illness And Disability In Siblings

Serious illness and disability in families can cause lots of upset and rivalrous feelings. Where there is an ill or disabled child who requires close attention, the other children may become resentful. Sometimes their resentful feelings may come out in unexpected ways. This is because it is hard for a child to be openly angry with another ill sibling because it is socially unacceptable for such feelings to be expressed.

Children who feel jealous and left out, may lose self-confidence, begin to fail at school, become aggressive and have relationship difficulties with their peers and siblings. Other children may become withdrawn and unhappy. On the other hand, they can become over helpful and dedicate too much time to helping you and their sick or disabled sibling. This is a way of competing for your love and approval by sacrificing some of their own needs. It is important to help them maintain as normal a life as possible.

It is better to acknowledge resentments. For instance, saying to a child that it must be difficult for them when mummy and daddy have to spend so much time in hospital with their sibling and that they must sometimes feel upset and angry about this, helps the child feel heard and acknowledged. Spending some separate time with each of the children can help them feel emotionally reconnected. If it is too difficult for you to spend this time with them, your partner or another close relative can help out and so can their friends.

If you are dealing with a disabled child, or one with a prolonged illness, you may need some recovery time away from the child for yourself too. If you are constantly tired and stressed out, you may become depressed and less able to cope. Try to overcome shy or embarrassed feelings about asking for help from family members, friends or the health and social services.


Competition between siblings around academic performance is common. Unfortunately in many families not all the children are equally academic. The increasing testing of children at school makes then more aware of their differences. How you handle school test results at home with a particular child can effect how another child feels about their own performance whether good or bad. When celebrating one child's success, try not to embarrass or put down another. This can be a delicate balancing act. By emphasising your children's strengths and individual abilities you will help them cope with disappointments and successes.

It is not uncommon for high achievers to perform below their competence in order not to upset their siblings or peers. If teachers feel your child is underachieving, always check out the feelings of your child about school and pay attention to their family and social relationships.

Where you have a child with special needs, talk to them about this in a matter of fact way, helping them to accept their difficulties, whilst promoting their strengths. Listen to what they tell you and be careful not to brush off any worries or concerns they might have about their own abilities and social relationships. Be aware that children with special needs often have very low self-esteem and can be particularly sensitive when criticised or put down by other people. Explain to the other children about their siblings' special needs. Where children boast and put down their siblings you will need to talk to them about the emotional impact this can have.


Friends are important to children. Having friends helps children feel good about themselves and valued amongst their peer group. Not all children make friends easily and sometimes your children's friends can cause difficulties in unexpected ways. For instance a child who has no friends, or just one friend may feel jealous of a sibling with many more. The more popular sibling may become resentful when his brother or sister wants to join in activities with their friends. Siblings may tease each other about their lack of friends, or their choice of friends.

A child with no friends, in a family where their siblings have friends, can feel left out and unwanted both at home and socially.

Ways of helping this situation are in trying to engage your children in activities from a young age and by encouraging contact with other children. Try to find activities for the children that are appropriate to their age. This way, they will meet people of a similar age and be more likely to make new friends. Be aware that not all children are sociable and, that at times, children choose to be alone. On the other hand, particularly in teenagers, not having friends and spending too much time on their own can be a sign that things are not right in their lives and can be a sign of depression. When children complain of not having friends check with school to see that things are okay there. Ask your child how they are coping academically and socially. Ask them if they are experiencing any bullying at school or online.

Mental Health Difficulties In Children

Children suffer with mental health difficulties just as their parents do. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (marked restless, impulsive behaviour in children) is increasingly being diagnosed in children. This condition can cause difficulties in parenting and between siblings. Depression can cause relationship difficulties and sometimes aggression between siblings. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (e.g. repetitive behaviours that are hard to stop) can be particularly annoying for both parents and siblings too.

Other conditions such as anorexia and bulimia (an eating disorder characterised by over eating and vomiting) and self-harm (self mutilation and overdosing) can produce the same reactions as are apparent in families with a disabled child, or one with a long-term illnesses but with increased levels of anger. This is because other siblings can see the victims of such conditions as choosing their illness and being overtly attention seeking (even if this is not true.) Always seek help with these types of problems. Consider family therapy as well as individual counselling for your child. Discuss what help is available with your GP.

Children who are on the autistic spectrum can have difficulties in their relationships at home, in school and socially. These difficulties can be quite severe.

Mental Health Difficulties In Parents

Mental health difficulties in parents such as depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and personality disorders can create anxieties in children and competition between them for the attention of their parents. It is important for parents to look after their own physical and mental health, as parenting can be very demanding. Remember that children rely on you for almost everything until they are old enough to do it for themselves. If you are not able to cope they will feel less secure and more vulnerable.

If you are suffering from a mental illness and are receiving help from an adult mental health service, you can ask for help from the child and adolescent mental health services too. Adult mental health services tend to be more individually focused, whilst child and adolescent services take a more family focused approach, considering the needs of everyone within the family.


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

22st October 2012

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