Sibling rivalry is the competition between brothers and sisters for their parents' attention. It is a natural part of growing up. All children need love and attention from their parents and parents need to reassure their children that they love each of them. Sometimes children worry when they have to share their parents' attention. So, it is very normal and natural for children to feel jealous at times.
Sibling rivalry is more common with brothers and sisters of the same sex. When children in the family are close in age, less than 2 years apart, sibling rivalry is more likely to occur (Picture 1). It occurs among children of all ages. If one child in the family has a long-term illness or special needs, this can also lead to sibling rivalry. Other children in the family may feel left out. When the ill child needs special attention, brothers and sisters may feel less important.
Signs of Sibling Rivalry
Children under 9 years of age may show these signs:
- Fighting (verbal or physical attacks)
- Demanding attention
- Regressive acts such as bed-wetting, baby talk, thumb sucking, temper tantrums
Older Children May Show These Signs:
- Constant arguing
- Competing for friends, grades or in sports
- Taking out their frustration on objects, pets or other people
Reactions to a New Baby
A common cause of sibling rivalry is a new baby in the family. When the baby comes home, other children may:
- Show anger toward the baby (hitting, kicking, punching, biting)
- Ask for the baby to go back in mother's tummy or back to the hospital
- Demand more attention when the parent is with the baby
Ways to help your child adjust to a new baby
- Remind each child often that he or she is loved. Let your children know you respect all their feelings, even the angry thoughts.
- Involve your children in getting ready for the new baby to come home.
- Tell older children early about your pregnancy to give them more time to prepare.
- If an older child has to move to a new room, make the move early.
- Let the older child "help" with baby's care and be sure to give lots of praise (Picture 2). But, never leave the baby alone with a toddler.
- Try to work with a toddler on new skills such as toilet training, before the new baby is born. If this cannot be done, wait a few months after the baby’s birth.
- If possible, space your children 2 to 3 years apart.
- If children continue to have problems adjusting, think about getting professional counseling.
How to Manage Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry is not all bad. In fact, it can be helpful because it can teach children how to solve problems. Parents should not get too involved in their children's arguments. Parents cannot force children to get along but they can teach them problem-solving skills and cooperation.
Here are some ways to manage sibling rivalry:
- Be a role model to teach your child positive problem-solving skills.
- Do not criticize if your child starts acting like a baby again. This will pass as he gets older and begins to accept the new baby.
- Praise your children to build their self-confidence.
- Listen to your children’s needs.
- Spend time with your children to reassure them that they are loved.
- Avoid situations that may lead to jealousy.
- Do not "play favorites." Be fair and consistent.
- Do not compare one child to another.
- If the arguing or "acting out" gets to be too much, give yourself a "time out" and get away from the situation.
For More Help
If signs of sibling rivalry last more than 6 months, you may want to seek help. You may contact:
- Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Call (614) 355-8080. Individual and family counseling is provided for children and their families.
For more information on healthy parenting, you may also contact:
- Nationwide Children's Hospital Community Education at (614) 355-0662 or online at: NationwideChildrens.org/edu. Active Parenting classes are offered throughout the year.
- Your child's doctor
- A local mental health center
- A leader at your place of worship
- Your local library
- Your child's school or day care center
HH-IV-71 Revised 12/17 Copyright 1/98, Nationwide Children’s Hospital