Your kids’ constant fighting can harm their mental health, but these 5 tips can help you stop the squabbling
- Most siblings argue a little, and these minor fights can teach your kids how to resolve conflict.
- Major fighting, like physical attacks, bullying, or theft, can lead to depression and estrangement.
If you grew up with siblings — which nearly four out of every five children in the US do — you might remember the constant competition for food, parental attention, and of course, the coveted video game controller.
Most cases of sibling rivalry involve mild spats or tension, like tattling or jealousy of a sibling's success. In some cases, though, this rivalry can become more severe. Among kids in multi-child families:
- At least 15% experience regular bullying from siblings.
- Around 4% experience physical attacks or injuries from siblings.
Perhaps your kids argue viciously at every opportunity and never show one another a scrap of affection. Or maybe you've noticed some one-sided aggression, with one child mocking the other's insecurities or stealing their belongings. This more serious conflict can affect a child's mental health well into adulthood.
Read on to learn more about the impact and causes of sibling rivalry, plus a few strategies you, as a parent, can use to address constant competition in your household.
Siblings who obsessively compete with each other have a higher chance of developing symptoms of depression, such as a low mood or decline in self-esteem. Depression can last from childhood all the way to late life.
Bullying between siblings can also increase the risk of depression, as well as self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Both those doing the bullying and those targeted by it have poorer mental health outcomes than sibling rivals who "fight fair" with each other.
Important: If you're having thoughts of suicide, help is available right now. You can get free, confidential support from compassionate crisis counselors by calling 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or texting "HOME" to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
2. Weaker social support systems
Even if you treat both kids equally, sibling rivalry can still sabotage your kids' social relationships.
A 2015 review found kids targeted by sibling bullying have a higher risk of experiencing bullying from peers. Kids who experience bullying in multiple environments tend to have worse emotional health than those who experience bullying only at home or only at school.
3. Long-term estrangement
When your children fight, they may ask you to pick a side. But if you support one child over another, you could alienate the other child. They might assume you're playing favorites and potentially lash out or withdraw from the entire family.
Estranged siblings do sometimes reunite, but for many the rift is permanent. One child's choice to go "no contact" may cause stress and loneliness for everyone. And as a parent, you may feel heartbroken by the fracture in the family you built.
4. Conflict resolution skills
On the flip side, minor sibling rivalry could actually benefit your kids.
A small amount of conflict can allow kids to practice conflict-resolution skills like:
- Controlling their emotions
- Understanding others' perspectives
Mastering these skills in low-stakes situations can help siblings avoid more painful fights later on. Mild conflict can even bring siblings closer in the long run.
What causes it?
Sibling rivalry can happen for a number of reasons:
- Resource competition: Even the fairest, most attentive parents only have so much time and money to offer. At its core, sibling rivalry serves as a competition to prove who deserves a bigger investment of parental support. This competition may wane as your children grow up and become more independent — but some siblings might renew the battle over issues like inheritance of family assets.
- Social comparison: According to social comparison theory, children measure their own abilities by comparing themselves to others — like judging their athleticness by their performance in a playground race. The more your kid has in common with their competitors, the more a win or a loss can affect their self-esteem — and many siblings naturally have a lot in common. Kids are more likely to consider themselves rivals when they have the same gender, were born within two years of each other, and share talents and hobbies.
- Adult influence: Well-intentioned parents sometimes deliberately foster rivalry to motivate kids. For instance, you might tell a child who struggles with math to study hard so they can be successful like their sibling. But these comparisons can backfire and leave kids feeling incompetent and insecure.
When parents create and maintain the conditions for rivalry, that competition often becomes "stickier" or more difficult to resolve before adulthood, says Dr. Naomi Torres-Mackie, psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital and Head of Research at the Mental Health Coalition.
The golden child and the scapegoat
Some parents may determine who wins and loses the rivalry by selecting a "golden child," or victor, and a "scapegoat," or failure.
The golden, or favored child, often reminds the parent of themself, and the parent generally showers them with opportunities and affection. The scapegoat, on the other hand, tends to receive the blame for family problems, and the parent may encourage other children to bully them.
This toxic parenting dynamic often happens when a parent has narcissistic traits and pits their kids against each other to maintain control. A child who questions or defies the parent's authority becomes the scapegoat as punishment, while the child who does the most to earn the parent's love earns the role of golden child as a reward.
How to handle sibling rivalry
You have options for dealing with your kids' rivalry in helpful and productive ways. These tips can help.
1. Respect their individuality
In short, aim to respect kids' strengths and focus on how they've grown over time — without pigeonholing them as "the smart one" or "the funny one." For example, you can congratulate your kid when they studied hard and improved their history grade from a C- to a B+.
Quick tip: You can show you value your kids by spending one-on-one time with each of them, doing something they enjoy, like visiting a museum or making a craft. In addition, make sure everyone has enough alone time to pursue their own interests.
2. Explain why you treat them differently
Your children are separate individuals, and so they likely have distinct needs. For example:
- An 8-year-old needs an earlier bedtime than a 16-year-old because young kids require more sleep.
- A kid who always completes their homework on time can probably manage their own schedule, but a sibling who keeps skipping assignments may need regular check-ins.
- A disabled adult may need more financial support than their nondisabled sibling.
If you have to treat siblings differently, it's always worth explaining to them why. If your kids can understand where this differential treatment comes from and recognize it as fair, they're less likely to take it to heart and lose self-esteem.
3. Set ground rules
In general, it's best to let kids sort out conflicts by themselves. If you act as a judge and jury for every fight, they won't learn to solve their own problems. Plus, the one who loses may accuse you of playing favorites.
Instead, consider coming up with "rules of engagement" ahead of time. Ask your kids whether things like name-calling, hitting, or door-slamming should be off-limits. Then, get their input on what they consider a fair punishment for breaking each rule.
This way, when you have to punish a kid for shoving their sibling, you're only enforcing the rules they already agreed to — and you can always remind them they set the rules themselves.
4. Don't pick sides
By the time your kids reach adulthood, they're more likely to have developed the skills needed to resolve conflicts on their own. That means your role as parent should transition from referee to bystander.
However, sometimes rivalries persist, and your children can develop much more sophisticated ways of drawing you into their feuds.
"You need to resist your temptation to 'fix' the conflict, as the adults are the only ones that can resolve it," says Kimberly Perlin, a social worker in private practice.
This means you'll want to avoid discussing one sibling behind their back or playing messenger for them. Set boundaries early and encourage your children to discuss their problems directly with each other.
5. Get help if the fighting gets intense
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, sibling rivalry becomes intense enough to require professional support.
It may be time to consider family therapy if the rivalry:
- Has lasted at least 6 months
- Involves a clear power difference, such as an older child bullying a younger one
- Has damaged a child's self-esteem
- Has triggered symptoms of depression or self-harm behaviors
- Has caused physical injury
A family therapist can offer support by:
- Teaching children healthier conflict resolution skills
- Helping kids work to heal any emotional damage caused by the rivalry
- Teaching you productive skills for mediating fights
- Helping your kids address underlying mental health issues, like anger or anxiety
Sibling rivalry is very common, and you usually don't need to worry about mild strife between your kids. After all, occasional bickering can teach them valuable conflict-resolution skills.
Some kids can take competition too far, though, and intense sibling rivalry can cause long-lasting emotional distress, not to mention disrupt family functioning as a whole. If the relationship deteriorates enough, the siblings may decide to cut each other off entirely.
As a parent, you can help manage sibling rivalry by teaching respectful behavior and encouraging your children to recognize their own strengths and abilities. That said, if rivalry between your kids spirals out of control, affects their mental health, or disrupts the family dynamic, a family counselor can offer more guidance and support.
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