The Psychology Behind Sibling Rivalry

For example, let’s say the older son is a soccer star. The younger child or children may then avoid soccer altogether, either because they are afraid they won’t be as good or because they fear they might be better — and they don’t want to take that risk either, Vivona said. Or perhaps they both end up on the soccer team, but the older one is the serious hard worker, and the younger one tries to establish himself as the team jester.

Just because sibling rivalry is to be expected does not mean there aren’t ways to mitigate it. Here are five suggestions from the experts to handle squabbling sibs.

Figure out what sets them off. “Pay attention to what tends to happen before conflict breaks out,” said Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor in child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. If your kids fight every time they play video games, for example, make sure you’re in earshot when they sit down to play. Listen for the particular words or tones of voice they are using that are combative, and try to intervene before it escalates.

Help them learn to resolve conflict. Once tempers have settled, try to sit your kids down and discuss the problem “without blaming or accusing,” Feinberg advised. Give each kid a chance to talk, uninterrupted, and have them try to come up with solutions to the problem themselves. By the time kids are elementary-school age, they can “evaluate which of those solutions are win-win solutions and which ones are most likely to work and satisfy each other over time,” he said. They should also learn to revisit problems when solutions are no longer working.

Praise them in public and punish them in private. If your kids are being kind to each other, “praise really loudly all over the place,” Hunter said. For example, “I love that you let your sister go first!” But if you’re criticizing them, try to do it outside of the other child’s earshot, because she may use it as ammunition. Our older daughter will take every opportunity to boss her little sister around (“Remember, Mom said you couldn’t jump off the couch!”), so I took this bit of advice to heart.

Try to find moments where everyone can come together. Your kids’ temperaments and personalities may be similar, or they may not. They may both love dance, or one loves dance and the other just wants to play chess. One might be rigid, and the other is a free spirit. “Try to find common activities that allow everyone to be flexible, and to feel connected,” Vivona said.

I gave the example of our family movie night as one of the family activities we do regularly as a group, but told Vivona that it usually takes an absurdly long time to decide on a movie because of all the arguing. “The fact that it takes a long time should not take away from the fact that it’s something valuable,” she said. “You’re going to experience the rivalry — there’s no short-circuiting it.” But at the end, we all sit together and keep each other company and eat popcorn, and our kids are learning valuable skills, like compromise, even if we’re just watching “Toy Story” for the 15th time.