Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

Resolve Excessive
Siblings Rivalries

Solve the
underlying problems

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council 

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/rivalry.htm

Updated  04-10-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.    

      This is one of a series of lesson-6 articles on how to parent (nurture) effectively. The article focuses on options when sibling rivalry "seriously" affects...

  • young kids' wellbeing and healthy development, or..

  • adult kids' lives, and...

  • biofamily or stepfamily harmony.

      This series assumes you're familiar with...

  • The intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement lessons 1 thru 6 (or 7 if you're a stepfamily) 

  • Perspective on sibling relationships

  • Typical kids' developmental and adjustment needs

  • Communicating effectively with kids

      To set the stage, review this brief YouTube video on tools for resolving relationship problems: The video says this Web site is composed of eight self-improvement lessons. I've reduced that to seven.


      Competition is natural in all animal species, rooted in the instinct to survive. People compete to gain (a) resources (like money, water, food, and land); (b) power (security), and (c) self-satisfaction, fame, and pride ("I'm the best!").  

      Young and grown siblings compete for physical and invisible "things" like love, approval, status, control. and assets. Their vying can range from good-natured to bitter, occasional to  constant, and subtle to obvious. Good-natured (respectful) rivalry can bring out the best in people. Selfish competition can tear relationships, families, organizations, and nations apart.

      Most (all?) young children are egocentric - they focus naturally on filling their own needs first, unless they're punished for that. Think of what mattered most to you at four years old. How about at age 12? 17?

      Young kids also naturally test their adults to learn whether they're valued, safe, and how they're ranked (worst > best). This testing is largely unconscious, so using logic or criticism to get a child to stop testing will usually create mutual frustration and distrust.

      One type of rivalry is specially vexing for parents: a child competing with them for family power and control. That can be labeled as defiance, disrespect, sassiness, backtalk, rebelliousness, and so on. The real issues in such cases are inherited psychological wounds, ineffective communication, and disrespect, not rivalry.

      Factors that shape how intensely a child needs to test are insecurity and shame (low self esteem). Kids who are confident and comfortable with themselves and feel loved, valued, and safe, have less of a need to test than kids who don't.

      An implication is that kids who compete excessively may be a symptom of parents who haven't helped them feel confident, safe, and loved. Implication: the kids are not the problem, parental wounds and ignorance are.

      Part of life-long "maturing" is learning to...

  • be the best you can be, vs. being better than other people

  • developing empathy and respect for other people, regardless of differences with them;

  • respect the non-emergency needs of other people as being just a valid and important as yours,

  • patiently develop and use your talents and skills over time,

  • admit and accept your personal limitations without guilt or shame,

  • discover and pursue your life purpose; and

  • enjoy your successes without feeling "superior" to others.

      Do you agree with this summary? If not, what do you believe?

      For perspective, think back to each adult that raised and mentored you. What did they teach and model about the traits above? Adult guidance on excessive rivalry is an opportunity to help kids develop these essential traits. If parents (like you?) weren't encouraged to develop these traits themselves, it will be hard to help kids evolve them.  

What Attitudes are you Parents Modeling?

      Whatever nurturing you got, you've become an adult with some core right/wrong, good/bad attitudes about submitting, competing, winning, losing, selfishness, respect, and cooperation. These attitudes shape if, how, and when you compete, and for what. They also shape how you guide your battling youngsters.

      Typical young kids learn more from watching and listening to their adult role models than from lectures. Several key parental attitudes can promote or minimize sibling rivalry:

  • fighting and arguing ("My way!" No MY way") vs. win-win problem-solving;

  • "Winning" (competing with others) is better than negotiating and compromising;

  • self-centeredness is better than mutual respect and family welfare;

  • covert or overt favoritism is OK, within the family or in general, When a parent prefers one child, other kids are more apt to be resentful, aggressive, and competitive. 

  • gender superiority - e.g. fe/males are best because..."

When caregivers and mentors are guided by their true Selves, they're least  likely to model and teach divisive attitudes. For more perspective on your family-adults' attitudes, see this after you finish here.

      A related rivalry factor is kids' gender differences. Kids with "male brains" and hormones are more apt to act aggressively and instinctually seek "to fight and win." Female brains usually value cooperation, relationships, and community. You probably know exceptions - fiercely competitive females, and males who promote peace, mediation and harmony. 


      See how you feel about these proposals: "A(gree), D(isagree), and (?) it depends (on what?)

  • Sibling rivalry is "excessive" or "significant" when any family member says it is (A  D  ?);

  • Excessive rivalry can stress the rivals and/or people who care about them (A  D  ?)

  • Excessive sibling rivalry is usually a symptom of deeper individual and/or family problems, so focusing on reducing the rivalry alone often will not "work" long term. (A  D  ?)

  • It can be hard to separate "excessive rivalry" from other major tensions between sibs like dislike, distrust, hostility, jealousy, and disrespect. These relationship conditions share some basic underlying primary problems, (below) so working to heal one of them may improve them all. (A  D  ?)

  • All of your family adults share responsibility for acknowledging "excessive" sibling rivalry and reducing it to "tolerable." (A  D  ?)

  • Blaming and punishing kids for excessive rivalry shames them and ignores the underlying needs that are causing their behavior. This means those needs will keep surfacing in other ways until they're filled well enough or the child gives up (A  D  ?); And...

  • Parents can significantly reduce excessive sibling rivalry - i.e. the primary problems promoting it - over time! (A  D  ?)

      If you don't agree with these ideas, what do you and your other family adults believe? Your beliefs and attitudes will shape how you respond to your kids' battling and whether the fights escalate or not.

      If someone in your family has "a problem" with excessive sibling rivalry, what can you do?


      Identify (a) who has the problem, and (b) what - specifically - they need;

      If one or more family adults have a problem related to excessive sibling rivalry,..

  • avoid blaming and shaming the kids for the problem ("You make us fight!"),

  • help each other learn how to analyze typical relationship problems, and...

  • options for resolving most relationship problems,

  • how to avoid and manage three common family stressors; and...

  • perspective on relating to a "problem child."

      If two or more adult siblings are excessively combative, they're probably Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) raised in a low-nurturance (dysfunctional)  family. Where true, they probably they have a cluster of personal and relationship problems like these. See the links above.

      If one or more kids have a "rivalry" problem, select from these choices:

  • assess whether the kids' primary caregivers are psychologically wounded. If they are, adopt a long-term view and use Lesson 1 to help reduce the wounds. Ignoring this option prevents all other options from working.

  • compare primary caregivers' attitudes, goals, and behaviors with those above, and adjust any as appropriate. The caregivers may be unintentionally promoting rivalry.

  • review and improve how key adults are communicating with each child as appropriate. This includes reviewing the way adults are providing discipline and consequences.

  • Identify what each child needs from the other. If they're young, they may not be able to articulate their primary needs, like respect, security, acceptance, affirmation, and equal family status.

  • Patiently model and teach (a) mutual-respect attitudes, and (b) empathic-listening, assertion, and win-win problem-solving skills to the kids. Help them learn that those skills get their needs met more often than fighting.

  • if you're in a divorcing family or stepfamily, invite all your adults - including co-parenting ex mates and their relatives - to,,,

    • learn kids' many concurrent adjustment needs, and to...

    • assess how well each "rival child's" needs are being filled. The rivalry is probably a symptom of several unfilled deeper needs

      If a sibling is being scapegoated or treated as a "black sheep" by one or more family members, view and discuss this article when you finish here:

      Notice the theme and scope of these parenting options. They include changing some key adult and family dynamics, not just trying to get the kids to "stop fighting" or "treat each other better."

  Also see these articles on managing other common surface relationship problems


      Excessive competition between minor or adult siblings is often a sign that their family adults are psychologically wounded and unaware of communication, relationship, family, and parenting basics. This Lesson-6 article offers (a) perspective on excessive rivalry between siblings, (b) common causes of such rivalry, and (c) specific adult options for identifying and reducing the family dynamics that promote rivalry and other "behavior problems."

      Rivalry between typical foster and step children are more complex and divisive in than between typical birth siblings. Study online lesson 7 (evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily) for perspective and additional co-parenting options.

      Reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If so - what do you need to do next? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise Self or ''someone else''? 

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