Sibling Rivalry: 7 suggestions for improving sibling harmony

Madhavi Nawana Parker from Positive Minds Australia takes us through what causes sibling rivalry and gives us some tips on how to improve sibling harmony within our families.

WORDS: Madhavi Nawana Parker

Madhavi Nawana Parker, Director of Positive Minds Australia, is a widely published author of resilience, wellbeing, confidence and social emotional intelligence books, articles and programs. Madhavi has worked with children, teenagers, families and schools for over twenty years.

Why do children beg you for a baby brother or sister and then boom, they arrive and low and behold, they don’t want them anymore?

Aren’t they meant to fall instantly in love, be the best of friends, inseparable, always looking out for each other?


The truth is, Sibling rivalry is completely normal.

Living in close proximity with another person, particularly when you’re young and less experienced in empathy and compromise, leads inevitably to conflict. Sibling tiffs can also be one of the best ways to build social emotional literacy.

There are different ways siblings disagree. When it’s sibling fighting, it’s over things, turns and beliefs. When it’s rivalry on the other hand, it’s about parental attention and placing themselves in the position of ‘right,’ ‘most loved,’ and ‘best!’

Sibling Harmony

Here are some tips to get started on improving sibling harmony:

1. Know your favourite.

Parents have favourites? Yes – well – kind of. Favouring a child doesn’t mean you love them more. It just means that on certain days, under particular circumstances, you’re more likely to secretly favour one more than the other. Children are very attuned to picking up on this and it does nothing positive for their relationship with you or with their sibling. It’s got to be concealed!

If you’re brave enough to consider there’s a chance you occasionally experience favouritism, read on for the main reasons why you might favour one sibling over the other…

  • Shared birth order. This means you’ll better empathise with their position in the family. Every position has its own vulnerabilities so when you have your own children, it’s hard not to be taken back to how you felt as the oldest/ youngest/ middle/ last of many etc.
  • Sharing values and beliefs. This child makes you feel proud – they’ve taken on your way of seeing the world and you find it easy to understand each other.
  • A similar temperament and/ or personality. It’s always easier to get along with someone who is like you and shares a similar energy level! It’s a no brainer!
  • You find a child easier to handle (all the time/ on that day/ right that minute!) Raising children is exhausting work. When you’re overwhelmed by their emotions, conflict and other pressing needs, it’s natural to look all dreamy eyed at the quiet, compliant one!

Just knowing that all parents are naturally susceptible to favouring children from time to time can bring about enough self awareness that you’re more likely to remain neutral during their conflict and to treat them equally no matter how you’re feeling about them as individuals. This can only be a good thing for their relationship with you, their sibling and themselves.

2. Avoid comparing siblings

Whether it’s by putting one down or bringing one up. Children are highly sensitive to how their parents view them. There’s no way all children can shine in all areas. There’s always going to be differences is ability, character and behaviour between siblings.

If you’re tempted to highlight how well a sibling is doing to remind the other sibling to do better – don’t do it!!! It builds anger, jealousy, sadness and potentially, lifelong resentment. If you need further understanding on this one, start by asking yourself how you’d feel if your husband/ wife/ partner frequently told you how amazing their special new friend at work is, (who is roughly the same age and gender as you). Ouch.

3. Stay out of their conflict.

It’s their conflict not yours. When you get involved, you’ll inevitably end up siding with someone, if only by accident. When they involve you, whoever is in the disagreement is basically saying, ‘pick me, pick me! I’m the good one!!!’ Parental involvement in sibling conflict is the number one cause of life long sibling conflict and it rarely ends well.

Put them all in the same boat, don’t name individuals – just say, ‘kids/ children’ and perhaps say something like, ‘sorry to hear you’re all mad with each other. Take a break and come back when you’ve all got ideas for a solution.’

When they try to involve you and tell on each other, remind them it has nothing to do with you-they need to talk to each other about it. Stay as a supportive but silent presence if they need you for security.

Children also need coaching that conflict should never be resolved while feelings are on over drive. It’s important parents model positive time out and not engaging in disagreements until everyone is calm and respectful.

4. Set goals for the future of sibling relationships in your family.

Ask each other what you’d like to see happening in your relationships as adults. Tell your children what you’re looking forward to and paint a positive picture of lifelong relationships.

5. Try to avoid keeping secrets against siblings.

For example, if you take one out for a milk shake or give one the last cookie, don’t ask them to keep it quiet. This is a heavier weight to carry than most parents realise and builds resentment, anger, jealousy, competition and justice / equality issues. It also says, ‘you’re my favourite’ (for now, anyway!)

6. Never tolerate bullying or excluding.

In mixes of any more than two children, there’s a likelihood siblings will pair off against each other, leaving someone feeling lonely and isolated. There’s also a tendency for children to get into the habit of dumping hard feelings from school/ sport/ elsewhere onto siblings.

The home should be a safe, loving and encouraging place. Yes, they’ll argue, it’s unavoidable. Just try to steer them away from meanness whenever it happens. Try and get to the bottom of why a sibling might be bullying another and maintain high standards on how people should treat each other. After all, early family relationships are practice for adult relationships.

7. Make sure they’re having enough time apart to enjoy their own space, time with a parent or other siblings.

Having time like this gives everyone a chance to miss each other and feel energised by reconnecting. Too much time together can overwhelm families – especially as children enter the pre teen years and need more privacy.

BONUS TIP: Finally folks, be kind to yourself.

Sibling drama is hard work! Being around conflict can be really stressful and exhausting. Don’t take it personally, try not to overthink it. Just do your best and try to act with understanding and love (for yourself and for them!) Difficult times don’t last and one day you’ll seriously miss the chaos!

For more information about teaching these skills:

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