What is Sibling Rivalry—and is it Normal?

Sibling rivalry is conflict between children raised in the same family.1 Signs of sibling rivalry include:1

  • Frustration
  • Tattling
  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Arguing or fighting physically
  • Competing for friends
  • Lashing out at others
  • Regressing in behavior (such as potty-training regression)

Sibling rivalry, in general, is a normal part of growing up with brothers or sisters.1 In fact, moderate sibling rivalry can point to a healthy ability of your littles to express their feelings.2

What Causes Sibling Rivalry & Arguing?

The basic, primary cause of sibling rivalry is when children of any age find themselves (or perceive themselves) competing for attention from their caregivers.2 Other causes and contributors of sibling rivalry include:1,2,3

  • Being close in age. Age gap related conflict is common, and conflict between siblings close in age is very likely thanks to being in similar spots developmentally.
  • Tension in the household. If caregivers are at odds, kids are more likely to find themselves at odds—either thanks to stress or in an effort to get noticed amongst the household conflict.
  • Divorced parents. When a two-parent household splits, sibling rivalry can flare up as kids try to make up for a new scarcity of time and attention from their folks.
  • Not enough daily structure. If your littles don’t know what to expect during the day, they may not feel confident in knowing that they’ll get the attention they crave.
  • Not enough attention to go around—or too much negative attention. Whether its busy schedules or an issue amongst caregivers, when kids crave attention, they can start to compete amongst themselves—and act out if they know it’ll get them noticed.
  • Treating everyone the same, unfairly. Equality and equity aren’t the same—your growing toddler or your tween will be quick to point this out if you treat them like the new baby in the house when it comes to scheduling, for example.
  • Differing needs and/or development between siblings. If siblings have too large an age gap between them, one has a chronic illness, or one has radically different developmental needs, conflict can occur.
  • Poor problem-solving skills—amongst everyone. If caregivers don’t model how to solve conflict effectively or don’t take the time to reinforce it amongst the children in the household, rivalries can flare.

Do Twins & Multiples Experience Sibling Rivalry Too?

It turns out that the twin or multiples dynamic presents unique, fertile ground for sibling rivalry to develop if caregivers aren’t careful. It’s easy to compare twins, which leads to some difficulty when it comes to quelling sibling rivalry. For example, if one twin finds that the other is better at an activity, they may abandon it to avoid direct competition.4

What to do When Siblings Argue Due to Rivalry

Sibling squabbles are par for the course when there’s more than one child in the family. When bickering is the result of sibling rivalry, here are some approaches to minimize incidences of your children arguing:1

  • Set rules that support healthy engagement, like no name calling or hitting.
  • Model age-appropriate conflict resolution skills when possible.
  • Don’t play favorites or compare siblings to each other.
  • Whenever possible, encourage the children to resolve the problems themselves.
  • Carve out individual time for each child to do an activity they love to do with you.
  • Avoid situations that are known to spark jealousy.
  • Praise effective problem solving and conflict resolution when you see it in action.
  • Separate arguing siblings if things are getting heated and communication is nil.
  • Separate yourself if you need a moment to breathe before engaging (as long as it is safe to do so).

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up with brothers and sisters and can be helpful in learning how to understand different points of view and communicate effectively. When caregivers have a clear understanding of what can cause sibling rivalry, sibling squabbles may be mitigated.

If you have concerns about sibling rivalry or think there may be physical or psychological harm, please see your health care provider.