For young people who often feel the whole world is against them, it’s easy to imagine that includes their own family. Innocent comments or actions from a parent may be misinterpreted as favouritism or disapproval. Feeling a need to compete with brothers and sisters – for affection, attention or just a bit of personal space – can strain even the most loving family relationships. You could find your children turning against one another or even withdrawing from family life.
Addressing sibling rivalry
How do your children interact? Is their relationship changing? Could anything be straining the bond between them? It’s important to ask these questions because sibling jealousy can affect young people's self-image and the way they feel about themselves.
The good news is there's much you can do to help them enjoy a positive relationship.
Sibling rivalry is a natural and common part of life – and source of stress – in many families. But when it starts affecting a young person's self-esteem negatively, it needs attention.
Dealing with sibling rivalry: One family’s story
Mum Melissa was worried when her 11-year-old daughter Bella started becoming tearful and withdrawn. “Bella just didn’t understand why her older sister Jordan, who is 14, went from being her best friend to describing her as her "worst enemy" almost overnight,” she says.
Bella was confused by her sister’s change in attitude. She describes wondering what she’d done wrong and how it made her become tearful. She began to spend more time shut in her room.
Favouritism is usually unintentional, but it may cause jealousy
It turned out that unintentional favouritism was the root cause of the rivalry. Talking to her daughters, Melissa discovered Jordan felt Bella was the favourite. She thought Bella got special treatment and praise for doing simple things, much more than she ever did.
Her resentment at this perceived favouritism made Jordan take her hurt out on Bella, through personal comments and even physical fights.
“To start with, my husband and I didn’t necessarily see the problem. We felt that Jordan was older so didn’t need the same protection or attention that Bella needs,” says Melissa. “But we see how this is having an impact now so we’ve tried talking to Jordan about it to understand why it is she feels like this.”
How to deal with jealousy and siblings fighting
Both children in this situation need to feel close to their parents and retain the sense that they offer a secure base, says Dr Nancy Etcoff, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School in the US. She stresses that the mother should not try to balance things by criticising.
“Melissa should talk to her daughters about what they are feeling, and let them know that all feelings are acceptable,” she suggests. “This can open the door to a discussion during which she might get them to look at what they like in themselves, about their special gifts, and what makes them feel confident. Melissa can add what she sees as their unique positive attributes.”
Siblings without rivalry – lose the labels!
As parents, it's quite natural that we see different qualities in each of our children, but beware of labelling – for example, thinking of them as (or even calling them) "the pretty one", "the intellectual one", "the spirited one"…
Such labelling can increase competition among siblings, according to family therapist Dr Sylvia Rimm, and may even affect the development of other children in the family. Brothers and sisters might believe they cannot achieve the same level in an area where a sibling is described as the "best". This can easily be perceived as criticism and lead to a lack of self-confidence.
Some conflict is healthy – but too much is not
Some conflict in families is healthy, according to psychotherapist Dr Susie Orbach. Working through it can help everyone grow and develop new ways of understanding and dealing with difficult situations. But when brothers and sisters constantly argue, fight or ignore each other, it's vital that parents acknowledge their children's emotions, help them understand their feelings and encourage all members of the family to feel positive about themselves.
Monitor, but don't manage, your children's relationships with one another to make sure they aren't being negatively impacted by conflict with siblings.
Bring issues into the open and use our Action Checklist, below, to address any signs of sibling rivalry.