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Dealing with jealousy and sibling rivalry in your family

Dealing with jealousy and sibling rivalry in your family

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Mum Melissa was worried when her 11-year-old daughter Bella started becoming tearful and withdrawn.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.

What's causing sibling rivalry in your family?

Competition between siblings, and the reasons it arises, can be complicated and the source of much angst and tension. It’s important that each of your children knows you understand their feelings and concerns. 

Identifying possible reasons behind any conflict is the first step to finding the solution:

  • If you have several children, perhaps they are all vying for parental attention. Try to give each some time individually
  • Are you, unwittingly perhaps, making one child a favourite? Avoid making comparisons such as "Why can’t you be more like your sister?"
  • Is a younger sibling invading the privacy of an older one by disrupting things in their room, for example? Help them to feel their space and belongings are protected

To protect privacy we've changed the names of the people whose stories we tell on these pages. But the stories are genuine.

next steps

  • If tension between siblings is causing unhappiness in your household, start to address it
  • Share this article with your children and ask whether they feel any of these issues apply in your family
  • Acknowledge that there could be sibling rivalry, and don't dismiss it as trivial. Hold a family meeting where everyone has the chance to voice concerns without criticising one another
  • Try to give all your children individual time and attention, and let each one know why they're unique and special to you
  • Think of activities that might alter the family dynamic, even if only temporarily. For example, if your youngest complains of feeling ignored and having no say in things, ask them to plan a day out for everyone
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