Couple having a fight

Psychiatrist David Levy is credited with coining the term “sibling rivalry” in the second quarter of the twentieth century, though the concept is as ancient as Cain and Abel. Still, every parent (including those who are glad for the option of never seeing their own siblings again) hopes their own family will be an exception to the rule. It hurts to see people you love resenting and attacking each other. It hurts to hear each imply that if you loved them you’d throw the other one out of your life. And the pain is worst when you’re responsible for protecting, and teaching civil behavior to, all parties involved.

If you have the right diplomatic skills and an equal amount of luck, your family might be the rare one where siblings are best friends from early childhood. But it’s not necessarily your fault if you draw the opposite situation. The only sure way to ensure a household free of sibling rivalry is to limit your children to one—which often generates problems of its own.

Parent Sitting On Sofa Quarreling Loudly Behind Girl Covering Her Ears

If you have multiple kids who seem to mix like oil and water, here are a few ways to make home life better for everyone.

Don’t Try to Force Love

“She’s your sister and you have to love her” is a guaranteed way to generate lasting resentment. Insist on respect for others; ban name-calling and other personal attacks; encourage kids to appreciate each other’s good qualities; but never order anyone to change their feelings. And if someone tells you privately that they dislike a sibling, don’t respond in horror or anger; consider it the child’s way of requesting your help exploring feelings and finding solutions.


Don’t Take Sides

Brothers having pillow fight and making mess in bedroom
Allow the kids to experiment with settling their own arguments.

When kids of different ages squabble, it’s tempting to hang the blame on the older and larger combatant simply because she holds obvious advantages. Resist the urge: this approach “teaches” older siblings that trying to be good is useless because everyone picks on them anyway, while younger siblings “learn” they can get away with anything and/or are too weak to stand up to a problem alone. Allow the kids to experiment with settling their own arguments. If things start to escalate and intervention becomes necessary, just send both participants to separate time-out areas; trying to pinpoint who “started it” is the quick route to insanity for everyone involved.

Appreciate All Your Kids for Who They Are

Some parents do have favorites among their children, usually because one child better matches the parent’s dream of the “perfect” offspring. Kids notice favoritism, however subtle, and it feeds sibling resentment and rivalry. Listen to “not fair” complaints and consider whether the child has a legitimate case. And especially if one child is a prodigy—or, conversely, someone looks a bit too much like bratty Cousin Ian from your own childhood—make a point of noticing and encouraging everyone’s good qualities.

Even if that requires family therapy to work out sibling-rivalry issues from your own growing-up years.