Sibling Rivalry

I know many parents (including my clients) feel like throwing their kids out the window because of incessant sibling rivalry; it’s a big issue in many households that can drive parents insane so let’s tackle this and figure it out.

Firstly, sibling rivalry is common; even compliant and polite kids fight with their brothers and sisters in the same way that noncompliant/tricky kids do.  It’s part of growing up and learning how to manage relationships and family dynamics.

Think about how much attention you give these types of behaviours; the yelling, name calling, fighting etc. You might be so used to reacting that you might not realise just how often you are attending to these behaviours – it becomes habit right?

I wonder what would happen if you learned to switch off a bit, turn the radio up, grit your teeth and let them figure it out on their own…..

Remember – sibling rivalry is normal, and is part of the bonding process. Think back to when you were young and how often you fought with your siblings, you probably look back and laugh now!

You might be thinking your kid’s behaviour is out with a ‘tolerable range’ and you have to step in to diffuse situations.

Author of ‘The Power of Positive Parenting’ Dr Glenn Latham outlines the following parenting rules that will help you if you are in this boat.

  1. Ignore inconsequential behaviour

Put simply – ignore it. Walk away. Leave the room.

Now I’m not talking about ignoring your kids beating the living daylights out of one another, I’m talking about the ‘nuisance’ behaviours such as bickering and arguing.

This is easier said than done when you are used to constantly stepping in to diffuse situations but give it a go!

I love how Glenn labels sibling rivalry as ‘jousting’ not violence.

If, on the other hand, the jousting does escalate to physical aggression or nasty name calling then they can no longer be ignored – these behaviours exceed the limits of tolerance.

You will need to attend to these behaviours and apply a consequence…read on!

  1. Remain calm and composed but direct when you must intervene

Try not to shout when you intervene, take a deep breath and stay calm.  As the parent you need to demonstrate self-control at this point.

Begin with what is easiest to do e.g. saying “no, you may not say those things to your sister”.

Or, if it’s been a more serious offence, or has been repeated, it may be necessary to remind the child that because of such inappropriate behaviour you will confiscate their privileges.

Don’t get into a ‘slagging’ match; a ‘he did it’, ‘she started it!’ type of situation where you end up acting like a referee. Does it really matter who started it?? Name calling is not allowed and that’s that.

Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an argument over what is fair. The bottom line is name calling isn’t allowed.

  1. Teach appropriate social skills

My challenge to you is; see sibling rivalry as a teaching opportunity – teach your kids the social skills that you would like them to be doing. Put the wine bottle back in the fridge, roll up your sleeves and get ready for teaching time!

Stopping inappropriate behaviour is not enough – that’s only half your job – you need to teach the appropriate behaviours AND ensure you reinforce them when they occur!

Stop – redirect – reinforce

  1. Apply consequences

First point – make sure your child understands in advance your expectations and the consequences attached to them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s the consequences that change behaviour so take some time to think about this.

Your children need to understand that if they choose to behave in a certain way there is a price to pay.

If you have little kids you can physically separate them if necessary and if you have older kids who can’t be physically separated then you can remind them that persisting with inappropriate behaviour carries with it serious consequences.

You might be surprised how effective such consequences are when the children know in advance what they are, and when they are delivered appropriately.

As a note – attempts to restrain older children are usually disastrous. Stick with confiscating privileges. If they behave as if they don’t care then drop it – leave the situation and follow through with the predetermined consequences anyway.

‘Let the consequences do the talking’

  1. Acknowledge appropriate behaviour

In other words – catch them being good!

Try to use behaviour specific praise e.g. “It makes me so happy to see you playing together so nicely – well done!”

Don’t take it for granted and hope it continues whilst hiding away in the kitchen with your fingers and toes crossed – seize the opportunity to make a fuss about your kids playing so well.

Turn on the tap for your positive attention and keep it coming. Remember, if there’s any of that ‘junk’ behaviour you turn the tap off immediately – no more attention from you.


What if my child has ZERO interest in my other child??

You might have a child with autism who shows very little interest in their sibling and yet their sibling is very interested in playing with them. How can you encourage them to play together??

Pair pair pair. Set up activities that you know they would both enjoy e.g. sitting down for snack time together, jumping on the trampoline or doing some arts/crafts.

Keep these activities short and sweet – you want to wrap it up whilst it’s still a positive experience for both children.

Give your child that doesn’t have autism something that your child with autism really likes to hand to them.  If your child with autism sees your other child as ‘the giver of all good things’ they will start showing more of an interest in them.


These 5 steps have been taken from ‘The Power of Positive Parenting’ book, written by Dr Glenn l. Latham (1994).

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