Sibling Rivalry – What To Do When Your Kids Are Mean To Each Other

Val Mullally

July 26, 2017

sibling rivlary kids fight

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So what can a parent do to prevent sibling rivalry? How does a parent respond when kids are mean to each other? It’s a question Adam and Eve probably asked – their kids Cain and Abel were hardly the best friends! Hopefully your children’s animosity won’t go beyond cutting words, but a sibling’s snide comments can cause life-long scars. Sibling Rivalry – What to do when kids are mean to each other. 

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As soon as Janice came round the corner, she spotted her three lads were entangled in a “not okay” interaction. Three-year-old Sean was sitting on the lowest step, eyes downcast, his shoulders sagging like an old man carrying a heavy load.  As she drew nearer, she caught a word from her older child.

“Baby!” he sneered.

“Stop that!” June roared, sweeping her little one up into her arms.

Sean collapsed in tears upon her shoulder. As she walked into the house, hugging her sobbing child, her mind raced. “How can my kids be so mean to each other?” she wondered. When they were little she had always imagined them being best of friends and playing happily with each other. People would often comment on what nice kids she had. If only they knew how my kids fight! 

“I hate you!”

“You’re not my brother.”

Comments like these are bad enough but siblings also know each other’s tender spots. It’s not just a quick stab – sometimes it’s twisting the knife to cause torturing pain.

“I’m just teasing,” the perpetrator says.

But you know, and they know, it’s not. It’s taunting. Your child meant it to hurt. How could your child be so mean? And what can you as a parent do?

7 Tips That Can Alleviate Sibling Rivalry

sibling rivalry playing a game

#1. Aggressive Sibling Rivalry

Recognised aggressive sibling rivalry requires much more than a “be nice to each other” sticking plaster. Dealing with unkind behaviour at surface level, or ignoring it, is only going to leave it festering below the surface. It will erupt again at some stage, if not addressed. All the children involved need your listening ear, even the one you’re feeling mad at. To quote Dr Dan Siegel: “Connection calms.”

#2. Get Involved

When you say nothing, or do nothing, or say “stop that” without following through with any helpful intervention, you are giving your children as clear a message as if you did do something.

The child who is being hurt (emotionally or physically) is getting the message that no-one will champion him. The child who is acting mean is getting the message that it’s okay to treat other people like this.

#3. Avoid Labels

sibling rivalry

Avoid putting a label on your child. If you accuse him of being mean, he’s likely to live up to the label you give him. Rather comment on the specific behaviour you don’t like.

“I don’t like it when you call your brother, “A baby!” and I’d prefer it if we sat down all together to figure out what’s bugging you.”

#4. Is it a cry for help?

Keep in mind that the perpetrator’s behaviour is saying something about him – rather than being about the child who he is attacking. At one level, it is a cry for help.

Whilst the child who has been attacked needs support, so too does the child who is acting aggressively.

sibling rivalry

#5. Mean Behaviour

In old English the word “mean” was used to indicate “small”. For example, “In a stable mean and lowly” the word ‘mean’ is referring to a small stable. It’s easy to focus our attention of the child who is being demeaned – made to feel small – but also consider what’s going on for your other child.

Mean behaviour happens when that person is feeling small (or threatened). This may not be a physical threat but a psychological threat when he feels his position in the family may be usurped, or overshadowed by a sibling.

The child may not even consciously realise this for themselves. They need your support in working through whatever is going on for them.

#6. All Change

Sibling rivalry is a complex issue. It often is exacerbated when a family goes through a period of change, whether moving homes, moving school, an addition or loss in the family, or a child moving into a new developmental stage.

If there is a sudden surge in sibling rivalry, take time to reflect on the big picture. Ask yourself, “What else is going on in our family or in my child’s life?”

If you are concerned that child envy is causing this behaviour, you’ll want to read, “Sibling Jealousy – how to deal with the green-eyed monster”.

#7. Handle with Care

The good news is that families can get to know each other, and themselves, in a deeper, more compassionate way when the situation is handled with care and sensitivity.

A helpful place to start is reading our blog “How to Stop Kids Fighting” for practical tips. We also recommend reading “Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way” by Marshall Rosenberg.

Sibling rivalry requires skilled parenting interventions to defuse the conflict. If sibling rivalry is a serious issue in your home, it is as important to seek guidance as if your child was being severely bullied in a social context. In fact, I’d suggest it’s worse, because where can a child seek refuge if home is not a safe space?

An accredited Parent Coach can give you the support, help you discover key insights and relationship skills to help your children learn to interact respectfully and to fight fairly. For more about Val Mullally’s work as a Parent Coach click here.

We’d love to hear your experiences on sibling rivalry. Post your question or comment below.

Sibling Rivalry

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Published On: July 26th, 2017 / Categories: For Parents / Last Updated: March 31st, 2021 / Tags: , , /

About the Author: Val Mullally

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Val Mullally focuses on activating your inner wisdom in work, parenthood and life. She is an accredited Parenting Coach, Professional Reflective Practice Facilitator and founder of Koemba Parenting. She offers Parenting courses (both face-to-face and online), and is available as a workshop facilitator and a keynote speaker. Val is author of: 'BEHAVE - What to Do When Your Child Won’t’, ‘Stop Yelling – 9 Steps to Calmer, Happier Parenting’ ‘Baby and Toddler on Board – Mindful Parenting When a New Baby Joins the Family’ and ‘Ancient Wisdom for Business Success – How to Lead with Courage, Clarity and Confidence’ She is currently co-authoring ‘In Defence of the Naughty Child - Understanding Sensory Sensitivity’ and will be speaking on this topic at TEDx Wexford on 11 August 2022. Val spent many years in Southern Africa, where she worked as a teacher, principal and trainer in Education. She and her husband now live in the place her heart calls home, in their traditional Irish cottage in North County Cork, Ireland.

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