Is Sibling Rivalry Normal And Healthy?

By Patricia Oelze

Updated January 01, 2019

Reviewer Beverly Vanover, MS LPC NCC BC-TMH CCTP


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Sibling rivalry is so typical that most people tend to think of it as a regular part of life. If normal means what happens the most, perhaps sibling rivalry is normal. However, another characteristic of normal could be whatever improves overall mental health. So many people have given up on doing something about sibling rivalry and instead have developed a long list of reasons why it could be good, overall. What do most people think? Has sibling rivalry improved their lives? Prior to answering that question people may want to consider what sibling rivalry is and how it affects people, as children and later when they become adults.

Sibling Rivalry Quotes

Some sibling rivalry quotes mirror what most people believe about the subject - it's inevitable. Others, usually said by mental health experts, are a reminder of the dangers of sibling rivalry and the fact that it doesn't necessarily have to happen. Here are some of the things famous people have said about sibling rivalry:

  • 'What causes sibling rivalry? Having more than one kid.' - Tim Allen
  • 'My sister and I never engaged in sibling rivalry. Our parents weren't that crazy about either one of us.' - Erma Bombeck
  • 'As parents, it is well to be aware of the tendency to equate energetic activity with the contest. Our children's worth does not depend on their ability to trounce one another. And surely, we can find ways of frolicking and be healthy and active together in some joyful, freeway that is not an adversary relationship.' - Polly Berrien Berends
  • 'In the course of time, Cain brought the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering, he had no regard. So, Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.' - Bible (NRSV)
  • 'Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.' - Sam Levenson
  • 'Siblings that say they never fight are most definitely hiding something.' - Lemony Snicket
  • 'Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring quite often the hard way.' Pamela Dugdale
  • 'Our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago - the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider. It doesn't seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we've traveled.' Jane MerskyLeder

What Is Sibling Rivalry?

One may already feel they know the answer to 'what is sibling rivalry?' A short, concise sibling rivalry definition may be able to help to understand the subject more clearly. Sibling rivalry, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is simply 'competition between brothers and sisters.'

A more complete definition can be found on the website of C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. It goes like this: Sibling rivalry is the jealousy, competition, and fighting between brothers and sisters.

Sounds a little more sinister now, doesn't it?

Sibling rivalry begins in childhood, often as soon as a new child enters the family through birth, custody, or adoption. As parents are becoming more open about pregnancy and what that means, a child's jealousy may begin even before the child is born. Sibling rivalry can last for as long as the brothers and sisters live if they don't take steps to overcome it.

Why Does Sibling Rivalry Happen?


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Sibling rivalry doesn't just come out of thin air. The environment children come into in a family plays a significant role. Many of the causes of sibling rivalry happen in most if not all families with two or more children. That's why we think of it as natural. However, parents can help their children move away from competition, jealousy, and fighting. Sibling rivalry is not inevitable. The following causes allow parents to feel justified in throwing up their hands in defeat, though. They don't have to, but they often take the most expedient way out.

Feelings of Being Threatened

Whenever a new child enters the picture, and there are already one or more children in the home, those other children each have their niche. They not only resent the attention lavished on the new member of the family, but they also feel threatened by them. They fear that their parents will no longer love them or take care of them as they did before. They're uneasy and easily upset because of this, so they fight with each other and try to draw attention away from the new child who they believe is intruding on their territory. Rather than punishing children for this behavior, in most cases, parents can recognize this difficult perception of the upset child and strive to validate, soothe and perhaps distract the behavior.

Feelings of Inequality

Children often feel like they're being praised, punished, or cared for unequally. Some of this may just be childish insecurity, but it can also be partly due to a parent's actual preference for one child or another. A mentally healthy parent would never intentionally favor one child over another. Some parents may not be aware of their favorite, though. It may stem from the like or dislike they feel for someone the child reminds them of, or it may be that one child is needier than the others.

Parents who want to avoid sibling rivalry between their children can help by paying attention to their feelings about each child and monitoring their own behavior to be sure they aren't treating their children unequally.

The Process of Becoming an Individual

As each child differentiates himself from others, he may be very outspoken about their likes and dislikes. In a family where sibling rivalry rules the household, children may go so far as to make fun of the siblings who have different preferences. They may even hurt them if they disagree. However, being open about what they both like and dislike is fine and doesn't need to cause problems. It's when the child feels that he isn't being heard or respected that the claws come out. Parents who are aware of what's going on between their children can give them that validation and thus avoid severe sibling rivalry episodes.

Developmental Differences Between Siblings

Children typically don't understand their own development timetables. So, when one child can do something, they expect the others to be able to do it, too. When others can do things and they can't, they feel bad about themselves, as if life is somehow being unfair to them. Spending time with each child individually and doing things with each child that is on their level can help them appreciate themselves better and be more patient to grow up.

Not Knowing the Alternative

It might surprise you to know that children don't always know how to spend their time other than fighting with each other. They may just be bored. They may not think of playing a game or taking a walk. When parents spend leisure time with their children, doing activities that they can do on their own, they teach their children how to come up with better things to do. Or, if the children begin to fight, parents can suggest an activity, and often the children will be happy to try it.

Inability to Meet Their Own Basic Needs

Young children can't take care of basic needs like getting food to eat or water to drink. If parents don't take care of this, the children become hungry, thirsty, and cranky. Of course, parents who don't meet their children's needs have much more to think about along with sibling rivalry, but sibling rivalry can be one of the effects.

Parents' Attitudes

Parents who act in aggressive, violent, or unkind ways are very negative role models for their children. Their kids will typically act in the same or similar ways as their parents, and the sibling rivalry is an easy way to do it.

Parents' Stress Load

When parents are stressed out to the max, they may find it hard to take care of their children's physical and emotional needs. They may feel like they can't cope with the sibling rivalry, so they just avoid their children or mete out harsh punishments to control their behavior. However, these approaches don't work for long. Once a pattern of sibling rivalry is established, the parent must work even harder to help their children get along.

Signs of Sibling Rivalry in Children

Signs of sibling rivalry in children are easy to spot. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Being violent towards a new member of the family, i.e., hitting or kicking them
  • Demanding you take the baby or child back where you got it from
  • Seeking attention constantly
  • Verbal or physical fighting between siblings
  • Exhibiting frustration at the smallest things
  • Tattling on each other
  • Bed-wetting
  • Talking like a baby
  • Sucking their thumb
  • Throwing temper tantrums
  • Competing with their siblings for grades or friends
  • Acting out towards other people, pets, or inanimate objects

Signs of Sibling Rivalry in Adults

Adult sibling rivalry is a continuation of the same relationship that was developed through childhood sibling rivalry, but it takes on a different flavor. While sibling rivalry in adults may be just as painful as it was in childhood, the signs are often subtler. Here are a few things to watch out for when evaluating relationships with adult siblings.

  • Jealousy and envy
  • Dwelling on past hurts
  • Talking often about how horrible it was to grow up with the sibling
  • Seeing the sibling as they were in childhood rather than noticing how they are as adults
  • Talking about their great friends and spouse in a way that diminishes the relationship with the sibling
  • Overanalyzing what happened that caused the hurts of sibling rivalry incidents
  • Being very competitive with siblings even in adulthood
  • One-upping siblings
  • Describing a sibling as an enemy


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Long-Term Effects of Sibling Rivalry

When children bring sibling rivalry into adulthood, the long-term effects can be devastating. A sibling who was verbally or physically abused by their brother or sister may see effects in all their relationships, including professional, romantic, and family relationships. People lose their sense of self - if they ever developed it in the first place. They judge other people based on the rivalries they carry from their past. Interpersonal effectiveness is affected adversely.

People who have sibling rivalry as children may have never adequately learned social skills. They may not understand how to resolve or prevent conflicts. Compromise and cooperation may be foreign concepts to them. They may not understand empathy - either to give or receive it. So, as they begin adulthood, they're socially handicapped.

What about the Benefits of Sibling Rivalry?

Is sibling rivalry a bad thing, then? What about all those people who say sibling rivalry is normal and helps children in later life? The truth is that it isn't the childhood rivalry or the adult sibling rivalry that helps children cope with competition, stress, and relationships. Instead, it's the healthy interactions they have with their siblings. And, it's the experimentation and accompanying corrections from parents or other siblings that teaches them skills like resolving a conflict. There is really no advantage of engaging in sibling rivalry, in childhood or as an adult.

How to Deal with Sibling Rivalry

One can overcome sibling rivalry as an adult and in complete charge of one's own life. Starting by reading a sibling rivalry book or attending a lecture by one of the leaders in sibling rivalry research. An intellectual understanding of the problem is just the beginning for successfully becoming able to erase years of discord.

Observeone's specific case of sibling rivalry and practice psychological techniques for rising above it. Here are a few of the things to try:


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  • Remind yourself that you and your siblings each have different relationships with your parents.
  • Remember that the family was different when each family member was added, and everyone was different at those times, too.
  • Be a role model of reasonable behavior for your siblings who may not have moved on from the past.
  • Have a one-to-one conversation with your sibling to talk about your feelings about the relationship then and now.
  • Don't overemphasize your own accomplishments. Instead, admit that not everything has gone right for you.
  • Let nasty comments pass without anger or bitterness. Remember that it takes two to have a fight.
  • Refuse to engage in rivalrous arguments, even if you must remove yourself from the situation on occasion.
  • Concentrate on your own behavior and how you can make changes that will improve the relationship.

Sometimes, the problems created during childhood are so stubborn that it becomes very, very hard to move beyond them. Fortunately, there is help for sibling rivalry in adults. Talking with a therapist can help explore past and current feelings. The counselor can help change the way to think about the rivalry and teach, even more, techniques for overcoming it. Knowing how to deal with sibling rivalry, can help family relationships improve.

Licensed counselors are available at BetterHelp.com, an online platform where you can connect with a counselor who has been trained in dealing with sibling rivalry or any other mental health challenges you might be facing.


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