I recently heard a program on CBC morning radio (www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/) about sibling bullying. It really shocked me. The adults who were speaking were people who had carried the abuse they’d suffered as children through their entire lives, and many had entered therapy to resolve the issues of anxiety, depression, self-hate etc. that resulted from the bullying they’d received from a sister or brother. It appeared that their parents had turned a blind eye to their suffering, or perhaps didn’t even know that it was going on. Some of the bullying was horrendous, such as choking, verbal humiliation and isolation.

Should Parents Interfere in Children’s Fighting?

The approach I advocate is that fighting kids should be left to sort it out on their own. When parents interfere, it sets the stage for bullying to begin, especially if one child is punished for something he didn’t do. This often happens because the parent was not at the scene of the fight but is trying to settle it without the facts.

brother and sister fighting

What is the Origin of Sibling Rivalry?

It is important that we understand the root of sibling rivalry. When you have one child who has been the apple of your eye since birth, and you introduce a second child into the family, the first child’s world suddenly changes. No longer is he the center of the universe, now having to share his world with someone who takes his parents’ attention away from him. Unless he is prepared for the coming of the second child, he may very well feel extremely displaced. Rudolf Dreikurs in his book Children: the Challenge says a first child will feel the way a wife might feel if her husband brought home another woman and asked his wife to move over and share their bed and life with her.


It is crucial that parents prepare the first child for the entrance of the second into the family and make a concerted effort to understand and to ease the pain of the first child with extra attention whenever possible. For example, if you are reading to your older one and the baby wakes and cries, you can check the baby, then finish your story before attending to the baby as long as he is safe. When you constantly interrupt your time with your first child he feels devalued and unimportant. He feels you love the baby more than you love him. Make him part of a team who looks after the new child, letting him assist you in baby care. Another idea is to give him a baby doll so you can look after your babies together. If he feels a valued part of the new situation, he will begin to accept it. Encourage all his positive actions and focus on giving him lots of love.

As the children mature, their comparisons are constant. Children are very observant, measuring who gets the bigger portion, who gets more hugs, and who gets more attention. If one feels left out on a regular basis, the seeds of sibling rivalry will start to grow. They may mature into ways of getting revenge by humiliating or physically abusing the other child. If parents try to mediate, it can become worse. Parents often interfere in an argument they know nothing about and choose the wrong child to discipline. Years ago, I was guilty of this myself, until I learned that I was escalating the rivalry between the children.

Conflict is a part of life and parents need to help their kids learn how to resolve issues that arise in their lives. You can ask them “What do you think needs to be done here? What is your plan?” rather than rushing in to solve a problem for them.

How Do You Know If Sibling Rivalry Has Escalated to Bullying?

Be very observant if you have kids who seem to fight a lot. Do not try to solve their fights, but listen for put-downs and dehumanizing remarks. If it seems that one is being victimized, look at whether you are favoring one child over another in some way. Use bedtime talks to find out about your child’s day, asking what was the best thing that happened and what was the worst, hoping that you’ll get a clue as to what is occurring between the children. Be careful to spend time alone with each of your children, giving them your full attention. Talk with your kids, asking if they feel less valued than their siblings. If the situation seems to be too much for you to handle, seek professional help.

Eight Ways to Promote Co-operation and Friendliness in Your Family

1. Teach caring and respect for all living beings. Be a role model for your children. Do not gossip about others, put them down, make racial remarks etc. in front of your kids. Teach them that everyone is deserving of respect regardless of skin color, physical appearance, economic status or other differences.
2. Listen and look. When you talk about the conflict the kids are engaged in, do you see a smile on one child’s face? This is an important key to who is getting a pay-off from fighting. Often the pay-off is your attention! If you stay out of it and turn the situation over to them, there is no pay-off received for misbehavior. Fighting will disappear.
3. Do you find yourself blaming one child and coddling the other over and over? Watch for patterns, not just in the children’s behavior, but in your reaction to it.
4. Handle conflicts such as TV program selection by turning it over to the kids. Say,”the TV is off until you decide how to solve the situation. Come to me with your solution”.
5. Don’t solve all their problems. Encourage creativity and offer to help when asked.
6. If fighting is escalating, determine if your children feel valued and loved. Talk about it with them. “You think I love your brother more than I love you, right?” Express your love. Encourage all positive actions of your children and stop pointing out negatives. When they are noticed for positive behavior, they don’t need to misbehave to get your attention.
7. Respect the suggestions and views of your kids. If they think you believe in them and value them, they’ll come to you with their concerns and questions.
8. Never favor one child over another. Even if, in your heart, you prefer one of them, give your love and attention to all of them.

sibling love

It’s possible to raise kids who don’t fight and who enjoy each other’s company. Teach respect for others, be the person you want your kids to be, and stay tuned in to family dynamics.

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