Amanda Gregory, LCPC

Sibling rivalry is a healthy aspect of child development. Interacting with siblings helps children practice navigating conflicts in relationships. But excessive sibling rivalry can have a detrimental impact on brothers and sisters as well as their caregivers.

How can you tell when the rivalry between siblings has become a problem? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do they initiate physical aggression that has caused injuries on more than one occasion?
  • Does one of the siblings appear emotionally distressed after, during, or while anticipating interactions with their sibling?
  • Do they experience patterns of emotional distress as a result of sibling conflict that negatively impacts other areas of their life, such as school, friendships, and activities?
  • Does one sibling persistently dominate the other? Or does one sibling seem to rely too much on the other even while adult caregivers are present?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, the sibling relationship may be problematic. Any occurrences of child abuse should be addressed immediately to promote the safety of all children. Here are a few ways you can help manage problematic sibling rivalry:

1. Establish Boundaries. All siblings, regardless of age, need established boundaries in order to maintain a healthy relationship with each other. These boundaries need to be identified and agreed upon as a family. Boundaries must be simple and clear to minimize confusion or attempts to take advantage of loopholes.

Two siblings, ages 10 and 16, established these boundaries during a family therapy session:

  • You cannot enter your sibling’s room without their permission.
  • You must ask before borrowing anything that belongs to your sibling.
  • You cannot express any physical aggression toward your sibling, which includes horseplay and play fighting.

In addition to setting boundaries, the family should talk about what consequences will occur if the boundaries are crossed. Boundaries only work if everyone believes that they must be respected.

2. Initiate Positive Experiences. Sharing positive experiences is an important part of establishing and maintaining healthy sibling relationships. Caregivers can identify activities that both siblings enjoy and schedule these activities to occur regularly. If the siblings are struggling to interact positively on their own, then caregivers should participate in the activities with them. The adults can model positive interactions, provide redirection when needed, and give praise when siblings are interacting well. If the siblings are able to interact well on their own, it’s best for the adults to take a back seat, as siblings need to have as many positive experiences with each other as possible. These shared experiences can foster fond memories that can sustain the relationship into adulthood.

3. Define Family Roles. Family roles can be confusing. Older siblings who have helped look after younger children may tend to take on a caregiver role. Younger siblings may demand that older siblings act as caregivers instead of peers. Role confusion can lead to significant conflict in sibling relationships. Caregivers can help siblings define their roles, especially if one of the siblings has multiple roles. For example, an older sibling who provides childcare is required to act as a caregiver at those times, but while adults are present, this role is no longer required. The transition can be difficult to navigate, and children may need validation, redirection, and encouragement to navigate their family roles.

4. Participate in Family Therapy. Siblings can participate in family therapy with each other or with the entire family. Counselors can provide information and guidance designed to improve sibling relationships. Family therapy for siblings could include assistance with the following:

  • Identification of obstacles in the relationship
  • Setting and maintaining boundaries
  • Defining and practicing family roles
  • Therapeutic bonding opportunities for relationship building
  • Coaching and support for adults who serve as the siblings’ caregivers
  • Assessment for safety if abuse is suspected
  • And much more

Sibling relationships can be an important part of a child’s healthy development. If you need help managing sibling rivalry, consider participating in family therapy with one of our talented counselors. Contact Symmetry Counseling today.