From Sibling Rivalry to Brotherly Love: How to End Family Feuds

I am my parent’s favorite child.

I know this because my younger sister—by two years—has always complained, “Mom and Dad like you best.”

Sibling rivalry has been around since the days of Cain and Abel. So is it really a big deal or just another difficult rite of passage?

Sticks and Stones 

“I have adult clients who feel they were abused by their siblings and have deep psychological wounds as a result,” says Dr. Kathi Marks, a family and marital therapist in Glencoe. “Those nasty names, like fatty or stupid, that’s what you carry into the world. It shapes who you are now. Parents need to take sibling rivalry seriously.”

According to Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, sibling rivalry is when children feel a sense that there’s not enough parental love, attention or validation to go around.

“It becomes a ‘me-versus-you’ situation,” Solomon explains.

Marks adds that sibling rivalry is particularly prevalent among siblings who are close in age. “Sibling status research shows that an age difference of four years or more is optimal,” she notes.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If you already have children who are closer in age than four years, what’s a parent to do? Both Marks and Solomon agree that talking about a child’s concerns is critical.

“If your child comes to you and says he feels like you love a sibling more than him, don’t say, ‘That’s ridiculous’ and wave him off,” Solomon says. “This is an opportunity to talk.”

Five Tips to Stop the Feuding

If every obstacle is a teaching opportunity, managing the emotions of sibling rivalry provides a great platform, according to counselors at Symmetry Counseling. They remind parents to keep in mind that your role is to manage sibling rivalry, which could mean diverting the flow of the feelings or teaching emotional life skills.

Marks and Solomon offer these strategies for managing sibling rivalry:

1. Parents should make it clear that there are certain words their children may not use as insults. Examples: stupid, jerk, fat, gay.

2. Institute a policy of respect in the house and be explicit as to what that means. For example, when boys are roughhousing, when does that turn into bullying or something more sinister?

3. Parents need to be thoughtful about how they value each child. Does Susie excel at theater and get more attention than Joey does for building cool Lego creations? Value each child for his or her own uniqueness.

4. Just as the kids shouldn’t use harsh language with each other, monitor your adult conversations for judgment and value statements about others. “Better than, worse than, prettier than, more athletic, more important”—if you’re making value statements about people, your kids are listening.

5. You love your children equally but differently, of course. But your child may not experience life that way. If your daughter comes to you with a concern, listen. Don’t diminish her feelings; be open. Try not to feel defensive.

When your kids’ rivalry reaches epic proportions, just remember this well-known saying, “The greatest gift parents can give their children is siblings.”