Are You There, Moms? It’s Me, Idiot How Do You Deal With Sibling Rivalry?

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mom-adviceWhile there’s nothing inherently better about being an only child or having siblings, I am endlessly grateful that I ended up with siblings. But I wonder how you deal with sibling rivalry, because if I have children I hope to have more than one, and I’m pretty nervous about how to handle all of that fighting and teach siblings how to have healthy, respectful relationships with each other.

My younger sister is four years younger than me. Our parents took the “stop harassing each other” approach, which didn’t exactly foster communication or even faked apologies. We simply went to our corners and then pretended nothing happened. We fought constantly as kids and didn’t become friends until I left for college, but even then, our relationship was fairly fraught. It’s only now that we’re starting to really work through the underlying issues that tie up our relationship, and get in the way of the fact that we’re ideally suited to be best friends. In that regard–we got pretty lucky.

As it turns out, the relationship with my sibling turned out to be one of the most significant in my life. Sometimes we both call each other at the same exact moment and leave identical voicemails. I can say, quite literally, one word to her and communicate a story or experience that would take hours to explain to anyone else. It’s a relationship worth working on, because most of the time, it’s great. But I wonder sometimes how our relationship might have been different if we’d learned to communicate better as children (this is not to blame my parents, who I believe did the best that they could. But don’t we all want to improve upon our parents’ model?).

So, how do you make sure your kids don’t kill each other? Or, did your parents do a particularly good or bad job? Are you still close with your own siblings, and how did you guys get over the years of shoving each other and hair pulling?


  1. Katherine Handcock

    July 4, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Part of my solution is to make sure both kids have private space and private things. Each kid gets to decide whether the other can go into their room at a given time. Toys they don’t want the other kid to play with have to stay in their room; anything in public spaces is fair game. It’s not perfect, but when they’re having trouble agreeing, I tell them to go to their own spaces to have some alone time, and it definitely helps.

    • Ursi

      July 4, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      This is SUCH a great solution.

      Growing up my parents had zero respect for personal boundaries because they didn’t believe that children had a right to any and they didn’t believe that we had the right to our own personal space with one another. Every time I didn’t want to share something it was taken from me and given to my sibling.

      I have a very strong memory of going to a friend’s house at a young age and his sister had something I wanted to look and my friend told me he couldn’t let me hold it without her permission and his mother affirmed that. My parents would have just handed it to the visitor with the rationale that, well, we bought it ,so they don’t even own anything anyway.

    • Katherine Handcock

      July 5, 2014 at 5:57 am

      There are a surprising number of parents who still don’t allow their kids to have private space, and it always blows my mind, because I always think how furious they’d be if their spouse said something like, “I don’t care if you want to read quietly right now, I’m going to come in and blast my music on 11.”

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  2. Frances Frumpy Mumps Locke

    July 4, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    My sisters and I had an effed up childhood and ended up being very estranged in our early 20s. My middle sister and I are now very close, but we did all that work on our own. Which is why I’ve been very keen to try to foster a healthy relationship between my three kids.

    I try to have a somewhat hands-off approach, because I think the best relationships grow organically. But I do step in when they get into serious fights to help them communicate better. And I always stress the importance of being remorseful when you do wrong, and saying sorry. And that sorry means you won’t keep doing the thing you’re sorry for, not “Sorry you’re pissed and/or I got caught.”

    • Katherine Handcock

      July 5, 2014 at 6:04 am

      It’s so hard to know sometimes when to step in and when not to! I totally agree that it’s best if relationships grow on their own – and if kids resolve conflicts on their own. With my kids being relatively young and the age difference being what it is, I feel like I have to step in more than I’d like right now just because I’m concerned about the difference in physical and emotional capabilities between my 5 1/2 year old and my 3 1/2 year old!

    • Frances Frumpy Mumps Locke

      July 5, 2014 at 6:24 am

      Oh trust me, I understand. I feel like I have to step in constantly. But then I remember that I actually jump in way less often for my older two (who are 4 years apart). It gives me hope for the days when I won’t be playing WWE referee for the younger two (who are only 18 months apart).

      It doesn’t hurt that, out of the three of them, my oldest is almost 11 and can help out tremendously (and actually wants to help, because she’s awesome). i think my life would be way more difficult without her. Not in the creepy “I make my older kids raise my younger kids” Duggar way, but it’s nice to have an older kid who I can joke about Minecraft too, lol

  3. Ursi

    July 4, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    It’s kind of messed up. My sibling and I are very close now because really all we have is each other. Growing up my parents favored my sibling, just enough for me to notice, but they were also pretty terrible role models in general.

    Now my sibling and I only fight when we take on the behavioral traits of our parents. Otherwise, my sibling is the closest blood family I acknowledge because no one outside understands. So I have no idea how one fosters closeness between siblings in a non dysfunctional dynamic.

  4. LadyClodia the Modest Rat

    July 4, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    I’m not very close with my brother who is 3 years younger than me. He took our parents divorce hard even though he was quite young, and I think he projected a lot of that onto me instead of our parents. We definitely used to fight, which he until very recently used to bring up every time I saw him (I think his wife told him to drop it.) But he didn’t seem to remember any of the nice things I used to do for him, or that our parents favored him and were a lot easier on him. If we hang out it’s because we’re siblings, but I wouldn’t say we’re friends.

    My boys are 3 years apart too, and they fight pretty frequently, with the toddler being the instigator most of the time. I don’t really have a good way to deal with it. Mostly I try to distract them or have my 5yo get away from his little brother and do something in another room. If they hurt each other they’re supposed to say they’re sorry. But since they’re both young it’s never been anything very serious, and I’m not sure how we’ll handle a serious fight down the road.

  5. Melissa Lepley

    July 4, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    I still want nothing to do with my brother, so since I’m working on boy#2, this is an important topic for me. I read a book called “siblings without rivalry” which made me cry and get all angry/sad, and I can’t recommend it enough. Some of the things in it included not labeling kids, not talking about one to the other, and helpful ways to teach kids to resolve conflicts. *shrug* I’m planning to reread it again after the birth.

    One of the most important things that I really emphasized with was that there is no “good” in having a baby for my toddler. This was not his decision, he doesn’t understand what’s happening, and it’ll be at least a year (which, to a not-quite-two-year-old, might as well be forever) before the baby is worth playing with. He has to share me, my husband, our time, “his” toys, “his” house – and in return he gets nothing. If my husband came home one day and said “well, I just liked having a wife so much, I’ve decided to get another (younger, cuter) one. Aren’t you happy about this?! I’d have a few things to say, so it’s not fair to expect the older sibling (to whom the world is just right as it is, thanks) to be happy about this loud, useless, attention hog we’ve suddenly sprung on him.

    Thinking of it that way is making me more empathetic to the toddler, and will hopefully help me find some good in it for him. Or at least mitigate the “disaster.”

    • EX

      July 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      I think it’s definitely good to prepare for the worst as I did when I was expecting my second daughter (I read everything I could on the subject, including siblings without rivalry, which I agree is great) but your toddler may surpise you. My older daughter has been more patient and loving to her baby sister (they are 2.5 years apart) than I ever expected. Of course, I’m sure there will be plenty sibling issues still to come…

    • Melissa Lepley

      July 4, 2014 at 11:09 pm

      I’m hoping it’ll go well, but #1 will be almost 21 months when #2 gets here, and there’s not even a way to prepare him for the concept of “baby in mommy’s belly.” Also, unless he has a massive change in personality in the next five months, he’s not exactly Mr. Patience And Sharing. I’m assuming the early years are going to be rough on all of us, but that it’ll get better as they get older. I hope. Please. 🙂

    • Katherine Handcock

      July 5, 2014 at 5:55 am

      My kids were 22 months apart, and they did fine! And no toddler is Mr. Patience and Sharing 🙂 You can prepare him a little bit by talking about babies in general – you’ll be amazed how much he’ll take in. Just talk a lot about how when his baby brother/sister comes, the baby will be really small, will cry a lot because he/she has no other way to tell us something’s wrong, that sort of thing.

      The two biggest things I found made a difference for my son was to make
      sure he still got lots of special time with me whenever possible, even
      if it was just for a minute or two, and that I always explained why I
      had to go to the baby if she pulled me away (things like, “the baby needs a diaper change right away or her bum will get really sore” or “She’s so hungry that I have to feed her right away.”) Knowing that I was going to the baby for a good reason seemed to take
      some of the sting away from sharing Mom.

    • Katherine Handcock

      July 5, 2014 at 6:01 am

      Not labeling is huge! I always think how hurtful it would be for a boss to say something in front of you like, “Oh, So-and-so is my good worker, but she’s a chatterbox!” And I particularly hate it when a parent says something like, “Smarten up. Look, your sister/brother is listening.”

  6. jendra_berri

    July 4, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Anecdotally I’ve noticed kids with more of an age difference fight way less. But they’re not likely going to play together as much. But even if they’re close in age, they’re not guaranteed to play together at all because it’s luck of the draw whether the personalities will mesh.
    So in my opinion a bigger age difference is a safer option with certain disadvantages, but the close in ages is a gamble that could pay huge dividends or blow up your life.
    So you can try your best to foster good communication, teach respect for space and property, give them room to work out their differences within reason, and give each individual attention as you can. And then hope for the best. It may not work. You can’t make two people like each other.

  7. chill

    July 4, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Great topic. My sister and I are 2 years apart (1 grade in school though, which created a lot of comparisons), and I have 2 girls a little over 2 years apart. My sister and I never really got along, although I really wanted to (I’m the younger one). It got so bad, that I decided at age 13, that I was tired of being hurt so I didn’t want anything to do with her. She continued to be mean to everyone in our family, even as our dad died of cancer when I was 20. The rest of my 20s weren’t great family-wise, even though my mom was devastated and really could have used a united family at that point.
    I grew up in MD, but my sister moved north to NY and I moved south to GA so we started living our own lives. I tried visiting the entire family (mom, sister and her family) from time to time, but she continued to be a royal bitch to everyone to the point where I was happy to make up any excuse not to go. When I visited my mom only, we were fine together, in general.

    My point in that description is that my parents took the hands-off approach and never really got involved with our fights, but if they did, my mom usually defended my sister. My dad and I were alike, but he was an old-fashioned dad and never really got involved to any extent to defend me (plus he died much too young), so I felt alone and picked on a lot.
    It wasn’t until about 10 years ago when I was in my 30s and with kids (not sure that has anything to do with it) that my mom finally realized what a bitch my sister is. And although she still doesn’t defend me (she claims I start these fights), she also tells people the mean things my sister does, so most see me as the good daughter and my sister as the mean one.
    It has now been only since last October when my mom had her stroke that my sister has been kind to all of us. Unfortunately, I still don’t trust her, although I’m happy that it has finally happened. Sad that it took over 40 years though…

    Looking back, I remember often wishing that my parents had gotten more involved and at least forced her to be a better person, rather than defending her because she was the smarter, prettier, more popular one. I wish they had gotten to know us both better and realized that she was so mean at heart and that anytime I was mean to her, it was really because I was tired of being humiliated. I will never, ever be in support of anyone who says “let the kids work it out” because that was a nightmare for me.

    With my 2 girls, I usually get them both in trouble (really, most of the time, both are doing something wrong anyway) so I’m not on any side and they both can see they have ways to improve, and I advocate that they just need to be kind and respectful to each other always. My girls have very different personalities which is great, but they can express their opinions without being mean or rude to each other.

    Oddly enough, my oldest is so sweet and kind and has a generous heart, *except* when it comes to her younger sister. And then, her mean side comes out, which gets her in big trouble with me. I refuse to put up with that, especially when she admits that she would never treat anyone else that way.

    Now they are 11 and 9, and I know the bumpiest years are ahead of us, but I hope they have a good foundation to work from. They have some occasional rough times, but in general, they are good friends and work together. There are many ways to deal with this, so good luck!

  8. Sarah

    July 5, 2014 at 4:30 am

    My mom locked us in the basement together until we sorted it out. You probably shouldn’t take that advice.

  9. K2

    July 5, 2014 at 9:07 am

    One thing I would say is – if siblings are talking to each other, and maybe it’s getting a little heated, but nothing bad is happening, DON’T intervene, especially if it is just to yell or tell them both to be quiet. It’s rude for any age group, it completely misses the point about communication, and the siblings end up never really having conversations just in case the parent decides to jump in when they think it should end.
    It really really pissed me off growing up, and still does – yes the siblings might be arguing, but if it’s not getting violent, let them freaking sort it out! Otherwise how can they learn to?

    Another thing – don’t have different standards for different kids if there’s no real reason. Example: “You’re a girl” is not a good reason to expect one sibling to do a lot more chores and listen, and “he’s a boy”, is not a good excuse to do nothing about the other sibling’s rudeness and laziness.

    And yes to the comparing bit. Kids don’t need or want to hear about how much better their brother/sister is at everything.

  10. Annee

    July 5, 2014 at 10:57 am

    My sons are 25 months apart and over the years – the oldest is turning 20 this week – it has been a challenge sometimes. The one rule that we have always had is that you don’t have to like each other all the time but you will always love each other. That is your brother and you look out for each other. Over the years I have watched them fight over the slightest thing one minute but if someone tries to interfere or pick on one of them – they are a united front. They have always looked out for each other. They have their own friends and interests and their own space.
    When I brought the youngest home from the hospital my oldest regressed a bit. He wanted to be the baby again – when going for a walk he wanted to be lying down in the stroller like the baby, he wanted to sleep in the crib ( he never ever wanted to do this before his brother was born) and he wanted to nurse again ( he self-weaned at 20 mo) Our solution was to let him a few times – he discovered it was much more fun to be the big brother and actually do fun things. If he was in the stroller he wasn’t able to explore the way he liked to and add to his rock collection and since he wasn’t able to nurse his solution was to get his “baby”( a cloth doll) when mummy was feeding his brother and nurse it. However his “baby” was fed through his belly button. As for the crib, he would climb in to play with his brother and if they happened to fall asleep for the afternoon nap – hurray.
    Even though they are grown up (sort of) they are still very close and look out for each other but they can also get on each others last remaining nerve as they know which buttons to push. And I wouldn’t change it for anything. Life is never dull with them around.

  11. neighbor57

    July 5, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    How to deal with sibling rivalry? Earplugs. And Valium.

    Seriously though, I intervene when it gets physical, or when they hit each other’s “triggers”. I try to make sure they each get their own time with me and with their friends. I try to point out the things they do like about one another.

  12. Kresaera

    July 6, 2014 at 3:56 am

    My kids are 5 years apart (almost to the day) and they fight constantly! My oldest one is very very protective of his little sister though, to the point that he can pick on her, but nobody else had better even think about it. Now that they are older (11 and 6) I try to have them work things out on their own or at least talk about what is going on, but let’s be honest… usually I end up yelling “BOTH OF YOU! STOP FIGHTING!!!!” over and over again then seperate them until I gain back some sanity.

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