Sibling rivalry starts early. Understand what causes it and how to encourage your children to develop healthy bonds with each other. By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you have children, you know that maintaining peace in your household can be difficult. One minute your children are getting along and the next minute they're at each other's throats. Knowing when and how to intervene can make a difference in how well your children relate to each other. Find out what you can do to manage sibling rivalry.

Sibling rivalry typically develops as siblings compete for their parents' love and respect. Signs of sibling rivalry might include hitting, name-calling, bickering and immature behavior. Children often display this kind of behavior after the birth of a new baby. It can also happen anytime one child in the family receives extra attention or what's perceived to be preferential treatment.

While sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up, many factors can affect how well your children get along with each other — including age, sex and personality, as well as the size of your family, whether it's a blended family and each child's position in it. For example:

  • Children close in age might battle each other more than children farther apart in age.
  • Children of the same sex might share more of the same interests, but they might also be more likely to compete against each other.
  • Middle children — who might not get the same privileges or attention as the oldest or youngest child in the family — might act out to feel more secure.
  • Children whose parents are divorced might feel driven to compete for the attention of the parent with whom they live — especially if step-siblings also live in the home.

As your children get older, the way they interact is likely to change. While younger children tend to fight physically, older children are more likely to have verbal arguments. Friction between siblings typically peaks between ages 8 and 12, when children become physically stronger and more opinionated. As teens become more independent, however, they might spend less time with family and younger siblings. This can lessen the sibling squabbling but also be difficult for younger children to accept.

All siblings are bound to fight, tease and tattle on one another at some point. However, you can take active steps to encourage healthy sibling relationships. Consider these tips:

  • Respect each child's unique needs. Treating your children uniformly isn't always practical — and the harder you try, the more your children might look for signs of unfairness. Instead, focus on meeting each child's unique needs. For example, instead of buying both of your children the same gifts to avoid conflict, consider buying them different gifts that reflect their individual interests. Instead of signing up all of your children for soccer or piano lessons, ask for their individual input.
  • Avoid comparisons. Comparing your children's abilities can cause them to feel hurt and insecure. While it's natural to notice the differences between children, avoid discussing them in front of the kids. When praising one of your children, stick to describing his or her action or accomplishment — rather than comparing it to how his or her sibling does it.
  • Set the ground rules. Make sure your children understand what you consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior when it comes to interacting with each other, as well as the consequences of misbehavior.
  • Don't get involved in battles. Encourage your children to settle their own differences. Discourage tattling. While you might need to help younger children resolve disputes, you can still refrain from taking sides. When you need to discipline your children, avoid doing so in front of others — which can cause shame and embarrassment. When possible, take your child aside to discuss his or her behavior. Also, avoid using nicknames for your children that might perpetuate sibling rivalry or repeatedly blaming one child for sibling disputes.
  • Anticipate problems. If your children can't resolve a disagreement by themselves or routinely fight over the same things, consider helping them devise a solution. For example, if you have young children who have trouble sharing, encourage them to each play with their own toys or plan activities that don't require much cooperation — such as listening to music or playing hide and seek. If your children regularly battle over use of the television, shared gaming systems or other gadgets, help them create a weekly schedule. Explain the consequences of not following the schedule.
  • Listen to your children. Being a sibling can be frustrating. Allow your children to vent their negative feelings about each other. Respond by acknowledging their feelings. If you have siblings, share stories of your own childhood conflicts. Consider holding regular family meetings to give your children a chance to talk about and work out sibling issues.
  • Encourage good behavior. When you see your children playing well together or working as a team, be sure to compliment them. A little praise can go a long way.
  • Show your love. Spend time alone with each of your children. Do special activities with each of your children that reflect their interests. Remind your children that they're loved, you're there for them and they can talk about anything with you.

Sibling rivalry often isn't an issue for multiples. While twins or other multiples might compete against each other, the children typically also depend on each other and develop close relationships early on. However, they might have problems maintaining their individuality. Twins are often treated as a unit, rather than two children who have unique personalities. It can be tempting to dress them alike and give them the same toys. If you have multiples, pay attention to their different needs and try to foster individuality.

Other children in a family with multiples might feel left out or jealous since they're not part of this unique relationship and multiples often need and attract lots of attention. If you have multiples and one or more other children, be sure to spend plenty of special one-on-one time with each of your kids. Also, encourage your multiples to play separately with other children. For example, arrange a play date for one of your twins while the other twin plays with a sibling. Your multiples might resist separation, but being able to be apart is a skill your children will benefit from as they get older.

Remember, all siblings fight or argue. Sibling rivalry is normal. However, by treating your children as individuals, listening to them and giving them opportunities to resolve their own problems, you'll lay the groundwork for solid sibling relationships.

Feb. 23, 2012