Sibling Rivalry – what science has to tell us about why it’s on the rise, and how to turn it around

One of the biggest issues that you want help with, I know, is sibling rivalry. Nothing can take a peaceful family moment and ruin it quite as quickly as children who suddenly erupt into a fight. Few things wear us down more than the endless squabbling and arguing that kids can do.

What I’m going to share with you today comes from the work of my mentor, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. He is one of the foremost experts on the planet and his book, “Hold On To Your Kids” has been a best-seller for decades. 

Now, in order to understand why the tip I’m going to give you works, you need to know a bit about the force that I tend to refer to as alignment, and whose scientific name is attachment. In case you haven’t heard me say this before, the reason why I often don’t use the word attachment is because it’s so commonly misaligned and misunderstood. People often associate some attachment-friendly parenting decisions, which can include extended breast feeding, co-sleeping, and things like that, with the whole notion of attachment. So let’s start with a brief description of what I mean by attachment, or alignment.

Attachment is the most studied force in all of science. It explains why the planets orbit around the sun, why molecules stay together, and why you do much of what you do, from where you sit in social situations, to why your closest friends are so influential on your actions. Most importantly, who a person is most aligned or attached to determines who a person is trying to copy and be like. As parents, we want to be sure that we are in the primary circle of those our children are aligned with, or our job as parents can range from much more difficult, to impossible.

So what does this have to do with sibling rivalry?

It is important to teach your children how to use their words when they’re upset, and to coach them to increase their emotional intelligence. But the single best thing that you can do to improve sibling rivalry is to work with the natural, hierarchical nature of alignment. This will prompt your older children to be caring towards their younger sibling, which is much easier than you having to show them or try to force them to behave in a caring manner.

When there is a hierarchical relationship, it is natural for caring behavior to arise in the one who is older and more responsible. So, interestingly enough, a 3-4 year age gap is actually more ideal than the popular 2 year age gap that we typically have with our children nowadays. The larger age gap facilitates the natural hierarchy of relationships. But even twins will find a natural leader and a follower. So while you may have to work a bit harder to facilitate this ideal hierarchy when your kids are closer in age, it is very doable.

One of the ways that you can do this, is by matchmaking between your older and younger child. When the younger child isn’t around, say to the older one things like, “Your little brother sure looks up to you.” Or, “Your little sister is so lucky to have you to teach her how to colour/play cards/etc.” These statements help prime your child’s brain, which is literally hardwired for alignment, to recognize that he or she is higher on the alignment pole.

So look for opportunities to play up the fact that your older child has skills and abilities and is older than the younger one. In our egalitarian society, we often tend to talk about loving our children equally, and trying to give them equal attention. While I agree with the importance of equality, for the purposes of parenting and in this case decreasing sibling rivalry, it’s just not effective to emphasize your children’s equality. It is much more effective if you work on aligning your children in the natural hierarchy that their birth order created.

So start looking for signs that the younger one admires the older child for some reason or another. If you see, for example, the younger one trying to mimic his or her older sibling, reflect that fact back to the older sibling. This skill is called matchmaking, as is one that in some situations, like when we introduce two friends, we often naturally do.

Another great thing to do is to have the older sibling teach the younger one how to do things. For example, if the older one expresses frustration about how the younger one is not able to take turns, you can say, “Oh, how lucky it is that they have you, the older sibling, to teach them how to take turns and play games properly.”

Note – share in private!

It’s important that you do the matchmaking, or talking to the older sibling when he or she is alone! You don’t want the younger child overhearing you unless it is a situation where the younger one so adores and worships the older one, that there is no risk of him or her feeling defensive and like the older sibling shouldn’t be helping him. Realistically, when you are matchmaking two friends who you think might date, you do it separately most of the time, right? You may make some very obvious statements in front of both of your friends, but there are many sensitive comments that you would only share privately. Like maybe the man is very deep and sensitive, and has been known to cry in movies, which you know your girlfriend would love about him. Fact is, he’s not likely to just sit there while you share something so person. He’s much more likely to protest and try to undermine your point in order to look more manly/less vulnerable. The same principles apply here.

Special time

It can be helpful to find special time to be with each child, to help them feel more secure in their love for you, for sure. But in and of itself, special time may not stop sibling rivalry. It is very effective if you also emphasize hierarchical alignment. Find ways to point out the hierarchy to the older children, and help them to naturally feel some responsibility for their younger siblings.

You may well be aware of how empathy is on the decline in society. While you may have felt TOO responsible for your siblings, I hope it helps for you to see that being in a caregiving role is actually part of growing up. Waiting until children are full adults to put them in charge of others, is not the best way at all.

One of the examples that is fascinating is from a recent lecture I listened to of Dr. Neufeld’s, called “Cultivating Caring”. He talked about boxcar children in World War 2. These children were orphaned during the war and banded together to survive. He talked about a young girl who was the oldest in one particular group of children, even though she was only eleven years of age.

The power of the hierarchical attachment or alignment relationship is so strong that this young girl had taken responsibility and she was actually stealing, amongst other things, in order to provide food for the younger kids. Yet they weren’t even biologically related to her. However, in the absence of adults to care for them, her instincts kicked in and she became the caregiver. Even more astonishing, she would even not eat herself if there wasn’t enough food. 

Need a bit more proof that this is a powerful, natural instinct? Think about animals. It’s very common for older mammals for example to take on caregiving for the younger ones. This even often happens with orphaned animal babies.

If you think about it, our species would not exist if sibling rivalry had always been such a big issue. Can you imagine in caveman days where your children needed to be able to be quiet and there wasn’t the same energy to deal with fighting kids? When we picture families from days of old, we picture older relatives, whether siblings or cousins, taking care of the little ones while their parents worked. Isn’t it about time that you tapped into this powerful, natural force that transforms your sibling rivalry issues?


Now, of course, if your children have been fighting seriously for some time, you need to be patient. Focus on facilitating the shift in your children’s relationship from that of equals to that of an older, higher-on-the-totem-pole, and more responsible, sibling. The fruits of this shift will come in time and you’ll see natural caring emerge along with much less fighting. I talk a bit more about our reaction, in What to Do When Sibling Rivalry Is Driving You Crazy.

Comment below about what you found most helpful, and/or share your questions! Myself and the coaching team at Great Parenting Simplified, are honored to support you on this most important journey! Siblings can be a powerful source of lifelong strength, self esteem, etc. It’s worth taking the time to help your kids to learn how to draw on each other as a resource, not as a source of conflict, don’t you think?

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