What Are the Main Causes of Sibling Rivalry?

Medically Reviewed on 8/18/2021

What does sibling rivalry consist of?

Siblings may be jealous of and harbor resentment toward one another. The main causes of sibling rivalry are lack of social skills, concerns with fairness, individual temperaments, special needs, parenting style, parent's conflict resolution skills and culture.
Siblings may be jealous of and harbor resentment toward one another. The main causes of sibling rivalry are lack of social skills, concerns with fairness, individual temperaments, special needs, parenting style, parent's conflict resolution skills and culture.

In many families, the children count their siblings among their friends. But it’s also common for siblings to be great friends on one day and hateful to one another on the next. They often compete with, are jealous of, and harbor resentment of one another.

You've likely seen this particular green-eyed monster. It's known as sibling rivalry, and it's universal. And of all the issues you encounter in parenting, sibling rivalry may be among the most frustrating.

Some experts say sibling rivalry stems from children competing for their parents’ love. Others say the children's goal is parental recognition or attention. Sibling rivalry can start even before the second child comes into the picture.

Ways that children show sibling rivalry include:‌  

  • Calling each other names‌
  • Telling on each other, whether truthfully or not‌
  • Verbal sparring, but not good-naturedly‌
  • Poking or hitting each other‌
  • Breaking or hiding each other’s possessions

Why do siblings fight?

How your children’s needs and personalities develop can significantly affect how they relate to one another. Often it can heighten their conflict.‌

Many factors can contribute to sibling rivalry:

Factors related to age

  • Preschoolers are not in total command of the social skills they need to be assertive without being aggressive. They may fight to protect their toys and other belongings.‌
  • Elementary-school-age children are concerned with what's fair versus unfair. They may begrudge a younger sibling’s seemingly preferential treatment.‌
  • Teenagers value their independence. They may resent being asked to take care of their younger siblings.
  • Age differences between siblings: The closer in age your children are, the more likely they are to be at each other.

‌Other factors

  • Individual temperaments. Your children's moods, character, and adaptability can significantly influence how they get along. For example, if one sibling is laid back and the other is outgoing, they may easily ruffle each other’s feathers. 
  • Special needs. If one of your children has special needs or a chronic illness, they require more of your attention and time. This can spark rivalry among your children. 
  • Yours and your partner's own conflict-resolution skills. Much research points to a strong connection between jealousy among siblings and a lack of harmony between their parents.   
  • Your parenting style. Controlling and disinterested parents alike have been shown to stimulate more sibling rivalry than parents who are mediators and coach their children to settle their differences.
  • Culture. If a certain cultural practice seems to disregard one gender, members of that gender may feel excluded and express it as resentment toward siblings who seem to be favored. 

Additional parental behaviors that can worsen sibling rivalry include:

  • Openly favoring one child over another
  • Comparing your children to one another
  • Setting up your children in competition with one another

It can be hard to know how to encourage your children to get along. Fortunately, experts can point to tried-and-true ways to intervene.

How to deal with sibling rivalry

How you respond to your children's rivalry can help improve their relationship. Here are some things to try:

Proactive strategies

  • Focus on your children's individual strengths in everyday life.
  • Provide affection and individual quality time on an equal basis.
  • Plan fun activities for your whole family.
  • Avoid labels for your children, such as the "difficult one."‌

Mediating strategies

  • Instead of taking a side, ‌encourage them to brainstorm for a resolution.
  • Show them how to cooperate and share things.
  • Pay attention to the time when conflicts typically happen, so you can change up the routine.
  • Teach them positive ways to get each other's attention.

Through it all, make it clear that you will not tolerate violence or bullying. Remember that if things get out of hand, a behavioral psychologist can help you sort them out. Your primary care physician can assist you in locating one. 

Reasons for seeking professional help with sibling rivalry include:

  • A current or potential psychological disorder
  • Real or potential for physical abuse
  • Negative impact on your marriage/partnership


The abbreviated term ADHD denotes the condition commonly known as: See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 8/18/2021

Advanced Science Letters: "Sibling rivalry and offspring conflict: A Review."

The Center for Parenting Education: "COPING WITH SIBLING RIVALRY."

Journal of Marriage and The Family: "Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood and Adolescence."

Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health: "Sibling rivalry."

Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: "Effects of parenting style and involvement in sibling conflict on adolescent sibling relationships," "Parental intervention style and adult sibling conflicts: The mediating role of involvement in sibling bullying."

Kids Health: "Sibling Rivalry."

Raising Children Network: "Teenage sibling fighting," "Why children and siblings fight."

Volling, B., Kennedy, D., and Jackey, L. "The Development of Sibling Jealousy." In Handbook of Jealousy: Theory, Research, and Multidisciplinary Approaches, edited by S. L. Hart and M. Legerstee. Wiley, 2010.