It’s a tale as old as time and one many are all too familiar with. Sibling rivalry is a common dynamic in many households, but it takes many forms, and while some are a healthy aspect of family life and development, others might prove to be cause for concern. 

Sibling relationships can be some of the most rewarding and lifelong relationships in our lives. They can serve as role models, friends, and a marker of a shared identity. In many families, sibling rivalries are a common aspect of life and not one that dominates the dynamic. Siblings will argue and conflict, but the conflict can be brief, perfunctory and result in a learned lesson and repaired relationship. In these cases, conflict can serve a purpose and help to promote developmental growth. 

But while some conflict is inevitable and in fact healthy, there are several predisposing factors that can cause conflict between siblings. First, the order of siblings. As an only child prepares to become a sibling for the first time and welcomes a new personality into the home and family dynamic, competition can breed as the eldest sibling seeks to assert themselves and the younger sibling competes to keep up. Sibling rivalries also tend to be more significant in single parent and blended-family households, while those who have witnessed domestic conflict may at times model this behaviour at home. 

But when does it go too far? Pay attention to whether teasing has become persistent and if fights become physical and require intervention. Persistent conflict and rivalry may also lead to refusal to speak to each other, to withdrawal on a short- or sometimes more permanent basis. If one or both of the siblings is experiencing a mental health challenge such as depression, seeking additional support can prove very beneficial, both from the family system and from mental health professionals. 

There are several ways to improve the sibling dynamic in the home, but it’s important to recognise that that doesn’t mean removing arguments and conflicts altogether. Working collectively to create a set of parameters for healthy conflict can increase the likelihood of these boundaries being respected. Parents should be mindful of whether one child feels there is favouritism at play, and while each child is different and has different needs, everyone can benefit from dedicated time with their parents.

Be reminded that these relationships extend into adulthood, too. Consider how you dealt with similar issues in your youth and handled prior conflicts but remember that each relationship is different. There will always be several ways to handle a situation, either by creating a position of tolerance and allowing it to run its course, or learning when to manage and mitigate issues that arise from sibling rivalry. 

by Amanda Sheppard

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