Sibling Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry

Child: “You always buy her whatever she wants! You never do that for me! You love her more!”

When your child challenges your fairness, remember to say what the child is feeling without defending your actions. This is harder than it sounds since we are programmed to defend. But, if a child fusses about unfair treatment and we jump in with all kinds of defenses like, “I bought her those shoes because she needed them,” or “The ones you wanted cost too much for our budget,” we are in effect validating the problem.

Instead of searching for proof, jump directly to the heart of the issue starting with your child’s complaint. In the case of “You love her more,” SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS) like this:

SWYS: “Sounds like you are sure that because I bought her the shoes she wanted I love her more.”

The core of sibling rivalry is favoritism. Kids are sure this is real. And here’s a funny thing – when we are afraid to voice our children’s fears, we validate those same fears. However, when you can address children’s fears head-on, they feel reassured. It might sound backward, but it’s true; if it’s safe to talk about, it must not be that bad. Kids get very nervous when we can’t talk about something. A child’s unconscious answer to his  own question, “Why can’t Mom or Dad say that?” or “Why do they need reasons or proof?” is “It must be true.”

If the child’s response to your SWYS statement is, “Yes, you do love her more! You even tuck her in first (or other kinds of proof)…” respond by saying what you see the child feeling until the child feels understood:

SWYS: “And you noticed I do that, too. I’ll bet you notice a lot of things. Sounds like to you it seems I’m always doing more for her than you, and you feel really sad about that. Sometimes I’ve even heard you say that you wish she had never been born. Wow, it’s got to be really hard for you to feel like your Mom [or Dad] loves your sister more!”

Understand that this is a deep sadness that you can’t fix by changing your actions because the problem isn’t real in the first place. Since the problem only exists in the child’s mind, only the child can fix it. But what you can do is begin building up the child’s sense of self by pointing out STRENGTHs like:

STRENGTH: “You’ve been so brave, feeling all alone and trying to find ways to feel special.  And even though you feel jealous, you still find ways to be nice to your little sister sometimes. Just yesterday, I saw you…”

Then you carry this out into daily life and watch for other STRENGTHs the child shows as he/she interacts with his little sister while overcoming his/her fear, remembering that the favoritism issue is real for the child.

Also, know that a child who compares what you buy, or the minutes you spend, or the size of the slice of pizza to prove you love a sibling more, cannot stop comparing. In the case of my older daughter, instead of telling her to stop, we helped her see comparing as one of her strengths and assigned her to be the one to cut cakes, break cookies, pour milk, etc. Because she was so good at getting things exactly the same, she became our expert comparer and is still the best at dividing things up. The difference is that she is now proud of it instead of embarrassed by it.

One other point here: Check to see that you don’t believe you love one child more than the other. If you believe you do, you will find yourself constantly trying to make up for the disparity and your children will pick up on that for sure. They have radars for guilt.

Before you give in to your guilt, consider this. Even if one child is easier for you to enjoy than another (which is true for most parents), and whether or not you realize you love both (or all), and whether or not your parental love registers as an emotion, I still believe that you do love your children. Love is why you even care whether or not they feel loved, and love is what drives you to read articles like this in search of ways to reconnect.


  1. Julia Foree |

    GREAT post on sibling rivalry. So great, in fact, and such a big problem for those for whom it IS a problem, that I think you should teach a sibling rivalry class. Yes, it would include essentially the same things you include in your regular class, but it would be framed for dealing with sibling rivalry, and it would help parents in two ways: 1. they would be relieved to have a concrete way to address the issue which is troubling their family, and 2. They would benefit from being able to talk with and hear from other parents concerned with the same issues.
    Of course this would also benefit them in practicing the technique they can use with any parenting issue, but there is a certain comfort in feeling that you are taking a class specifically addressing sibling rivalry.

    • Julia, Thanks for your thoughtful comment and great suggestion. Sounds like a potential SWYS Basics Part III. Very easy to do. Maybe even a class, teleseminar or webinar on sibling rivalry.

  2. I love your advice particularly because it’s simple to put into effect. I’d love to see an article on sibling violence. Siblings who pinch, kick, hit, body slam, and so on. It’s a special category that deserves a special answer!

  3. Alegra, thank you for letting me know you find my approach simple and practical. Sibling violence is indeed an important topic. Thank you for your thoughtful suggestion.

    As I see it, sibling rivalry that can lead to violence has three parts that all need to be addressed:

    1. Relationship–Improving the parents’ relationship with each child and the children’s relationship with each other.

    2. Boundaries/Self-control–Increasing the children’s and parents’ awareness of their personal boundaries and self-control.

    3. Mediation–Helping children master communication and problem-solving skills.

    I’ve written posts on all of those parts individually. Until I can put them together in a meaningful way, they can be found by searching on “sibling” or “boundary” and following the relevant links within the posts. (Search function can be found in the sidebar, or below on mobile).

    If you or other parents reading this want help using my coaching model to turn sibling rivalry around, I encourage you to sign up for my Online Training Center classes or contact me for private coaching:

    However, if the level of violence appears to threaten either child’s safety, please seek the help of a play therapist or other mental health professional immediately. Don’t wait! A situation like that is not likely to improve on its own.


  4. serres |

    Dear Sandy.
    I am almost 10 days new in SWYS approach, which I love.
    There are many things I would love to discuss with you , but there is this big problem I try to resolve: my 3yo son bites, pushes, hits his 16 month sister.
    I managed to stop yelling, I start feeling somewhat less helpless and maybe more capable to actually say what I see. I tried to say when he wants to hit he doesnt do it on Sophia but hit the floor (his idea) but never does it.
    Many times he says he want her to leave, even in calm moments. Me: oh you dont want her here, you want her to leave. He:yes. Me: of course you want her to leave. She irritates you, she doesn’t let you play alone, she screams, she takes time from mom and dad, she takes your toys. I tottaly understand you. And she’s here to stay. No response there but he goes to playmore lighthearted I would say.
    Each time I feel we make progress but then he returns to his unwanted behaviour. I also told that I don’t accept hitting and that Sophia is not for hitting.
    I would appreciate some of yoyr valuable guidance.How can I protect Sophia?I don’t want to hug her while they both scream and cry because I understand that also my son needs that hug. I have tried hug thm both but most times he pushes her away. It is SO DIFFICULT. Whenever I spent time whith one I feel guilty for the other. I wouldn’t imagine it would be emotionally that hard to parent 2children.
    One last thing to help you get the picture: my husband and I are nurses. We work shifts around the clock and most of the times I or he is alone with kids. I really wish I could have more time with my kids or be less tired.
    Finally I want to say that there are some great moments that he seeks for her, he wants to play together, he hugs and kisses her, he helps her to get what she wants even when I don’t “look” so I believe his loving intentions are genuine.
    I look forward to some response.
    Thank for this fantastic work you are doing. (Sorry for my English, I am Greek)

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