How To Deal With Sibling Rivalry: Build Happy and Healthy Sibling Relationships

Older sibling with arm around baby brother. Older sister is thinking “when are you going back in mom’s belly?” and the little boy is thinking “I love you big sis!”

Sibling fights and tantrums are stressful for moms/parents

Although we may dream of conflict-free kids, sibling fights and rivalries can be the reality. In fact, the average family reports up to seven conflicts between kiddos per hour! Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Chances are you’re worried about keeping the peace in your home — especially if you’re expecting a new baby.

Understand why siblings fight, plus solutions to keep outbursts at bay and how to prepare your child for a newborn.

Why do siblings fight with each other?

Even if think you can’t handle one more outburst, sibling rivalry psychology offers some encouragement. Not only is it normal, sibling conflict is a natural, important part of growing up!

Says Adele Faber in her book Siblings Without Rivalry, “Take two kids in competition for their parents' love and attention. Add to that the envy that one child feels for the accomplishments of the other, the resentment that each child feels for the privileges of the other . . . and it's not hard to understand why in families across the land, the sibling relationship contains enough emotional dynamite to set off rounds of daily explosions.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

How you handle sibling rivalry should depend on your oldest child’s developmental stage. Brenda L. Volling, author and Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, explains why.

For example, “the 18-month-old is still dealing with attachment issues, the 3-year-old may be in the midst of toilet training, and the 5-year-old may be getting ready to start kindergarten,” writes Dr. Volling. “It would not be surprising, then, to learn that once the infant sibling was born, the 18-month-old started clinging to mother and protesting separation, the 3-year-old started having toileting accidents, and the 5-year-old started refusing to go to school.”

For the smallest of big siblings (3 and younger), “this is by far the hardest time for the firstborn to accept a new baby,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., in The Self-Aware Parent. Some express frustration right away. Others throw tantrums when the baby becomes mobile and grab their sibling’s toys. Little ones may also respond with regression. For example, your toddler may happily use a sippy cup — but whine for a bottle when he sees the attention his bottle-fed baby sister is getting.

Big kids (ages 4 and older) can be more understanding about the baby. With school, playdates and activities, their world is widening. But with less attention from Mom than he’s used to, he could fear he’s being left behind. While it’s exciting to be a big brother, it’s hard to share Mom for the first time.

For kids of any age, introducing a new baby to the home will require patience and love on the part of parents.

How do you stop a sibling from being jealous?

Sibling rivalry doesn’t have to mean 24/7 conflict. Regardless of your child’s age, take these steps to minimize jealousy:

Affirm how your child feels.

“Instead of dismissing negative feelings about a sibling, acknowledge the feelings,” Adele Faber says. For example, rather than explaining to your child that he already had alone time with Mommy and now the baby needs attention, rephrase: It’s frustrating sometimes when Mommy has to hold the baby, or even, You didn’t choose to be a big brother. It’s hard sometimes. Acknowledging his feelings is step one in changing his attitude. As a parent, this can be hard to do, but it really works.

Schedule intentional, focused one-on-one time with your older kiddo every day.

A little togetherness reminds the big brother that he’s still so loved. Be extra-generous with hugs and kisses. Even running errands together can be meaningful. And call in reinforcements! It’s a great time for a favorite aunt or uncle to spend quality time with your older child.

Handle inevitable tantrums with understanding.

Tantrums are your child’s way of telling you that something in their world feels out of control. What they need most is a calm, comforting response. Equip your child with words to communicate those complicated feelings: You felt really sad when you saw daddy and me giving the baby a bath. Next time you feel sad, come talk to us first. As we can attest, responding to a tantrum with heightened emotions rarely accomplishes anything.

Take care of yourself.

Like we’re told on every flight, put on your own oxygen mask first. Especially in times of tension and stress, do what you can to prioritize self-care. You’ll have more energy and joy to share with your kiddos.

How to prepare siblings for your new baby

There are things you can do before your new baby arrives to keep sibling rivalry at bay. Here are some smart strategies to get siblings ready to welcome the baby:

Tell your child about the baby when you start telling your friends.

Even if sworn to secrecy, well-meaning friends could let it slip and ask your child about being a new big sister. The news should come directly from you.

Make any big changes well before the baby is born.

Big life changes, like potty training or moving from a crib to a bed, are hard enough without a new baby in the mix. For as much stability as possible, try to complete major changes two months before the baby arrives.

Paint a realistic picture of what life will look like with the new baby.

Frame expectations early: the baby will mostly eat and sleep, and won’t be a playmate at first. Read age-appropriate books about pregnancy, birth and baby siblings with your child. A good favorite is I’m a Big Sister (and its companion I’m a Big Brother) by Joanna Cole. If possible, visit friends with a baby for a real-world experience.

Reminisce about what it was like when they were a newborn.

Look at baby pictures with your older child. Share how excited you were when they were born, and how everyone wanted to see them and hold them. If you have a sibling, share how you felt: I felt happy when your Aunt Chrissy arrived, but it was hard to learn how to share your Grandma. Or if you’re the younger one, it can be fun for your child to chat with their aunt or uncle about your own arrival!

Offer age-appropriate ways for your child to help get ready for the baby.

For example, a younger child can choose the baby’s coming home outfit from two acceptable options. Older ones can pick storybooks to read to the baby. Many kids enjoy shopping for a special gift “from them” to give to the baby.

Whether you’re trying to diffuse disagreements between older kids, or plan a smooth transition with a newborn, sibling rivalry doesn’t have to be the norm. With the right strategies, you can keep the peace in your home and help your kids thrive. Before you know it, they’ll be laughing, playing and make a mess together! Enjoy it!

About the author: Hayley Nivelle is the Co-Founder & CEO of ellie, the new app for parenting groups. Originally from Kansas City, she lives in the NYC area with her husband and two boys. She has relied on her moms groups for everything from breastfeeding supply tips to dealing with the fun and challenges of a two year old!