Sibling rivalry is the bane of parents everywhere. Whether they're squabbling over a favorite toy, the remote control, or some perceived inequality in affection or attention that only they can discern, siblings' argumentative and oppositional behavior can start as early as toddlerhood and continue all the way through the teen years and beyond.

You can't prevent sibling rivalry, according to experts: It occurs naturally, as soon as a second child is born, and stems from each one's attempt to define herself as an individual. In some families the competition between siblings may be very understated, while in others, they may fight frequently. But take heart-there may be an upside to all this strife.

Spurring Individual Success

"With very sensitive parenting, this rivalry can sometimes be turned into encouragement for one sibling to try something new that the other sibling is enjoying," says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author in Beverly Hills. For example, if an older son is the star of the baseball team while the younger son has so far hesitated to join a sport, instead of talking about how fantastic an athlete the older son is, the parents might encourage the younger child to attend the older one's games to see the particular rewards of the sport—and perhaps subtly plant the idea that baseball could be a good choice for the younger child, too.

This technique can backfire, however, unless parents make a concerted effort to celebrate each child's individual strengths and desires: "Some degree of competition can be healthy if it motivates each child to do better," Lieberman says. "But...parents need to tread very carefully when trying to 'steer' sibling rivalry in a positive direction because they risk exacerbating competitiveness." Imagine the fireworks that might occur should the younger son fail to succeed at baseball. If this happens, the parents could direct the younger child toward activities more suited to his particular abilities. There, he too can excel, and garner the same praise his more athletic brother receives.

Life Lessons

Some experts feel that competition between siblings, unpleasant though it may be, is a good life lesson for future relationships: "[It] paves the way for kids to observe, learn, and adapt to situations that are not always within their control," explains Francine Lederer, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. "Sharing, caring, jealousy, anger, and learning empathy are just some of the experiences and emotions that get stirred up in siblings. It's a great exercise for future friendships, romantic relationships, and professional encounters."


Carole Lieberman, PhD, reviewed this article.



Carole Lieberman, email messages to author, September, 2013.

Francine Lederer, email messages to author, September 2013.