Defusing Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry does happen. Is there anything we can do about it?

Dec 28, 2018: In this post, we cover important steps that parents can take to diffuse sibling rivalry amongst their children and promote a sense of cooperation in the house!

But first, what does Guru Jee say about siblings?

Ever wonder why you were put in a certain family or have certain siblings? Again, Guru Ji has ALL the answers, even for a question like this!:

ਮਾਤ ਪਿਤਾ ਬਨਿਤਾ ਸੁਤ ਬੰਧਪ ਇਸਟ ਮੀਤ ਅਰੁ ਭਾਈ ॥ ਪੂਰਬ ਜਨਮ ਕੇ ਮਿਲੇ ਸੰਜੋਗੀ ਅੰਤਹਿ ਕੋ ਨ ਸਹਾਈ ॥੧॥
maat pitaa banitaa sut ba(n)dhap isaT meet ar bhaiee || poorab janam ke mile sa(n)jogee a(n)teh ko na sahaiee ||1||
Mother, father, spouse, children, relatives, lovers, friends and siblings meet, having been associated in previous lives; but none of them will be your companion and support in the end. ||1||
(Raag Jaitsree, Mehla 5, Ang 700)

In other words, Guru Ji tells us that we are associated with those closest to us, like our parents, relatives, children, siblings, etc. because we have been associated with them in a previous lifetime (or lifetimes). So, whatever karmic debt we have with some people ends up playing out in this lifetime. For example, if we always feuded with someone in a previous lifetime, in this lifetime we may continue the cycle of fighting with them. Moreover, if we had a wonderful, loving and supportive relationship with someone in a previous lifetime, it’s likely that goodwill will continue on in this lifetime. Ever wonder why with certain people, there’s an almost immediate spark – a sense of familiarity and trust? And with others, sometimes we don’t know why, and they haven’t necessarily “done” anything that is suspicious, but for some reason we feel uneasy around them? One possible explanation for these scenarios is pichhle karam!

Practical tips for dealing with sibling rivalry

Anyways, so sibling rivalry does happen. Is there anything we can do about it? Well, we can try! We can use certain tools to try to diffuse the tension. There’s a host of practical tips that we can apply to encourage good feelings amongst our kids. Here are some ideas:

  • Acknowledge “bad feelings”: Avoid dismissing children’s negative feelings about a brother or sister. Instead, acknowledge the feelings by putting the feelings into words. This helps children let go and move beyond their negative feelings for a sibling and interestingly leads children to get along BETTER than if we insist on good feelings between siblings. Importantly, by accepting that our children have negative feelings, we’re not agreeing with their feelings. We can:
    • Put their feelings into words by paraphrasing what they’re saying or by rephrasing what they mean. For example, if a child expresses, “You’re always with the baby… Send the baby back to the store!” say, “You’re feeling frustrated and wished I didn’t spend so much time with the baby.”
    • Give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality. Using the same example, if a child says, “You’re always with the baby… Send the baby back to the store!” say, “You don’t like the baby being here. You wish the baby would just go away.”
    • Help kids channel antagonistic feelings into creative outlets. This can accomplished by asking or stating:
      • “Show me how you feel with this pillow (or doll).”
      • “Do you want to draw a picture to show me how you feel?”
      • “Would you like to write a letter to your brother to tell him how angry you are?”
    • ALWAYS stop violent behavior or behavior that is hurtful to other kids ASAP. Then, demonstrate how to verbally express strong feelings, appropriately. Take action without insulting the attacker. Examples include:
      • “No hitting in this house! Tell your brother how angry you are with your words.”
      • “You are really irate about this! I trust you can confront your sister about this WITHOUT name-calling.”
  • Absolutely avoid comparing children to each other. Treat each like the individual he or she is. If there is behavior that needs addressing, then address the behavior WITHOUT comparing to a sibling who might “do it better.” Alternatively, if we try to complement a child by comparing her to her sibling, that’s also damaging. Again, only talk about the behavior that you want to address, which in this case, is positive!
    • Describe what you see. “I see a wet towel on the bed,” or “I see you’ve put your towel where it belongs in the bathroom.”
    • Describe what you feel. “Seeing a wet towel on the bed annoys me!” or “I so so appreciate it when you remember to hang up your wet towel.”
    • Describe what needs to be done. “The wet towel belongs in the bathroom.”
  • Avoid the phrase, “I love you both/all equally”. Instead of treating children equally, it’s more important to treat them with fairness , demonstrate consistency, and treat them according to their unique needs. Children never really believe us when we tell them we love them all equally. If they do actually believe us, they may feel hurt because they feel like we don’t see them as individuals or appreciate their particular contribution to our family (… or our world).
    • Give each child food, clothing, and time according to their NEEDS, instead of simply giving equally to demonstrate fairness. For example, a seven year old Kaur will have different dietary requirements than her five year old sister. Therefore, giving each two mini pancakes for breakfast in the name of fairness is not actually taking into account what they NEED in order to have a filling breakfast.
    • Show how each child is loved uniquely. Instead of saying, “I love you the same as I love your brother,” try, “You are the only ‘you’ in this world! You’re so special to me!” or “You’re my favorite eldest daughter!”
  • Avoid casting children in roles. This is important because not only do we sometimes unknowingly cast a child into roles, but his siblings cast him into roles and he casts himself into roles! An example of a role is being the aggressor or the victim, two common roles siblings often get cast into.
    • State what needs to be done to fix the situation: So, instead of, “Harpreet, you’re always so mean to your sister! Give your sister her toy back!” try, “Hapreet, your sister wants her toy back.”
    • Show confidence in abilities when siblings peg child into a role: “Harpreet can be very generous, too. Maybe try asking him differently.”
    • Redirect child’s image of himself when he expresses himself in a role (in this example, Hapreet views himself as mean): “Harpreet, you’re also capable of being thoughtful and kind.”
  • Children with problems should not be viewed as “problem children.” That is, children who have special needs or disabilities should not be seen as children who limited by their disablility. Instead, we should try to focus on their abilities and what they CAN do. We should:
    • Accept their frustration when trying to complete tasks. “Wow. This is hard and frustrating, right?”
    • Appreciate what they’ve accomplished, despite any imperfections or shortcomings. “You did so much better this time!”
    • Focus on solutions. “Wow. This is hard. What do you think you can do?”

“These are all nice,” you’re thinking, “…But what about the fighting?!” Fighting is it’s own separate category and absolutely must be addressed! Nevertheless, if we implement the above tips, we may significantly reduce the incidence of fighting amongst our children. For fights that do inevitably break out (our children are human, after all!), it’s important we evaluate the level of fighting before responding, as different levels of fighting require different responses. Here are some ideas by different levels of fighting:

Level 1: Bickering

  • Ignore it.
  • Let the kids build their conflict resolution skills.

Level 2: Situation’s getting heated. Adult intervention may be warranted.

  1. Recognize their anger. “You two sound furious with each other!”
  2. Reflect each kid’s point of view. “Sukhdeep, you want to play with your trucks because you just started playing with them after doing your homework. And Amolak, you also want to play with the trucks, too.”
  3. Describe the problem while appreciating its seriousness (to the kids): “Yikes! This is a tough problem. You both want to play with the trucks at the same time. And Sukhdeep, you want to play alone, but Amolak wants to play with you.”
  4. Convey confidence in the kids’ ability to work out a solution. “I am confident that you two can work out a solution that will be fair to each of you.”
  5. Walk away.

Level 3: Situation appears to be dangerous. Adult Intervention necessary.

  1. “Is this real fight or a play fight?” (Real fights are NOT allowed, whereas play fights are acceptable.)
  2. Restate the rules. “Play fighting is only OK if everyone is having fun. Otherwise, it has to stop.”
  3. Listen to YOUR feelings. “I know you’re play fighting, but this is getting too rough for me to watch. Find another activity.”

Level 4: Situation IS dangerous. Adult intervention REQUIRED.

  1. Describe what you see. “I see two furious kids who are hurting each other!”
  2. Separate the kids. “We need to separate you two. It’s not safe for you to be together right now. Once we’ve all cooled off, then we can talk about it.”

Sometime, the conflicts between siblings seems intractable. These conflicts are definitely important to address, and also require adult intervention. In these situations, it’s time to call a family meeting to discuss all sides to the issue, so we can work through it as a family:

  1. Call a meeting for all parties involved. Explain the reason for the meeting as well as the ground rules (i.e. no name calling!, etc.).
  2. Write down each child’s feelings and concerns. Then read them aloud.
  3. Allow each child time to rebut the concerns.
  4. Brainstorm solutions. At this stage, ALL ideas are written down without evaluating the merits of each idea.
  5. Decide on solutions EVERYONE can live with from the list generated via brainstorming.
  6. Follow-up.

When a child asks for our help in dealing with a sibling, we can support the child asking for help WITHOUT taking sides. It’s important to NOT take sides. When we take sides, we signify to our children that we don’t trust in their abilities to resolve conflicts on their own and we must intervene. Instead, we can help them build the tools they need to resolve conflicts with others, even when they need our help to get started. Here’s how:

  1. Reflect each child’s case. “Gulbagh wants to use the computer for video games. While Ranjeet wants to use the computer for homework.”
  2. Remind everybody of the rule or value. “School work is always more important than video games.”
  3. Open the door for a possible negotiation. “But Ranjeet, if you want to work something out with Gulbagh, that’s up to you.”
  4. Leave.


It’s important to acknowledge that parents have so much potential influence to help nurture and support sibling relationships. Nevertheless, the steps we can take to help better the relationships are often not straightforward “common sense.” In fact, like any new skill, these steps take practice to try to implement. And of course, not all siblings will get along, even if we deploy every trick in the book! Sometimes, the built up karam from previous lifetimes between siblings seems too great to overcome. At the same time, it’s our duty as parents to try. We might surprise ourselves. Implementing fundamental changes in how we approach sibling rivalry while acknowledging each child’s individuality has the potential to completely flip the dynamics in our households. If we can encourage our children to resolve conflicts constructively and problem-solve issues, we can equip them with essential skills they need for functioning in this world. Furthermore, if we desire greater world peace, then the best place to start is at home!


Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish published in 2012 by W.W. Norton & Company

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