Sibling Rivalry (or “when’s that baby going back to her real house?”)

90056894When I was eight-months pregnant with my second child (my daughter Claire), my oldest child Aidan announced, “I don’t really want a sister.”

Now, why wouldn’t any child want a sibling?  Why wouldn’t he want somebody to ride bikes with, somebody to dig in the dirt with, somebody to open presents with on Christmas morning?  Well, because he was a normal four-year-old for one thing.  We’re looking at sibling rivalry here.  What is sibling rivalry really and how do we deal with it effectively?  This is the topic I explored today with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life, produced by Ave Maria Radio.   (If you missed the show you can find the entire program in Ave Maria’s archives!)

Every parent I know who has more than one child has faced sibling rivalry.  Sibling rivalry is the competition and fighting between siblings brought on by a child’s jealousy or insecurity about how his parents feel about him compared to his siblings.  It’s easy to ignore sibling rivalry as just part of a normal childhood, but true sibling rivalry is very different from squabbling.  This kind of jealousy can become poisonous and painful if left to fester.


Let’s begin at the beginning, because sibling rivalry most often begins before the second child is even born, just as it did for Aidan nearly ten years ago.  These feelings of ambivalence about a new child coming into the family are very normal.  But if parents ignore those feelings or if they shame the child for having them, it can set up a dangerous dynamic between the two children.  I think it’s imperative that we recognize how authentically threatened little children are by the arrival of a new baby.  Before the baby arrives, they hear Mommy and Daddy talking “the baby” a LOT ( and what’s a baby? who is it? where is it coming from? what’s it gonna say or do?).  They watch Mommy rubbing her baby belly, witness the joy in the faces of strangers when they talk to Mommy about the baby coming, and watch Mommy and Daddy shopping for cool stuff for the baby.  Then the baby comes.  Well, goodness.  Now they see Mom gazing into the baby’s eyes, cooing at her, nursing her.  What’s to like about that when you’re a little kid?

CAPC’s second Building Block to a Joyful Catholic Home™ is empathy.  Empathy requires us to put ourselves in our child’s shoes so we can understand things from his perspective.  Empathy allows us to respond to our child with more awareness of what they need from us.  Quite simply, our kids are not us!  They have their own thoughts, temperament, and ideas.  If I had considered Aidan’s struggle only from my own perspective, I would have told him to knock it off and get with the program – we were having a baby whether he liked it or not.  However, when I looked at Aidan’s problem from his perspective – the perspective of a preschool only-child with health issues and two overwhelmed parents (I was in law school and Philip was a post-doctoral researcher) — no wonder he was freaked out thinking about a new family member coming.  He felt unsettled, threatened, and unsure where he would fit into the picture after the baby arrived.

Aidan is no different from any other small child facing the arrival of a new baby in the family.  All of us can acknowledge our older child’s feelings and do what we can to give them the reassurance and love they need to help through this transition. Here a few tips to help your little ones cope with their anxiety when you are expecting and welcoming a new baby into your family:

  • Include big siblings in preparations:  When we were expecting new babies, Philip and I got in the habit of calling the baby “our baby” or even “your baby” when talking to our older kids about the baby.  (“When your baby is crying, she might be hungry or uncomfortable.”)  This gave our children the feeling that they were included in the giant excitement ahead.
  • Gentle first introductions:  When baby finally arrived, when my older children came to the hospital the first time to meet baby, I asked my husband to phone me when he was on his way up so that I could put the baby in the hospital bassinet.  This way, my arms were free to hug my older children and I could introduce them to the new baby gently.   I also had “big sibling” gifts waiting for my kids when they arrived at the hospital.
  • Involve big siblings in baby care:  Older siblings will bond better with the baby if they are permitted to hold the baby, help with diapering and bathing, etc.  They feel less sidelined and more important.
  • One-on-one time:  It really helps older siblings feel special when we make an effort to spend “just you” time with them after baby arrives.  When I was recovering from my 3rd c-section, I made the mistake of ensuring my older kids had lots of special time with Dad and Grandma, but failed to take that time myself.  Two-year-old Claire was very jealous of Dominic for several months. I had to heal my relationship with her first before she was able to open her heart to Dominic.  (Now they’re great pals!)

Older Children

Beyond the baby years, older children can struggle with sibling rivalry, too.  My discussion with Greg & Lisa was part of their broader presentation of the problem of resentment – specifically the ways in which we can become mired in our anger and sense of powerlessness about certain relationships and circumstances.  When sibling rivalry is a problem in the relationship of two older siblings, this element of anger and powerlessness is very clear.  The siblings can actually feel hatred toward their sibling, exaggerate affronts, and react to small annoyances with emotional hostility and even violence.  I think this irrationality comes partly from a place of fear and powerlessness.

Older children are striving to demonstrate how they are special and unique.  They are trying to define themselves apart from their siblings.  Siblings can become jealous, angry, and competitive with one another when we fail to affirm them for the unique children of God that they are.  Here are a few tips for quieting the rioting between your big ‘uns!

  • Don’t compare or label your kids:  Never compare your children! (“Why can’t you be a good ball player like your brother?”)   This is a no-brainer.  Most parents I know have risen above this terrible habit because it was one that their parents haunted them with in their own childhoods, but I must make this declaration anyway in case there are few stragglers out there:  Comparing children – their talents, faults, attractiveness – is toxic!  Similarly, labeling your kids is very limiting.  Were you called “the clumsy one,” “the smart one,” “the pretty one,” or “the black sheep” in your family of origin?  Labels like this can hurt feelings and constrain potential.  I think parents get in the habit of labeling kids because they’re trying to create a family identity and sense of cohesion (however strange).  But these labels can create stagnancy and bitterness in family dynamics.  Yuck.  So avoid labels and be open to whatever your kids have to teach you about who they are and where God is leading them.
  • Help your kids discover their talents:  God has a special plan for each of us.  When we help our children see that they are unique and unrepeatable, with talents and gifts of their very own, they won’t feel like they have to live up to their siblings achievements.
  • Have plenty of family fun time:  Reserving special time for the whole family to play together fosters connection and family identity.  When your children regularly laugh together, they are better able to handle their conflicts later.   
  • Don’t forget one-on-one time:  Just like younger kids, older children benefit from me-and-you time when they can experience your love and recognition apart from their siblings.
  • Require and model kindness in your home:  Cruelty and sibling abuse is a reality and it can lead to life-long psychological harm.  We must never accept or tolerate violence or bullying in our homes.  This means we parents have to model the behavior we expect to see in our children.  We have to treat our children and our spouse with respect and love if we expect our children to internalize those values.

None of us wants to see our kids fighting or bickering, especially when it’s motivated by a lack of confidence in our love for them.  Sibling rivalry is avoidable!  Understand where your kids are coming from, meet their needs tenderly and mercifully, and reassure them that everyone’s needs will be met to the best of your ability.  Love your kids without limits, every day, at every opportunity.

Image credit: Arne Thayson (

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