Sibling Rivalry

June 10 2017 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: We are a family of four, with two children, a boy, aged 7 and a girl aged 10. While my husband and I love each other deeply and rarely have arguments, especially in front of our kids, we cannot say the same about them. They sleep in two separate bedrooms – thank God – but when they are in the living room together, or at dinner, or in any other place around the house or outside the house, there is rarely a moment when they are not engaged in some heated discussion – either over which program to watch on TV, or for more sitting place on the sofa, or over some objects both want to use at the same time, or for God knows whatever reason. My husband and I are quite exasperated by this situation. Is there anything we can do to resolve this?


Sibling rivalry is a common but frustrating family issue. The good news is there are a few simple things you can do to move your kids from sibling rivalry to sibling revelry.

Sibling Rivalry Isn’t Normal: Many parents believe that siblings can’t help but fight with each other and, of course, conflict is a normal part of family life to a degree. But when the relationship between siblings become characterized by conflict (instead of periodically punctuated by it) there are almost always more serious issues in play. It is important to have the expectation that each member of the family will speak respectfully to the others, and that they will actively look for ways to take care of each other. Parents need to model these traits in their own marriage and in the way they treat their children, and they need to clearly communicate the expectation that their children will follow their lead.

Teach Self-Control And Generosity: The Church tells us that families are schools of love and virtue. Two of the virtues that lead to a more loving household are self-control and generosity. Self-control allows us to value the people around us more than our feelings. Generosity allows us to value the people around us more than things. People must always be more important than feelings or things.

Set some time aside for a family meeting. Tell your kids that, as a family, you want to exhibit better self-control and generosity, and use the above paragraph to explain why. Pick a specific situation (e.g., TV negotiations, sharing, etc.) and ask each child to describe what they would do differently in that situation if they were to exhibit better self-control and generosity. Actually script it out. When you are satisfied the kids know what this would look like in practice, let them know that you will be expecting them to do this in those situations. 

Later, if they start bickering about something (say, the TV), stop them right then and prompt them by asking, “What would you need to do to show better self-control and generosity right now?”  Often this is enough to get kids out of their reactive mindset and get them thinking consciously about how they need to act differently. Give your kids a chance to meet this new standard. Of course, there will be times when they can’t get themselves back on track. That’s when you will need to use consequences.

The rule should be: “We value people more than things in this household. If you cannot exhibit self-control or generosity around a thing, then you aren’t mature enough to enjoy that thing or have a say.” In practice, here’s how this will play out. The children are bickering over the TV. You prompt them to exhibit more self-control and generosity. Whichever child doesn’t respond appropriately to this prompt loses the right to have a say in the TV program. Moreover, if they continue to fuss, they will need to go to a time-out until they have regained enough self-control and generosity to accept the decision that has been made in their absence. If both children fail to respond to this prompt, they both lose TV for the rest of the evening. Also before they can earn the chance to watch TV the next day, they need to show you that they display self-control and generosity in the other situations that occur for the rest of the evening. The same format would apply to playing with a toy, or the comfy spot on the couch, or you name it.

Be Present: Of course, sometimes kids fight because that is the only way they know to get mom and dad to focus on them. Make sure you are, as Pope Francis says, regularly “wasting time with your children.” They more kids feel we are available to them, the less they are tempted to create drama to pull our attention from the internet, or TV, or other tasks.

Updated on June 10 2017