When Sibling Rivalry Strikes

    “When Sibling Rivalry Strikes,” Ensign, Feb. 1975, 53

    When Sibling Rivalry Strikes

    How parents can diminish jealousy between their children

    Jim bounces into the house and makes his proud announcement to all within earshot: he made the basketball team! Mom expresses pleasure in his achievement and comments on the long, hard hours of practice that made it possible. The younger children eagerly ask when they can see him play. But Sam, Jim’s older brother, says in a jealous tone, “Yeah, you always were all brawn and no brain.”

    Susan and David come home with a new infant son. After two girls, David is very happy to have a boy. But Nan, once the youngest at two-and-a-half years, cries and asks to be held each time Susan picks up the baby.

    Although these are common occurrences in families, parents can do much to minimize jealous feelings if they will ask: First, “What is jealousy? How is it expressed?” Second, “What causes jealousy?” Third, “How can I help diminish it and foster affection in its place?”

    Jealousy is an emotion that most of us feel at some time in our lives. It is complex because it contains elements of anger, fear, and resentment. Jealousy always involves people, and is centered in the fear of losing someone’s affection or recognition.1 Jealousy also gnaws at the roots of self-esteem; a jealous child doubts his own worthiness to be loved.

    The face of jealousy has many disguises. Some children express their jealousy very directly. When Mother brings home the new baby, the child says, “Take it back! Can’t we get a doggie instead?” He may even try to injure the baby. Other children disguise their jealous feelings in misbehavior. A young child may begin acting like a baby himself: he cries more frequently, demands to be fed, or wets the bed. An older child may conceal his hostility by appearing to be very fond of the new baby, or he may cling to his parents and insist on constant attention.

    As children grow older, they may express their rivalry in criticizing, bossing, bickering, or fighting. Stealing and destructiveness may also start with jealousy. School-age children express their jealousy not only at home but also in school. They may feel compelled to get the highest grades, make athletic teams, or get elected class president. Along with one child’s excessive desire for popularity, we see the opposite extreme of shyness, day-dreaming, and withdrawal in another.2

    Jealousy has many sources. It often stems from wanting the exclusive love of someone dear.3 Or it may be caused by just wanting to be equally recognized. Parents sometimes unintentionally show preference for one child over another by attending all the performances of one child; because Dad enjoys basketball, he attends all of Todd’s games but neglects Alicia’s piano recitals. Nothing makes a child feel less kindly toward a brother than to note that his brother’s appearance, manner, and abilities are preferred by his parents.

    When Mother says, “John gets such good grades. See if you can do as well,” she thinks this will stimulate the child to try harder; but it may only serve to discourage him. The child feels he is not valued for himself, but only if he is like John.

    A child of two-and-a-half to three years of age is more likely to feel rivalry when a new baby comes into the home than is a younger child, because a younger child has not yet, in most instances, become fully aware of parental affection and attention. A child older than three ordinarily feels secure in his parents’ affection and is beginning to lose some of his dependency.4

    Differences in sex, physical and intellectual abilities, health and appearance, or in material possessions can all be fertile soil for jealousy. But from these same differences, affection and cooperation among children can flourish. What, then, is the secret? How can jealousy be diminished?

    Parents are the key to harmony in the home. Your attitude toward your neighbor’s new boat or your sister-in-law’s beautiful voice or Mrs. James’s lovely hair will be reflected in your children. If you are jealous of your neighbor’s boat, Scott may be jealous of Doug’s new bike. Parental attitudes and actions can be the decisive factors in promoting or preventing jealousy within the family.

    Here are several suggestions on fostering affection and lessening rivalry between children:

    Help Other Children Accept the New Baby.

    Preparation for the arrival of a new baby helps reduce jealous feelings. A child can be told simply, “We are going to have a new baby in our family.” How far in advance he is told will depend on his age. Getting things ready will usually be enjoyed by children if it’s not overdone. Shopping trips can be fun, especially if Mother picks up a small item for each of the other children.

    When Mother and the baby come home from the hospital, Father can carry the baby, leaving Mother’s arms free to hug the children who have anxiously awaited her return. Emphasis should be put on the older child’s maturity and on the baby’s helplessness: “The baby is very small and can’t do anything for himself yet. We will need to do some things for him until he learns. Mother would be happy to have you children help!”

    Occasionally parents make the mistake of being overly protective and possessive with the baby. By always insisting on holding him themselves, they don’t allow older children to express their natural affection for the child. Even a two-year-old can hold the new baby for a minute with help. Helping others usually stimulates love.

    If jealousy arises in spite of all your careful planning, don’t be surprised or disappointed. Try to reassure the other child of his place in your affections.

    Overcome the “One-and-only” Desire.

    The desire of the child to completely possess his parents is not unusual. He wants to be the one-and-only in their affections.

    The desire for exclusive love assumes that love from any one person is a limited commodity, like pie. One has only so much to pass around. Children can learn that as one loves, his capacity for loving grows deeper. Husbands can say to wives in honesty and truth after several years of marriage: “My love for you has grown deeper with the years, and I love you now much more than I did when we were first married.” Children can feel within themselves love growing for others as Mother explains, “When David was younger you got upset with him because he messed up your things, but now that he is older you enjoy doing things together.”

    Parents can assure the child of their love and help prevent rivalry by giving him undivided attention during special times together. In essence, your actions at such times say, “Now, this minute, I am yours alone. You have my total love and concern and I think of nothing else.”

    Listen more intently and respond more fully at these times with facial expression and physical touch, concentrating totally on the child. If you are half-listening, with your mind still on your problems at work, your child will decide, “Daddy thinks more of those people at work than he does of me.” However limited the time might be, it should be completely given. Most of the time a child will have to share your attention, but if he has occasional times alone with you he will be able to share you more readily.

    Treat Each Child as an Individual.

    Children are less apt to be jealous if they feel accepted as they are and if they feel they are recognized for their individual abilities. Not everyone can play basketball, sing opera, or play the violin. Not every child has a quick wit or a gregarious nature. As parents, you can help your child feel accepted by showing him that you value his musical ability just as much as you enjoy his sister’s friendliness. Paul complained to his mother, “I can’t draw and Katy draws so well.” “Yes,” Mother replied, “but you are our cheerful one. You keep our house full of smiles and sunshine. Some of us are good at drawing and some of us are good at helping others to be cheerful. That makes the world interesting. It’s good that we are all different.”

    To further avoid envy among your children, don’t praise one child excessively in the presence of others. When compliments are given to one, add a compliment about the others also, or say, “All my children are talented,” or, “Each of my children contributes something different to the family. They certainly keep me learning new and exciting things.”

    Love Each Child Uniquely.

    We are admonished to be impartial in our love. Some think that means we should love every child the same.

    Parents love all their children, but there is no need to pretend to love them all in the same way. Children don’t yearn for equal shares of love. They want to be loved according to their individual needs. Be willing to meet each child’s needs and don’t feel guilty if you give the spotlight to different children at different times. Children who have found from experience that when they need affectionate attention Mother and Dad can be counted on to give it will recognize and accept, without jealousy, attention given to someone else in the family.5 The following example illustrates this:

    Because Dawn’s sister, Mary, was born with cerebral palsy, her mother had to spend a great deal of time teaching her to do the simplest things. Dawn grew extremely jealous and felt neglected because she thought it unfair that her mother did not spend the same amount of time with her. Her mother was aware of the problem and said to Dawn, “Today I’m going to spend all my time with you.” Dawn was delighted, and they set out to make some things together. Mary started to cry in the other room. Dawn saw that her mother did not seem anxious to leave, but instead kept working on the project. Mary’s cries continued. Finally Dawn said, “It’s okay, Mother. You can go take care of Mary.” Dawn said she was never jealous of her sister after that because she knew if she needed that much attention, her mother would give it. Her mother admitted afterwards that it was extremely difficult for her not to leave Dawn and go check on Mary. But her efforts paid the dividends of unselfishness in Dawn and genuine love between her daughters.

    Foster Family Fun.

    Family projects can create feelings of belonging and unity. Family home evening is one way to achieve this goal. Work projects, vacations, and family outings also increase love and harmony among the children. One family rented an orchard where all the family worked cooperatively to harvest the fruit. While working side by side, a parent could help a child verbalize his good feelings by saying, “I thought this was going to be hard, but it’s been fun with all of us here.” Another family organized their own orchestra, since all nine children played a string instrument. Their practices and performances created great unity, patience, and love for each other. Another family planned a vacation. All requests and varied interests were considered. Planning and getting ready were half the fun. This required give-and-take and consideration on everyone’s part.

    Teach Mutual Helpfulness.

    In large families, children, of necessity, help each other. Encourage your children to assist one another and thereby develop good feelings among them. Say, “Your sister is having difficulty with her math. I know you are very good with numbers, and I’m sure you can help her.”

    As family members utilize each other’s skills or trade services, feelings of appreciation grow and rivalry diminishes.

    One mother told of an experience in her family. Dan, the older boy, was involved in a television show and needed his presentation material typed. Pete, the younger one, was learning to type in school. When Dan asked if Pete would type it, “Of course,” was the enthusiastic and proud reply. The mother said it took them half the night because it had to be perfect, but both were pleased when it was finished. Because Pete was able to share in Dan’s experience, their companionship strengthened.

    Children develop real bonds of love when assistance to each other is encouraged and rewarded until it becomes a natural and constant part of family interaction.

    Build Satisfaction and Self-esteem.

    As a parent, the greatest insurance you can give your child against the festering sore of envy is a strong feeling of self-worth and personal achievement. It is a salve to the sore to be accepted, to be recognized for one’s own abilities, to be secure in being loved.

    Parents, you are the ones who determine how your children feel about each other. Your attitudes play the decisive role in the emotional climate of your home, so use all the means at your command to foster affection until jealousy is only a fleeting moment in the emotional lives of your children. As your family works together, plays together, and helps each other, feelings of unity, loyalty, and pride in each other will become central in your family life.


    1. Karl L. Bernhardt, Discipline and Child Guidance, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964, pp. 103–105.

    2. Mary O’Neil Hawkins, “Jealousy and Rivalry Between Brothers and Sisters,” Child Study, Summer 1956.

    3. Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965, pp. 121–133.

    4. Edward Podolsky, The Jealous Child, New York: Philosophical Library, 1954, p. 76.

    5. Edith G. Neisser, Brothers and Sisters, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951, pp. 37–65.

    • Darnell Zollinger is an instructor in child development and early childhood education at Brigham Young University. She lives in Edgemont Ninth Ward Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.

    Photography by Eldon Linschoten and Frank Gale

    With a new baby in the family, an older child may feel his secure world has been shattered.

    Helping with the baby stimulates love for it.

    Give each child the spotlight at different times.

    Not every child can play basketball or the violin.

    Each child needs exclusive attention at times.

    Helping each other with homework develops bonds.