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When is Sibling Rivalry Considered Extreme?


Sibling rivalry is very normal. Kids fight, and you feel better when we tell you that. But how do you know if it’s really not normal?


Sibling Rivalry is normal. It’s hard to share your space, your stuff and your parents; it’s hard not to compare yourself to someone who is in your face all the time and inevitably better at something than you. AND, depending on where you live, many of our kids just spent WAY more time together than any siblings ever should.

So, if you find yourself annoyed by the bickering, the loud annoyed sighs and the occasional nudge, shove or provocative comment, you are in good company!

If you just read that sentence and thought, “that’s a good day in my house,” you are also not alone.

If you pick up a book on sibling rivalry, it will always start with how normal it is. It will probably go on to posit that much of the rivalry is about competing for your attention. In many cases that holds true.

Then there are extreme cases. The fighting is constant, when you’re there, when you’re not there; it’s more than annoying, it keeps you feeling constantly nervous and overwhelmed.

Here’s some good news: It. Is. Not. About. You. Extreme sibling rivalry happens when you are not there. If it was merely about your attention, it would stop in your absence. Here are the top 3 reasons I find at the root of extreme sibling rivalry:

  1. Sensory Sensitivities: The most explosive extreme I see is when you have one hyper-sensitive child (every little noise, touch, taste or smell bothers him or her) and one hypo-sensitive child (one who needs high impact, constant motion and loud noises). The hyper-sensitive child literally experiences the intensity of the sibling as a constant threat or attack; whenever the loud child is around the other feels like someone is scratching their nails on a chalkboard. The louder child feels constantly criticized, like everything he does is wrong. A consult with an occupational therapist is probably helpful in these cases; it requires a lot of technical setup (often a lot of “divide and conquer”) so both kids get what they need.

  2. One or both children have some lagging social skills: One or both children are missing skills like: knowing how to sit next to another child, knowing how to ask (with words) another person to move out of their personal space, knowing how to enter a game, knowing how to play games without being bossy or exploding if the game is not going well. The good news is, skills can be taught! The hard news is, this requires a lot of adult help and supervision over a prolonged period of time.

  3. Bullying: If someone is not being treated nicely at school, they will come home and treat other people not nicely to feel some sense of power. The bullying doesn’t have to be extreme, it can be as simple as not feeling safe at school; for some kids even imagining the older kids picking on them (because they have witnessed it happen to someone else) can feel like bullying and have similar sibling consequences.

So, what do I do?!?!? I have only one piece of advice: Don’t do it alone. Don’t do it alone.

Extreme sibling rivalry is extremely exhausting. You will be left burned out at best, resenting your children and exploding at worst. If you’re already there, find help! Babysitters (even when you are home), Occupational Therapists, Parent Coaches, neighbors and playdates (technically set it up so they are with each other less). This is not your fault; it’s not about you and you don’t have to do it alone!

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