Turn Sibling Rivals Into Friends

4 ways to stop the fighting, and teach kids how to get along.

By Lambeth Hochwald

If it seems like your grandkids are such fierce rivals they’d be ideal competitors in the Olympic Games, relax. Turns out sibling rivalry is usually a pretty healthy, generally benign behavior (FYI: Research shows that most siblings fight for about 10 minutes per every hour of play when they’re seven years old or younger) that dates back to early evolution. “Thousands of years ago, siblings fought for basic resources like food and water,” says Mindy Utay, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. “Today the scarce resource isn’t food and water, but time and attention.”

At the same time, experts believe there is a lot of good that can come from sibling rivalry: Turns out, these conflicts can help inspire your grandchildren to be the best they can be. “Sibling rivalry can help motivate a child to take something on, to do better, or to be inspired,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Westchester, New York. “It’s actually healthy for kids, so long as they’re not physically and/or emotionally harmful to each other.”

Despite all of this "good" news, the fighting and the arguing can still drive you crazy. Read on as our experts offer four tips for managing even the most competitive of grandchildren.

Get Along Tip #1: Insist on one-on-one time.
By carving out individual time with your grandkids, they’ll feel like they have your undivided attention—even if you have just 10 minutes to offer each one. Try this out next time your grandkids are over: While one grandchild is busy with an activity, spend time with the other. “Do an art project with that grandchild, read with them or dig for worms in the backyard,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. The other grandchild may get angry, but parents and grandparents need to accept that, says Walfish. And in the end, “that special time with each of them can often derail rivalries,” she says.

Get Along Tip #2: Avoid comparisons.
It’s natural to compare one grandchild to the other, but try not to and, whatever you do, make sure you never tell one grandchild he or she is better or worse at something than the other. It’ll only heighten rivalries. “Instead, always speak to your grandchildren as individuals,” suggests Wokie Nwabueze, a certified mediator who focuses on family life in South Orange, New Jersey. “Err on the side of being evenhanded and make sure the same rules apply to all of your grandchildren. Favoritism will only worsen sibling rivalries that already exist.”

Get Along Tip #3: Encourage their love of each other.
As a grandparent, you can be a real help in fostering close ties between siblings and it’s pretty easy to help things along. For example, when you pick up a grandchild from school, refer to his or her sibling. “Say things like ‘Your little sister really missed you today—she can’t wait to see you,’” advises Utay. “Or, if a grandchild is named after you, resembles you, or has some other likeness that his siblings don’t share, don’t dwell on this or give the message that this grandchild is more special than the other(s).”

Get Along Tip #4: Dig beneath the surface.
If your grandkids can’t seem to stop fighting, try to analyze why this might be happening. Chances are, there’s something deeper going on. “Consider the fact that your grandchild may be grappling with a feeling of diminished attention from you (or his or her parents) or may feel like an accomplishment or effort hasn’t been acknowledged,” Nwabueze says. “Once you’ve identified what’s going on, address it.” Best of all: Your observation will present a teachable moment that you can share. “By encouraging your grandchild to understand and articulate her needs, she may end up doing that next time, instead of picking a fight with her sibling.”

In the end, there’s not much you can do to stop your grandkids from comparing themselves to each other. What you can do is to help them embrace themselves—flaws and all. “We all have imperfections and, as a grandparent, you’re in a perfect position to help your grandkids identify their strengths and embrace the areas they’re working on,” Walfish says. “This is the key to self-esteem.”


Giving your grandchildren individual attention would be wonderful. But what if you are a single grandparent and raising 5 grandchildren (ages 13 12 11 8 & 7) alone.

zylks@sbcglobal.net on 2012-10-10 15:36:04

One-on-one time is amazing. And I also think it is important that siblings have space from each other at times, when they can pursue their special interests (or not). And when times are tough, I find siblings learn to pull together. My daughter has had amazing results with her four just by enjoying each one each day. They bickered a lot but began to be friends as they found the outside world to be tough to handle and their family could be counted on. Siblings will cherish the special times as they grow.

JanB74 on 2012-10-09 18:24:12

But it's come to my attention, that some people just don't realize that the GP.com Groups are now in the Community section. Yes, that's where they are! If you scroll to the top of the page and click on Community, you'll come to a page labeled "Groups." There you'll see a list of Group Categories. The 11 forums that were relocated here from the old site are each under one of those categories. (A few new groups have cropped up, as well.) If you're looking for Grandparents Caring for Grandkids, for example, we're under Grandparenting. If it's Mothers-in-Law Anonymous you want, it's Family Matters. Etc. You'll have to log in to be able to post in your group(s) though. Or even to see where to post. So please do. (see the Login button, above, right).

rosered135 on 2012-09-12 23:14:05

This perceptive article is even more important, I feel, for frequent and fulltime grandparent caregivers who often deal with sibling rivalry as often or almost as often as the parents do - more if, for whatever reason, the GPs (grandparents) are the ones who have custody. In fact, I run a support group, Grandparents Caring for Grandkids, for just such GP (and other relative) caregivers. So if you're raising your GC (grandchildren), helping to raise them or watching them several times a week and/or for long hours, I'd love you to come and join us! Same if you're another kind of relative caregiver - we already have several great-grandmothers, as well as a few aunts and uncles,etc. (Former and soon-to-be such caregivers are welcome, too.) And if you were a member on the old site - we're here in the Community section! So please come on over and let's all begin reaching out to each other, once again! New or "old," just click on Community (above), then Grandparenting and you'll find us! Hope to see you there soon!

Rosered135, moderator, Grandparent Caring for Grandkids

rosered135 on 2012-09-12 03:52:29

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