FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Twenty-five Ways to Cure Sibling Rivalry, Part 1

with Dennis Rainey | March 19, 2009
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Two siblings competing for Mom and Dad’s attention can turn a simple game of Mother May I? into a battle. Dennis Rainey delves into the topic of sibling rivalry and offers some solutions.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Two siblings competing for Mom and Dad’s attention can turn a simple game of Mother May I? into a battle. Dennis Rainey delves into the topic of sibling rivalry and offers some solutions.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Two siblings competing for Mom and Dad’s attention can turn a simple game of Mother May I? into a battle.

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Twenty-five Ways to Cure Sibling Rivalry, Part 1

With Dennis Rainey
March 19, 2009
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Bob: Your kids probably get along with each other, don't they?  Or do things happen at your house like sometimes happen at Dennis and Barbara Rainey's house?

Dennis: One day one of our children whacked one of our other children with a Transformer, right on top of the noggin.  That's not acceptable.

Bob: Right.

Dennis: You have to have boundaries where you force that child to recognize – "You hurt your brother.  Do you see him crying?  I mean, he's hurt now.  You have a responsibility to seek forgiveness when you've wronged your brother."

[musical transition]

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 19th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  All right, if there is sibling rivalry at your house, you're not alone, and we'll see if we can do something to help, okay?

[musical transition]

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition.  I don't know exactly what you were going to talk about today, but I have been talking to a lot of parents recently who have been telling me about kind of the normal stuff that is going on in their family where the kids are – well, you know what I'm talking about – where they're just – they're fighting with each other, or they're grumbling or they're complaining or they're getting on one another's nerves.

Dennis: Disputes.

Bob: Yeah, you know, it's "I want to do this," and "It's my turn," and "He's been on the computer too long," and "How come he always gets to do this," and "You always seem to be on his side," and it, you know, it just wears you down, as a parent, and a lot of moms and dads are saying, "Is there anything we can do about this?"

Dennis: You know, it's at this moment I wish I could become that character that Johnny Carson used to have on "The Tonight Show."  I mean, there wasn't much redemptive about what he did on the show, but one of the things he did is he had this dumb character that would come out, and he would press an envelope to his forehead, and he would close his eyes, and he would answer the question …

Bob: That's in the envelope.

Dennis: That's in the envelope.

Bob: Carnak the Magnificent.

Dennis: Carnak the Magnificent.  And I wish I had the answer to the question of how do you handle sibling rivalry?

Bob: Yeah?

Dennis: I want to tell you, when I was growing up with my brother, we used to play ping-pong down in the basement, and I finally figured out why we played ping-pong in the basement – my mother got us as far away from her hearing in the kitchen and put us in this concrete block house in the basement.

Bob: A little peace and quiet for Mom.

Dennis: And shut the door.  You know, that ping-pong table bore the marks that I gave it because I would get so angry with my brother.  I think he beat me 11,383 consecutive games.  That was because he was seven years older than me, and he used to beat me like a drum at ping-pong.

Bob: Wax you, yeah?

Dennis: Until I went away to junior college, and I became – Bob, I've never shared this on the broadcast, but I became Crowder College champ in ping-pong.

Bob: You were the official champion of …?

Dennis: I was.  I'm sorry.  Now, I was the Crowder College champ, and I went back, and I played my brother a game, and I beat him, and you know what?  That's the last game we ever played.  But that's sibling rivalry.  I remember it.  We argued about that, about play HORSE in the gravel driveway, shooting baskets with one another.  I admired my brother, and yet I competed fiercely against him.

Bob: It has seemed to us, as our children have turned 10 or 11 or 12, whoever is the next youngest child, all of a sudden, the clash starts to occur where the two of them really go after each other.  The older one is trying to exert a little independence, the younger one really still wants attention and approval and, all of a sudden, there is just a volcano that starts to erupt around the house.

Dennis: And, you know, conflict is common to all human relationships, and, you know, it's going to be common to relationships between siblings.  I was reading in Ecclesiastes – and, by the way, Bob, sibling rivalry you won't find in Scripture, but you will find words like "disputes," "divisions," "conflicts," "arguments," and Ecclesiastes 4:4 is a great verse.  The writer says, "And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor.

One version reads "From the dispute of man with his neighbor."  Well, who is his closest neighbor?

Bob: Right.

Dennis: The writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to say, "This, too, is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."  And so, moms, if you feel like you're chasing after the wind as your children have disputes, there is good reason.  It's been around since Cain and Abel – well, I guess, Adam and Eve really had a conflict as well.

Bob: Right.

Dennis: But it's been a part of biblical families throughout history.  Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, all the way through, even into the New Testament where the disciples struggle with each other wanting the most powerful seat, Bob.  And so children will struggle with one another and have conflict.

Bob: Well, help us.  What do we do when it's occurring in our home?  Give us some suggestions on how we can fight back against sibling rivalry.

Dennis: Well, I'm going to attempt to do the impossible, Bob.  I don't think we've ever done this, both you and I being both disciplined in the same broadcast, but I am looking at the clock, and I am going to attempt to give, today and tomorrow, 25 tips for handling sibling rivalry.

Number one …

Bob: They're going to come quick.

Dennis: You're interrupting – number one –  model honor and respect as you relate to one another in your marriage and as you relate to your children.  You know, you can't expect your children to relate with respect for one another, with honor for one another, if you and I, as the adults, don't first relate with honor and respect, first in our marriage, but then, secondly, in how we speak to them.  If we speak disrespectfully to our spouse in front of our children, what are we doing?

Now, it doesn't mean that there isn't going to be an argument sometimes, but I want to tell you, I think your arguments need to be reserved for private.  There has been an occasion where Barbara and I have been embroiled in a disagreement, and we've had to stop the disagreement, look at the kids and say, "Children, your mom and dad love and respect one another.  We just have a differing opinion on a matter right now."  That helps us settle down, and it also assures them that we love, we honor, and we respect one another.

If you really do have something you need to discuss a little more …

Bob: Passionately?

Dennis: Yes.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: It might be done better by taking a ride or getting alone after the children are in bed and discussing it at that point.

Bob: Go down to the basement and play ping-pong.

Dennis: There you go, there you go.  So, first of all, model it.

Secondly, you need to avoid four traps that ensnare every parent when it comes to sibling rivalry and, by the way, these are all in the Scriptures – favoritism is number one, I think that's the biggest one.  I think we have a child that is – that clicks with us, that we enjoy them, and we show favoritism, and that makes other children angry.  I'm not sure that wasn't the case with Joseph and his brothers.  I think maybe Jacob showed a little favoritism for Joseph.

Bob:  Well, he bought that multi-colored coat for Joseph, it was the nicest coat.

Dennis: And those brothers got so angry, think about it, they wanted to murder him.  There were two other brothers that stepped into the fray to say, "No, let's have a little reason here.  Maybe we just need to sell him as a slave."  But that was taking place right under Jacob's nose.

Bob: Right.

Dennis: Well, that leads us to the second trap – denial.  And I think this is a real enemy of healthy relationships in the family.  For a mom and a dad to deny that there is sibling rivalry, favoritism, or some type of unhealthy relationship occurring between siblings.  You must step into those relationships in a healthy way and help them deal with it.  We'll talk more about that in a moment.

The third trap for parents is discouragement.  I think what happens, Bob, is where you started out the broadcast.  We get discouraged about the relationships our children are having, and we think, "You know what?  We're not doing a very good job here."  Well, you're probably just raising normal children.  Don't get discouraged, don't give up.

Fourth, we lose focus.  We lose sight of the goal, and we forget what parenting is all about.  We are developing the relational and character skills of the next generation, and how does that come about?  Through repeated training over and over and over again.  And if you lose sight of the goal, you'll see sibling rivalry isolated as this giant elephant stomping around in your house.  And sibling rivalry certainly is painful, it's not fun, but it was meant to be a problem that helps you train your children in some fundamental, basic, life skills like pointing them to God and the Scriptures and how they resolve conflict.

Bob: Let me recap those again – favoritism, denial, discouragement, and a loss of focus – those you describe as traps or enemies that parents have to fight back against, right?

Dennis: And they need to stay out of those traps, that was number two.

Number three, train them to ask for forgiveness when they offend or hurt the other.  Now, I don't know everything, but Barbara and I have been in the process of raising six children through who knows how many hundred squabbles, conflicts, disputes, divisions, I mean, you name it, we've experienced it.  If you're going to train your children in proper resolution of conflict, you have to teach them how to aggressively ask for forgiveness when they have hurt another person. 

And you may say quickly, "Well, Dennis, when does that end?"  To which I respond, "I don't know," because it occurs all the way into the teen years.  You would hope, you would hope they would gain the maturity when they're 15, 16 and 17 before they leave home.  And, Bob, all I've got to say is up until the end, when we finally release them to college, we were still training each and every one of them and encouraging them, "Go to your brother, go to your sister, ask him to forgive you because you have offended him."

Bob: And asking for forgiveness involves a specific pattern that a child needs to follow.  You don't just go and say, "Sorry," right?

Dennis: Yes, and now you're leading to one where what do you do when a child says, "Okay, will you forgive me, will you forgive me?"  I mean, it's one word, okay?

Bob: Forgimme.

Dennis: Yeah, there are not fruits of repentance.  What you have to do in that situation, you have to say, "You know, this really isn't a forgiveness that has the fruits of repentance coming with it.  The Bible talks about bringing forth the fruits of repentance as we seek to reconcile with a brother, and children won't always do that.

Now, does that mean you need to nail a child down in terms of making sure they're repentant?  Well, you can't force a child, you can't make them be repentant, but you can train them in the mechanics of asking for forgiveness and – listen to me carefully – you can appeal to their heart to seek forgiveness.

Bob: We've actually taught the children – and we haven't been 100 percent on getting them to do this, but when there have been problems, we have them go to a brother or a sister and say, "I am sorry for" – and they have to name what the offense was – "I was wrong" – that's one of the things they have to say – "I was wr–wr–wr–wrong.  Will you please forgive me?"

Dennis: It's not "If I hurt you." 

Bob: That's right.

Dennis: You know, you're looking at a child who is crying.  You know, they have a gash on their head where you clubbed them with the Transformer.  I mean, there used to be some little toys called "Transformers."  They were little spacemen that you could make into other kinds of toys.

Bob: Rocket ships and stuff.

Dennis: Yeah, cars and stuff.  Well, one day, one of our children, I don't remember which, whacked one of our other children with a Transformer right on top of the noggin, and that's not acceptable.  You have to have – we'll get to his later on, too – you have to have boundaries where you force that child to recognize, "You hurt your brother.  Do you see him crying?  Do you see the blood?  I mean, he's hurt.  Now, your responsibility," and it can't be "But, but, but, but" – you have a responsibility to seek forgiveness when you've wronged your brother.

Number four, train them to grant forgiveness.  It's the same principle.  Teach them to grant forgiveness when the other person comes asking for it.

Bob: We always made the kids hug at the end of a forgiveness session.  They hated that.

Dennis: Oh!  Add a kiss to it, and I mean it's like leprosy.  I mean, make them kiss one another even on the lips, and you know what?  They'll break out into a smile and many times it will melt a tense situation.

Bob: Absolutely.

Dennis: Number five, listen to both sides before coming to a judgment (chortles).  I can't tell you how many times I, not Barbara, how many times I have sought to discipline the wrong child, or, in many cases, a child who was the one who was caught but not the original perpetrator that caused the atomic explosion in the first place.

Many times there is a catalytic reaction, and what you have to do is back upstream a ways and determine who is at fault.  Now, you won't always be able to find out who was at fault, even if you were Columbo, you couldn't find out the guilty party even with DNA testing.  So give it up, folks.  You're not going to find out who is at fault every time, but make sure you listen to both sides before coming to a judgment.

Bob: I walked in one night and found an older child wrestling with a younger child and throwing an elbow into the younger child.  I went, "Hey, time out."  It was obviously not fun wrestling.  They were frustrated with one another, and I sent the older child to his or her room at that point – protecting the identity of this particular child – and the child protested, "You don't know, but, but" – you know, it was all this protest – "I was just protecting myself, I was defending myself."  Well, you don't throw elbows to defend – this child was not trying to deflect a blow from the younger child.  There was obvious force in use.

And, you're right, trying to go back and determine how did this start and who did what, and who …

Dennis: I'm telling you, it's exhausting.

Bob: It is.  I had to sit down and say, "I don't know if you started it or not, but I know what you did, I know what I saw, and that was unacceptable, and I needed to separate the two of you, and that's why you're in your room, and that's why you're going to stay here for a little while."

Dennis: Yeah.  Well, we've got to keep moving.  The sixth tip in how to handle sibling rivalry – when appropriate, let natural consequences occur.  Now, moms, I'm speaking to you.  You may have to put your heart on the shelf and let the children argue for a while.  Don't rush in and rescue your children from conflict.  We'll talk more about this later on, too.  Sometimes children will use conflict to get your attention, and you have to sometimes just let them argue and also let them work it out.

Number seven, it may be impossible to determine who did what, who is guilty, and who is innocent.  We already talked about this, but give up trying to prove who is the guilty party.  And you'll have to kind of determine this with your own children.  Certain children in our family – Barbara and I knew better than to get involved to determine who was guilty in that situation.

Number eight – don't expect your children to be conflict-free.  They are different, and they will disagree and compete with one another.  Competition, disagreement, conflict, and division have been around since the beginning of time.

Number nine – give your children alternatives – "Either work this out, or you both will have the privilege of a chore.  You know, there is nothing quite like, if you can't determine who did it, and both seem to be guilty, just giving both a good, healthy chore that becomes a penalty that both have to experience.

Bob: So you're saying, "All right, break it up, the two of you, stop that.  I'm going to give you two minutes to get this fixed, or you're both going out a sweeping the driveway."

Dennis: Yeah, yeah, exactly.  Shut the door and maybe give them a little longer, because it may be that one of your children takes a little while to get ahold of his or her emotions and be able to settle the score.

Bob: Right, that's a good point.  I think nothing like a little hard work that can cause some pressure to come back for conflict resolution.

Dennis: No doubt about it – number 10, get a game plan in advance for conflict zones.  Now, there are some ready-made conflict zones in families.

Bob: I know one.

Dennis: What's that?

Bob: The car is a conflict zone.

Dennis: Well, you named the number-one conflict zone and especially the car, for an extended period of time, like a trip or a vacation, and I've talked about this before.  Get a jar, fill it with quarters, fill it with half-dollars, fill it with …

Bob: Sacajawea, right?

Dennis: That's right, fill it with those dollars.  Put, like, 10 of them in there and say, "You kids can split it at the end of our trip whatever is left.  But I'm taking one out every time there is a conflict between you.  We used to offer an Odyssey tape series that we would crack open a new tape series if it would be a conflict-free zone until noon, you know?  It's amazing how kids can be motivated in a short-term situation if there is an appropriate goal waiting at the end.

Bob: Are there other places other than the car that you think are natural incentives for conflict?

Dennis: Well, when the parents leave and go away and leave a babysitter in charge – it may be a relative, but somebody who is taking care of the kids – Grandma, for instance, they can easily get mugged, and so it's good to leave some kind of positive reward if the children get a good report.  And tomorrow I'm going to share a great tip about how you can give your babysitter the upper hand, whether it's for an evening or for an extended period of time just to hold your children accountable. 

Can I give them one more?

Bob: I think we've got time for one more, but before you do that, let me let our listeners know that the entire list of 25 suggestions that you have is available on our website,  You can go to the website and review the whole list or print it off, if you'd like to.  And we also have some resources that we have found that are very helpful when it comes to dealing with sibling rivalry. 

Our friends at Peacemaker Ministries have put together a series of 12 different – they're comic books, is what they are, and they are designed to teach children principles of conflict resolution.  So your kids can read these comic books, or you can go through the material with them, and they will learn how to ask forgiveness, how to grant forgiveness, they will see themselves in the pages of these comic books, and this is a wonderful tool for helping to teach children principles of conflict resolution, and you can get more information about the Young Peacemaker student activity books, the comic books, on our website,  Again, the website if or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, someone on our team can let you know how you can get these resources sent to you, and you can start using these with your children.

Speaking about things you can use with your children – this month we have been making available to our listeners "The Jesus Film" on DVD.  It's a thank you gift that we're sending out this month to those listeners who are able to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount, and one of the features that is included on the DVD of "The Jesus Film" is a feature called "The Story of Jesus for Children."  It tells the life of Jesus through the eyes of a child, and it's appropriate for younger children to view and to begin to understand the ministry of Jesus and to begin to understand the Gospel message.

If you would like to receive the DVD of "The Jesus Film" with "The Story of Jesus for Children" included, it's available when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today this month with a donation of any amount.  If you are doing that online at, just type the word "JesusDVD" in the keycode box that you find on the donation form or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, make a donation of any amount and simply request a copy of "The Jesus Film" on DVD.  Again, we're happy to send it out to you.  We do so much appreciate your financial support of this ministry and your partnership with us.

Dennis: Yes, and I just want to say to those of you who do help us financially, we really believe in what we're doing here, and we're dead serious about providing practical, biblical help for you and your marriage and family, and I want to say thanks, and I also want to tell you that you're needed, and I really appreciate you standing with us.

Well, the eleventh tip for handling sibling rivalry is use your children's conflicts to teach them to identify their emotions.  When they do hurt each other, when they are jealous, when they are angry with each other, you can begin to help them label what they're feeling.  There are some adults today, Bob, who grew up in homes who were shamed because they had feelings; because they expressed anger; because they got hurt, and as a result they bottled it up, and they never learned how to be healthy in their expression of their emotions, and I'm not talking about psychobabble here.  I'm talking about a part of us that is made in the image of God, and I believe He made us with the emotional dimension, and I believe we, as parents, have a sacred trust to help our children begin to understand the names of those emotions and how to begin to express them in a biblical manner.

Bob: And it's probably appropriate, Dennis, to dig a little underneath the surface when you ask them, "How are you feeling," and they say "Angry."  You need to go one step beyond to help them see what's behind that anger, don't you think?

Dennis: That's right.  Anger is usually a secondary emotion.  Something has usually caused that anger, and you go back and say it was Jimmy hitting you over the head with the Transformer, with the toy that caused you to be hurt, wasn't it? 

Bob: Right.

Dennis: And now you're angry, that's right, and they nod their little heads, and you may think it's not really worth it, but it is.  These situations provide great opportunities for us to train our children.

Bob: All right, we'll pick up with 14 more tips on dealing with sibling rivalry tomorrow.  I hope you can join us.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team including our researcher, Tonda Nation [sp].  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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