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Family dynamics: Handling sibling rivalry

Family dynamics: Handling sibling rivalry


By Linda Alberts 

If you have multiple children playing youth sports, you just may witness some sibling rivalry. However, your children have probably been competing with each other way before they strapped on their gear and headed for the field.

Competition between siblings is a natural occurrence. Most likely, it starts when a new baby is brought home and an older child vies for the parents’ attention while they adjust to the new family dynamic.

Whether they play on the same team, compete as opponents or play different sports, each child will seek their parents’ attention and want to be recognized as the better athlete.

“If the siblings already have a rivalry, it isn’t surprising that it extends to youth sports,” says Dr. Linda Sterling, associate professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department at Northwest Missouri State University. “After all, sport is a competitive environment.”


Sibling rivalry in youth sports can actually be a good thing. Rivalries that are in the spirit of healthy competition can be fun and may motivate the young athletes to work hard, set goals and improve their skills.

However, when sibling rivalry harms your children’s relationships with each other or causes stress within the family, it has become unhealthy.

“Sibling rivalry becomes unhealthy when it leads to a win-at-all-costs mindset or interferes with family functioning,” says Sterling. “Studies have shown that negatively perceived sibling rivalries lead to sport burnout and dropout. Focus on fun, skill development and teamwork. Sports don’t inherently result in fulfilling, character building experiences. The quality of leadership from parents and coaches are important to a healthy sport experience. Remember that kids are more important than their achievements.” 


So what can parents do to make sure their children’s sibling rivalry stays healthy and each youngster benefits from their sports experience?

Avoid accidently playing favorites. Let’s say you were a basketball player in high school. Now, one of your children is a basketball player and another plays football. It could be easy to unintentionally give the basketball player more attention since you have experience and memories of that sport in common, leaving the football player to feel left out and void of your attention.

Sterling says it’s important to give each sibling support and attention, while keeping in mind each of their specific strengths.

So make sure to take the time to talk to your football player about their practices and the skills they’ve learned so that you can connect with them through their sport and understand their passion for it.

Focus encouragement on effort instead of outcome. This is important whether or not you have multiple children playing sports who are competitive with each other; however, placing emphasis on effort instead of results can help prevent jealousy among siblings. When an athlete does not perform as well as their sibling they may feel frustrated or upset. By focusing on the effort they put into their performance instead of the outcome, you can help your athlete learn from failure and give them a sense of control over how they perform.

Set rules for behavior. While it’s normal for siblings to tease and taunt each other, you can set some rules to make your expectations of their actions clear. For example, you can tell them to leave their sports-related competition on the field, court or rink (just don’t bring it home!), or to prohibit siblings from making fun of each other for a mistake during a game. Your family is a team of its own and its cohesiveness shouldn’t be sacrificed to sibling rivalry.

Parenting Sibling Rivalry Competition Family Relationships Encouragement Behavior

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