Phrases That Inadvertently Foster Sibling Rivalry, and What to Say Instead

One of the challenging parts of parenting is being mindful of the things we say. Our words are our children’s inner voice. And many times we may not even realize the ways in which our words influence their behavior. Remember that comparing our children to each other promotes competition, not cooperation. Here are some phrases that foster sibling rivalry, and what we can say instead.
WHAT WE SAY:   Your brother eats his vegetables. Why don’t you?
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:   You’re not as good as your brother unless you perform.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:   I see you’re both still eating. Does anyone want seconds?Food can easily become a power struggle.  Promote the idea that our children know when their bodies are full and avoid comparing, which only increases competition.

WHAT WE SAY:   We have to leave the playground now;  your brother needs to nap.
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:  Your brother is more important than you.  They feel resentful.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:   It’s time to go home.
Keep it generic and don’t forget to give ample warning that it’s almost time to go – “five more minutes…..three more minutes….one more minute….is there one more thing you would like to do before we leave?”  If they need a reason then keep it simple:  “ we’ve been here a long time and now it’s time to get home.  We can come back another day.”
WHAT WE SAY:   Give that toy to your little brother.  You need to share.
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:  Your brother is incapable and you must sacrifice your happiness for his. They feel angry/resentful.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:  It looks like your brother would like a turn.  May he have a turn when you are done, please?Remember to empower your younger child to ask and wait for their turn when their sibling is finished with his own.

WHAT WE SAY:   Go help your brother.
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:  You are more capable and more powerful than your brother.  They feel more powerful.  They feel like they have the right to intervene without asking the younger child first.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:  Your brother looks like he needs help.  Would you like to ask him if he wants your help?
While we often try to promote kindness, we sometimes forget to offer younger children respect too.  Encouraging them to respect each other’s space from the start will pay off in the long run.  It’s important to remember that we have to be the voice for our younger children.
WHAT WE SAY:   Why is your brother crying?  What did you do?
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:  You are no good and always to blame.  They feel resentment and learn that the truth doesn’t matter because things will always be their fault.  Their siblings may learn to be sneaky and try to get away with things by allowing their older sibling to be the scapegoat.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:  You’re brother is feeling so sad.  Can you help me figure out what’s going on?
Sometimes our children will have disagreements. Try to keep them in the same boat and focus on finding solutions rather than finding someone to blame.
WHAT WE SAY:  Why did you do that?  You’re older!  You know better!  He’s smaller than you!
WHAT THEY HEAR/FEEL:  You are not allowed to make mistakes anymore.  They feel sad, defeated, and the desire to be a baby again.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:  I see that you _____.  You made a mistake.
Remember to always validate and empathize no matter the age of the child.  Love and empathy wins every time.  Approach every conflict with a heart of working together toward a resolution.  Comparisons only foster rivalry.
~ Amy & Ashley
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8 thoughts on “Phrases That Inadvertently Foster Sibling Rivalry, and What to Say Instead”

  1. I see the wisdom in many of these examples, but remain a little stuck on the one related to sharing. My neighbor and I have 4 little girls between us that play together daily. They are between 2.5 and 4 years of age. We have tired very hard to teach them about sharing, and to ask their “friend” politely for a turn. They’ve gotten the concept of asking “May I have a turn with that, please?” down pretty well.

    However, at least 50% of the time, their “friend” will, rather vehemently, shout, “NO! It’s MINE now!” in response. When one of the adults asks the possessor of said toy nicely and calmly if their friend may have a turn when they are finished, possessor often remains staunchly defensive, and adopts the attitude of “you will pry this toy out of my cold, dead fingers only after my demise”. “Friend” then proceeds to have meltdown, because so-and-so will not share.


    1. Hi MJN, I think it’s important for children to have the opportunity to “finish” their turn. Allowing a child to finish playing with a toy helps them go deeper into play, decreases anxiety, and gives them the freedom to relinquish the toy in the future. The added bonus is, when children know they toy won’t be TAKEN from them they become more willing to take turns and they develop emotional intelligence (“oh, my friend wants a turn. I know it’s hard to wait.” etc.).

      The conversation can go something like this, “I see Amy is playing with the toy. Let’s ask her for a toy. (then to Amy), “Beth wants a turn when you’re finished.” (then to Beth) “When Amy is finished with her turn then you can have a turn. And you can play with it until you are completely finished playing with it.” The child waiting (Beth) may feel sad and hyper-focused on the toy, so it’s important to empathize, “I know it’s hard to wait. You want to play with it now. But everyone gets to finish their turn. And when it’s your turn I will be sure you can finish playing with it too. What can we do while we wait?”

      As children become more skilled at asking for turns and waiting for turns, they also become less “obsessed” (for lack of a better word right not) with playing with something another child has chosen to use.

      I hope this is helpful. If you would like more dialogue about this please send us an email:

      Everything good,

    2. My problem with the sharing things is that sometimes a child just does not want to let anyone else play with one of their toys and I believe that they have a right to have that respected. I have things that I do not want to share with anyone and so I do not. When the boys were small and people came over we asked them what they would let others play with and anything else was put away until the friends had gone. When the boys had something they did not want to share with each other we explain that that was ok and found something else that the other one like as much or if not more. It became very rare for them not to share or to become upset by the other not wanting to share something.

      Hubby and I always may a point of asking our children and each other before we touched anything belonging to the other person. I would not expect another person to walk into our home and start touch our things without asking so why would I expect our children to have to do something different.

  2. Thanks for the tips! My son is nearly a year and year old and with the nice weather we want to play outside more. The problem is that he puts everything in his mouth (as do all kids this age). I don’t want to say “no” or “don’t do that.” I’ve been trying to say “yuck” but is there anything you can suggest to say instead? I’m not about to let him put dirt, sticks and rocks in his mouth. TIA!

  3. I find your recommendations absolutely wonderful and I wish I could learn them by heart and reproduce them entirely 🙂 Learn them by heart because I find it very, very hard to step out of my own demanding/authoritarian pattern that I’ve learned from my own parents. I have two boys, one’s 3 y.o. and the other 14 months. The older one feels very hurt and is physically aggressive with his brother and I get into a state of emotional closeness to my youngest (I was also the younger one in the family, so I empathize more), which makes things worse. Already the older one seems to feel that I love the younger one more and he’s becoming very attached to dad and rejecting me in a way. Do you have any emergency tip, until I internalize your mindful pieces of advice? Should I keep quiet in stressful situations between them, until I gather my thoughts? Should I say a magic phrase? It’s just hard to learn to do things so differently from how I’ve been taught to do them…

  4. What a wonderful fountain of ideas! I love the list and do these with my 3.5 yo and 1.5 yo. I wonder what you language you would use with a 1.5 yo hair pulling (highly frequent, unexpected) and a 3.5 yo working hard not to hit/hurt back. She regularly will get him another toy or work to make a game with him or use her words to ask for space or for him to be gentle or to say it hurts. Even so, it’s an all day affair. I am wondering if it is about getting through this developmental time and coming out on the other side with some skills rather than avoiding the hitting stage all together.

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