Sibling Rivalry: Tips to Help Your Teen Find their Own Path

parent tip Mar 31, 2021

Max was dribbling a ball and swinging a bat at age three. He excelled in every athletic endeavor, winning accolades on courts, ball fields, and golf courses year after year. He was the “athletic” one.

Max’s younger brother Carter didn’t like getting sweaty and competing—he preferred building Lego cities, tinkering with his computer, and watching science experiments on YouTube. Plus, he didn’t see the point of competing against Max in sports anyway…he knew he’d only fail on that front. Carter was the “brainy” one.

It's tough for us parents to avoid labeling and comparing our kids to one another. We often exaggerate their differences to make each child feel unique and “special.”

But when our kids feel themselves put in a certain box, it often limits their ability to see their potential in other areas. As our kids get older, it’s easy to see how this pattern can affect a teens’ decision-making process about their career path…the inclination will be to stay in his or her lane.

Here are some ways you can help your child find their unique path:

Recognize some competition is normal.

It’s perfectly normal for your teenage siblings to feel competitive with one another. The teen years are when they want to establish themselves as a separate person from you—they also want to create a distinct identity from their siblings.

If competition or feelings of inequity exist between or among your kids, avoid intervening right away and let your teens try to talk it out. Doing so teaches them how to relate to peers, resolve conflict themselves, and learn some important life skills.

Stop labeling.

Like Max and Carter, labeling causes each kid to feel stuck in their assigned “bucket” and assume they can’t be good at whatever their sibling is best at. And it can make your kids even more competitive with one another, as they each strive to be the best at their “thing.”

We all know it’s wrong to put labels on our kids, but we often do so without realizing it. Sometimes it sneaks into conversations with our adult friends, grandparents, teachers, and more. Carter is our brainiac! He just pours over books. Cara is the family’s resident artist. She is so talented! Kids overhear more than we know. So while the comment is intended as a compliment of your child…it’s still a label.

Talk about each of your kids’ strengths without stamping them with a singular label…and celebrate their differences positively.

Understand the role of birth order.

Kids born after the first or second one rarely feel up to par compared to the oldest sibling, so they search for ways to set themselves apart. Let’s say your oldest child is musically gifted. She has a beautiful singing voice and is also a talented pianist, earning a multitude of honors, awards, and of course, attention. Guess what? Your oldest child is now the bellwether for her younger siblings. They believe in order to earn equal recognition, they’ll need to be just as successful.

Make sure your younger kids don’t feel pressure to follow in the footsteps of an overachieving sibling, but that they are also not afraid to step into those shoes for fear of failure. If Mia’s older sister Cara is super artistic, she may not want to risk failure by being “artsy” too. Let Mia know she has the freedom to try whatever she wants to—because your home is a no-comparison zone. Speaking of…

Watch the comparisons.

Think about how often your kids are compared against other people in their young lives—they get it at school with their grades, in sports, with friends on their looks and popularity, and much more. At home, your kids have the chance to be valued for who they are…because only you know them best. When you avoid saying things like, “You need to study more…look how hard your brother is working now,” your kid’s only competition becomes against him or herself.

Your kids don’t have to be treated equally.

This one sounds wrong…right? As parents, we try so hard to prevent sibling rivalry, and so we do everything the same for each kid. But the reality is it’s impossible to treat our kids equally all the time. For example, your son may struggle in school and needs an intense SAT prep course to help boost his scores. His younger sister, however, is a straight-A student and has always excelled on standardized exams—she doesn’t need the extra help. Do you need to spend the same time and money on SAT prep classes for your daughter? No. For kids, it’s about being treated individually, not equally.

Spend time with each of your children one on one.

We go through so much of life running our kids from activity to activity, checking boxes on the road to success…without listening to what they really want. Make space in your life for alone time with each of your kids. Ask them what makes them happiest. What do they love to do? Where do they see themselves in a few years, farther down the road? Encourage them to self-reflect and look at themselves as a unique individual outside the external pressures he or she may feel in your family.

Encourage your kids’ to “Just do your personal best.”

This sounds like simple advice, but these five words coming from you can be powerful when repeated often enough. Let your kids know you expect them to try hard, but only to their ability and possibility, not someone else’s. When they hear those words…they hear they are enough, just the way they are.

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