Columns and Editorials

Ask Dr. Missy, Ph.D., Child Counselor & Feelings Helper

Melissa Martin

Ask Dr. Missy, Ph.D., Child Counselor & Feelings Helper


Dear Dr. Missy:  My wife and I have two sons, 6 and 8, and they argue, fight, and compete against each other over anything. The gaming systems are put away until they can be civil to each other. They even count the ice cubes in their glasses to see who has the most then whine and complain until its equal. Their sibling rivalry is preventing the family from going on vacation, out to dinner, or anywhere, and it’s getting worse.


–Parents who need Harmony


Dear Parents who needs Harmony:


As a child counselor, I’ve seen a lot of sibling rivalry. It sounds like you and the wife are on the same page. Kudos. Being a parenting team is the first step in resolving the winner and loser malady that is holding your house captive.


Competing and comparing shows up first in the home between siblings. Older children volley for parental attention when a newborn sibling or stepsibling comes along. Jealousy and resentment may follow. The youngsters make a contest out of daily activities like who can be the first to eat, first to brush teeth, first to jump into the car, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes these behaviors carry over whereas the child wants to be the first to touch the wall, step on a crack, or look out a window. And that’s exhausting for parents!


Of course, some competition among siblings and stepsiblings is natural; however intense competition can be seen as rivalry and it runs on a continuum from mild to moderate to severe.


Children of the same sex and similar age are more likely to experience sibling rivalry and compare and compete. Parents with a heads up can prevent game-playing from being the battlefield of conflict, jealousy, resentment, and anger. However, emotions are part of the hardware that comes with being a human being and parents can help children accept, understand, process, and manage intense feelings.


Cooperative Games may temporarily replace competitive games in the home. According to the literature, Cooperative Games help children develop collaboration skills, communication, empathy, problem-solving, conflict resolution, decision-making, and teamwork by giving them an opportunity to work together toward the same goal. Everyone in the group participates. Explain the reasoning to children and garner their participation. Show enthusiasm. Eventually, children will look forward to a friendly game where nobody wins and nobody loses. WARNING: Some kids will try to turn Cooperative Games into competition. Remain calm. Keep redirecting back to the goal of shared activities and interactions. Change is a learning process and takes time and patience. Stay calm and parent on!


When is counseling recommended for sibling rivalry?


Siblings that constantly rival for a parent’s attention and respond with screaming, crying, and throwing tantrums when other family members are in the spotlight, could benefit from counseling.


When brothers or sisters punch and kick each other aggressively and consistently, throw heavy things at each other, call hurtful names, break each other’s toys, lie and cheat when playing games to win, then its time for counseling.


Top dog and bottom dog family competition among siblings needs to be addressed as the bottom dog may develop depressive and/or anxiety symptoms and self-esteem issues, especially if he rarely wins a game. What about repeated taunting and obnoxious bragging by a child who wins? How much is too much?


Current research is beginning to study the affects of sibling bullying and playing competitive games is fertile ground for power struggles, sarcasm, hurtful and harmful verbalizations, and physical aggression.


Joe Magliano, Ph.D. posted a 2014 article for Psychology Today on 5 Signs That Sibling Fighting May Be Bullying:


  1. The fighting among siblings seems more intense than what you’d normally expect.
  2. There are patterns to the fighting. For example, the same child is tormenting the other about the same topic day after day.
  3. During altercations, one sibling always appears more powerful in some way (i.e., older, bigger, more socially skilled).
  4. The siblings don’t typically “make up” after a fight, or they fail to show warmth in their relationship at other times.
  5. One child shows contempt for or a lack of empathy for one of their siblings.





Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too (2012, W. W. Norton & Company) by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.


Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other, So Stick Together (2010, Free Spirit Publishing, ages 8 – 13 years) by James Crist and Elizabeth Verdick.


Me First (2014, Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 5 -8 years) a picture book by Max Kornell.


Cooperative Games


Cooperative Games for Kids and Teens


Cooperative family Board Games


Don’t give up exhausted parents. Be persistent and consistent until harmony visits your home.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, Registered Play Therapist, and Behavioral Health Consultant. Email your questions to the Scioto County Candor at and put “Dr. Missy” in the subject line.

Ask Dr. Missy is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.