Understanding Sibling Rivalry - The Brazelton Way


By T. Berry Brazelton

By Joshua D. Sparrow

Formats and Prices




$25.99 CAD



  1. Trade Paperback $19.99 $25.99 CAD
  2. ebook $8.99 $11.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 13, 2005. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The teasing, squabbling, competition, and ferocious fights of brothers and sisters can drive any parent to frantic desperation. At the same time, Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow point out, siblings are learning from one another and deep, close relationships are forming that will last a lifetime. In this absolutely indispensable addition to the Brazelton Way series, the authors show how parents can defuse much of the bickering, while helping to strengthen warm relationships. They help parents understand the universal “Touchpoints” of sibling rivalry at each age, as well as the problems in particular family situations. From the combined delight and resentment that a sibling feels toward a new baby, to birth order, blended families, sex play, scapegoats, meltdowns, and competition in school, parents will find welcome advice in this wise, comforting book.



Brazelton Way

also by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.

On Becoming a Family
The Growth of Attachment Before and After Birth

Infants and Mothers
Differences in Development

Toddlers and Parents
Declaration of Independence

Doctor and Child

To Listen to a Child
Understanding the Normal Problems of Growing Up

Working and Caring

What Every Baby Knows

Families, Crisis, and Caring

Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development

Going to the Doctor

with Bertrand G. Cramer, M.D.

The Earliest Relationship
Parents, Infants, and the Drama of Early Attachment

with Stanley I. Greenspan

The Irreducible Needs of Children

also by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D.

Touchpoints Three to Six
Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development

Calming Your Fussy Baby: The Brazelton Way

Sleep: The Brazelton Way

Discipline: The Brazelton Way

Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way

Feeding Your Child: The Brazelton Way

Mastering Anger and Aggression: The Brazelton Way


Brazelton Way

T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D.

This book is meant to complement, not substitute for, the advice given by your child’s pediatrician. It should not be used as an alternative to appropriate medical care. The authors have exerted every effort to ensure that the information presented is accurate up to the time of publication. However, in light of ongoing research and the constant flow of information, it is possible that new findings may invalidate some of the data presented here. Before starting any treatment or new program, you should consult your pediatrician about your own child’s health, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

To the children and parents who have taught us so much through the years


We would like to thank parents across the country for having first urged us to write these concise, accessible books on topics of the utmost importance to them, for without their vision they might never have been written. Thanks too go to Karin Ajmani, Marie Caldwell, Geoffrey Canada, Marilyn Joseph and the Baby College staff, Karen Lawson and her late husband Bart, David Saltzman and Caressa Singleton for their unwavering support for our work, and from whom we have learned so much. As always, we would again like to thank our editor, Merloyd Lawrence, for her wisdom and guidance. Finally, we wish to express our gratitude to our families, not only for their encouragement and patience but also for the lessons they have taught us that we have sought to impart in this book.


Ever since I wrote the first Touchpoints book, published in 1992, I have been asked by parents and professionals all over the country to write some short, practical books on the common challenges that parents face as they raise their children. Among the most common are crying, discipline, sleep, toilet training, feeding, sibling rivalry, and aggression.

In my years of pediatric practice, families have taught me that problems in these areas often arise predictably as a child develops. In these short books I have tried to address the problems that parents are bound to encounter as their children regress just before they make their next developmental leap. Each book describes these “touchpoints”—of crying, discipline, sleep, toilet training, feeding, sibling rivalry, and aggression—so that parents can better understand their child’s behavior. Each also offers specific suggestions as to how parents can help their child master the challenges they face in these areas so that they can get back on track.

In general, these books focus on the challenges of the first six years of life, though occasionally older children’s issues are referred to. In the final section, special problems are discussed, though these short books are not intended to cover these topics exhaustively. Instead, we hope that these books will serve as easy-to-use guides for parents to turn to as they face their child’s growing pains, or “touchpoints” that signal exciting leaps of development.

As with Touchpoints Three to Six, I have invited Joshua Sparrow, M.D., to co-author these books with me, to add his perspective as a child psychiatrist. Though difficulties such as siblings who fight, compete, or won’t share, for example, are both common and predictable, they make great demands on parents. These kinds of problems are for the most part temporary and not serious, yet without support and understanding, they can overwhelm a family, and send a child’s development seriously off course. It is our hope that the straightforward information provided in these books will help prevent those unnecessary derailments, and provide reassurance for parents in times of uncertainty, so that the excitement and joy of helping a young child grow can be rekindled.


Brazelton Way

Sibling Relationships

“Guess what! I’m pregnant with my second child,” mothers tell me, and then proceed to break into tears. “Are you worried that you’ll desert the older child?” I ask. Fighting back more tears, they swear they’ll never do that. But they know they will, as soon as the new baby arrives, and I know they will, too.

“No parent ever feels that she has enough mothering to go around,” Erik Erikson once said to me. “When one child needs her, she feels she is ignoring the other. Then, when both need her, she feels she hasn’t been able to satisfy either of them.” She must protect the baby, but to do this, she must often hold off the older child. The feeling that you are deserting one for the other can be crushing. Early on, parents resolve to treat each child fairly, but also begin worrying about how they’ll ever manage to be fair to both. Parents wonder, “How will I be able to see both children’s sides at once?” They fret about the inevitable rivalry between siblings, and they may not realize that each child will learn to adapt to the other, and that both children will learn to share their parents with each other.

In our mainstream culture, parents’ attention to children’s individual needs has become more important than valuing their ability to share and learn to live together. In some families, parents who value individual accomplishment more than the strength of the family encourage competition among siblings. Yet these same parents still want to know: “How will I get rid of the rivalry between my children?” Even when they seem to be raising each child to put his or her own goals before the family’s, parents ask: “How can I help my children learn to care about each other?” Ask any parents about their hopes for their children’s relationships, and you’ll hear, “I want them to care about each other, and to look after each other—for the rest of their lives.” Even in this competitive culture, parents believe that their children are their “brother’s keepers.” Our own children call each other before they call us when they have a problem. We are proud of that.

It is our hope that this book will help parents reach this important goal for their children. To some extent, sibling relationships are out of parents’ hands. But parents can make choices as they respond to each child and to the squabbles that can influence these relationships, for better or for worse. They can help turn their children’s interactions, negative and positive, into rich and valuable opportunities to learn about each other and how to live together. They can foster strong relationships among siblings by avoiding bids to take sides, and by resisting temptations to enlist one child as a parent’s ally against a sibling. Parents should expect that each child will have to learn how the other functions, and how to make himself or herself understood.

When I was making films about child development, a mother brought her 5-month-old baby to “perform” for us. The baby would laugh on cue, she’d hold up one hand, she’d sit and try to crawl. She was amazing. “How has she learned so much?” I asked. The mother pointed to the baby’s 6-year-old brother, who was carrying out all our commands across the room from her. As he did so, this baby would imitate him almost precisely. Each time she performed, he would grin and wave at her. No other reward but his approval.

Competitive feelings may fuel these learning processes, but learning to live together with others is, of course, the larger goal. Parents may feel that when a new baby arrives, they have deserted the previous one. But each sibling is a gift to the others.

Beyond Rivalry—Learning from Siblings

Is there an advantage in having siblings? I think so. In the 1980s, I was sent to Beijing by UNICEF, along with a group from the Society for Research in Child Development, to study the one-child family. We compared 4- and 5-year-olds from one-child families and two-child families. The preschoolers were scored on several items:

  1. Did they share toys easily?
  2. Did they think of others or of themselves first?
  3. Did other children like them?
  4. Did they appear to be self-centered in their play?

Children from one-child families scored lower on all items. Raised without other children by six adults (grandparents and parents) who cater to them, these only children were not learning to share with others, nor did they enjoy giving to others. Of course, the qualities of sharing and giving can be encouraged in only children when parents are aware that they’ll need to make a special effort. If parents recognize the child’s need to be with other children and to be taught to share, there can be advantages to being an only child; for example, an only child is always sure of her place in the family.

Children from families with more than one child must learn to share. Siblings learn from each other about how to recognize each others’ needs and to balance them with their own. Through their tiresome squabbles, they teach each other to negotiate and to compromise, and to include each other in their decision making. Every parent hopes that they’ll also learn to care about each other. An only child will need to turn to cousins and close friends for these experiences.

As siblings learn from each other, and to adapt to each other, rivalry and caring for the other become two sides of the same coin. As one develops, so will the other. I see sibling rivalry as an important way for each child to get to know the other: “How far can I go? How far can she? How far can I push her? What happens when she falls apart? What does it feel like to have her look up to me or to be furious at me?”

Watch the intense dedication of a small child to her older sibling’s activities.* She watches, watches, watches. Then sheimitates every move he makes, in exactly the same order—all at once. An impressive feat! If you were able to enter her mind, you might see her brain register the entire sequence before she performs it. In the more usual learning of a behavior, without a sibling model, that same child would more likely try to break down the sequence and practice pieces of it, only putting them together after mastering each step separately. Much more costly. Instead, though, a small child can learn in hunks from imitation and identification with an older sibling. Imagine the rapt devotion that this way of learning demands! The younger child almost absorbs a part of the older one. Think what an advantage it can be to have an older sibling to learn from. She knows intimately how he works, what makes him tick. Even without demonstrating it, she incorporates his style and his excitement as part of her own.

After a period of such intense admiration and imitation, the younger child may have had enough. She may become overwhelmed and exhausted. What does she do? She sets off a minor explosion—tearing down his block tower, interfering with his game, climbing into his lap, obstructing his view of his toys. She’ll use ingenious techniques to wreck what he’s doing when she knows she’s not yet able to copy it herself and win back his attention.

She’s trying to divert him from his own play to nurture her at a time when she might otherwise have a meltdown. Of course, he will react by resenting her and turning on her. A parent will hear her scream, rush in to protect her, and reprimand the older child for being jealous and insensitive toward his younger sister! A typical case of sibling rivalry involving conflict as well as learning.

What has the older sibling learned? As he played, he was aware of his sister’s studied interest. He felt rewarded by her entranced observation. He carefully geared his own activity down to a level that she could imitate. As she imitated him, he made his movements more complex, leading her slowly and carefully up to another level. As he added each step, he used his peripheral vision to see how far she could follow. He felt proud as he learned to nurture, teach, and lead. But when he led her too far, she collapsed. He had not learned her limits. Or had he?

Her failure to keep up may have bothered him more than her teasing and meltdown. Disappointed, he reacted to her with his own loss of control. Meanwhile, he’d learned, from her intense identification with him, how to adapt to her differences. The screaming and fighting distracted the parents from seeing the learning occurring through the siblings’ interaction. For the children, too, rivalry can cover up other intense feelings about each other.

Ghosts from the Nursery


On Sale
Apr 13, 2005
Page Count
184 pages

T. Berry Brazelton

About the Author

T. Berry Brazelton, MD was professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and adjunct professor of psychiatry, human behavior, and pediatrics at Brown University.

Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., child psychiatrist and supervisor of inpatient psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston, is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Associate Director of Training at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. He is co-author with Dr. Brazelton of Touchpoints Three to Six and several titles in the Brazelton Way series.

Learn more about this author