By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

All children are hungry for their parents’ approval. As a result, parents know they can use criticism to curb unwanted behaviors, and praise to encourage others.

With siblings the dynamic of criticism and praise becomes more complex. Parents may not always realize just how seriously a child takes each criticism, each encouraging word. When other siblings become an audience, parents’ words take on even more power. Praising one child can feel like a criticism of another; similarly, criticizing one can certainly seem like praise to another.

When there is an imbalance over time – more criticism for one child, more praise for the other – the criticized child is likely to give up and behave as “bad” as everyone seems to think she is. The child who must bear the brunt of parents’ continual criticism also becomes the brunt of a sibling’s: “You’re a loser.” A sibling will rub it in, glad not to be the brunt himself.

Praise, too, can be uncomfortable for the sibling who receives it, especially if the others are around. The praised sibling’s successes then seem to come at the expense of the others. If a child such as this feels guilty, or is the target of jealousy and resentment, she might even stop trying so hard, preferring to be less special and more like the others.

Praise from a parent can easily be overdone. The child knows when it’s phony. Too much praise from a parent can interfere with a child’s learning to take satisfaction in his successes on his own. Yet praise can be a boost, particularly if it is fair and comes out of the blue. From a parent it is valued, but even more from a sibling.

When an older sibling can praise a younger one and say, for example, “You did such a good job. You worked and worked at it” – think how proud both will feel. A younger sibling is likely to praise his older sister with his eyes, and with imitation. Is it wise to comment on their praise and take it away from them?

If you must criticize, avoid words such as “always” and “never.” Rather than negative generalizations such as “You’re never ready on time,” focus on what’s happening now: “You’re late. We need to get going.”

Teaching Self-Criticism and Self-Praise

Be careful about using praise or criticism as a way of controlling behavior. Either one can quickly feel like a weapon to a child. Your long-term goal is not this kind of power. Instead, it is to help your child learn to face his own strengths and weaknesses, to praise and criticize himself as he learns to monitor his own behavior. Instead of saying, “Great job!” there may be a chance to ask “How do you feel about how you did?” Your smile and warm voice tell her how proud you are, but you leave your child room to find her own pride. The added benefit of this approach is that siblings are less likely to feel that your approval of this child takes away from your approval of them.

The same goes for criticism. Of course there are times when a child needs to be told very clearly that she’s made a mistake. But look for opportunities to ask her what she thinks she’s done wrong, what she thinks she could have done better. A conversation like this is best carried out when the other children aren’t around to add to her embarrassment.

Whenever possible, reserve criticism and sanctions for private times with a child. If the others ask, “How come you didn’t punish her?” a parent can answer, “That’s up to me, and it’s between your sister and me.” When the other children are present, stick to clear expectations and instructions that apply to all.

When siblings, or siblings and friends get out of control, there’s no need to single one out. Tell the whole group, “You need to settle down.” The others may protest: “But Susie started it!” Simply answer, “I’m not interested in who did it. I’m asking you all to help out.” They’ll get the message. Singling out a child for public humiliation, on the other hand, strikes terror in the hearts of children. But it won’t win you their respect. To protect themselves from it, they’re likely to turn against you.

Often, you may not know what really happened, or who started it. But when only some are guilty, all can still be helped to face their responsibility. This approach sustains a parent’s authority while encouraging the children to recognize their interdependence. They may all turn against one sibling, but over time they’ll learn to stick up for each other – an important goal for the whole family.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.