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.

Can discipline be the same for different children in the same family? Not always. Is it fair to treat them differently? They won’t think so, and they’ll be playing close attention. But of course it may be, because they are different. Differences in discipline depend on age differences, differences in ability, sensitivity and temperament.

Siblings will reproach parents: “You’re always so much easier on her than you are on me.” I would advise parents to lay out their reasons openly so that differences in discipline won’t be seen as playing favorites: “Do you really think it would be fair to treat you alike? You’re three years older.”

Parents may also find that they discipline their boys and girls differently, or they may do so without realizing it. Many will naturally soften to speak to a girl, and are more likely to be tougher with a boy. Will boys see this as unfair? Probably. Parents will need to stop and consider whether their different responses to a boy and a girl really fit the child or, instead, are based on a stereotype.

Fair discipline does not necessarily mean the same discipline for all. If different children really need different kinds of discipline to be contained and to learn from it, all the children can be helped to understand and accept this.

What happens when two or more siblings are involved? When they gang up to make a ruckus that you must stop? An older child may set up a younger one to do his dirty work because he’s more likely to “get off easy.” Sometimes, parents may know that the mischief goes beyond the younger child’s abilities. Sometimes they won’t.

What should you do?

  • First of all, parents will need to get themselves under control.
  • Then, address both children together. This is their chance to learn that they’re all in it together as a family.
  • Afterward, separate each child for individual discipline, in private.
  • Finally, bring the children back together again. Remind them that they are all responsible for each other, even when only one is guilty. Then, plan for a family time – a meal, reading together, a walk, or anything else that allows everyone to feel close again.

Separation from each other has the powerful effect of getting each child to listen to the teaching that goes with discipline, and defuses the excitement of ganging up on a parent. It also makes them realize how much they want to be together, no matter how upset they’ve been with each other.

When children keep misbehaving, over and over, either they’ve not yet learned from your discipline or the motive to misbehave is stronger. It is essential to help children discover their own motivation to get along with each other and to comply with the family’s rules and expectations. Then they can begin to assume some responsibility for self-discipline.

If this doesn’t happen, siblings are likely to find it far more rewarding to gang up against parents and to goad each other to test parents’ patience and resolve. When you can, turn it back to them and make the misbehavior their problem, not yours.

Another possibility is that your response has not been consistent. If you respond on some occasions, and not on others, children are bound to keep on testing. They need to find out whether or not you’ll respond next time. If you mean business, show them by responding the same way, every time. But don’t get worked up about it. That may make the misbehavior even more exciting, and hard to resist.


  1. Make the punishment fit the crime.
  2. When you find yourself spending a lot of time disciplining your children for fights and rivalry, stop and consider how much to leave to them. They’ll be more likely to listen if they haven’t heard you nagging for a while.
  3. Balance positives with the negatives. When your children are quietly getting along or working on their own projects, surprise them with a word of praise.
  4. When problem behavior happens too often, ask the children what would help them behave. Let them plan solutions together.
  5. Don’t compare one child to another.
  6. Don’t talk about one child to the others.
  7. Don’t humiliate one child in front of the others.
  8. Discipline is best absorbed by a child when it can be done in private. But it often happens that two or more children need it at the same time. You can remind them as a group of expectations and consequences that apply to all of them, without singling anyone out.
  9. Match the discipline to the child. A parent who knows each child’s temperament, stage of development, learning style, and thresholds has a better chance. Watch her face and body movements for evidence that you are reaching her.

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 www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.