Healthy Competition

How to keep the peace when sibling rivalry grows into adult envy. 

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Illustration By: Mark Matcho 

Our experts weigh in on how to keep your sister or brother from becoming your worst enemy. 

“The next time your sibling boasts, brags or tries to outdo you, control that urge to snap back or get angry like you did as a child. Instead, breathe deeply and take the high road. For example, if she’s going on about all the awards her kids have won, say: ‘That’s great! I’m so proud of them.’ Then change the topic. As mature adults, we’re equipped with better emotional tools. Use them.” —Bree Maresca Kramer, mental health counselor and author of the relationship help book series It’s That Simple!

“Do a little mindfulness meditation before your next get-together. Sit in a quiet spot and acknowledge the situation: ‘If I start talking about my child/job/spouse, my sibling will try to criticize or one-up me. I’m going to act like it’s not affecting me.’ It’s okay to feel annoyed or angry—just don’t show it. Your sibling may stop or get more aggressive, but by not responding emotionally, you’ll come out ahead.” —Peter Goldenthal, PHD, author of Why Can’t We Get Along?

“All children compete for their parents’ affection, and friction between grown siblings is a remnant of that. In other words, a competitive brother or sister still feels inadequate or holds a grudge. Empathy can help you get past obnoxious or hurtful behavior and talk things through. You might say, ‘Things weren’t always fair when we were kids, but that was a long time ago. Can we let go and change our relationship for the better?’ This is a continuous conversation you have to work at, but an incredibly healing one.” —Jeanne Safer, PhD, author of The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling

Success Story: “My sister and I always felt the other was smarter, prettier and more successful. Then one day, she made a joke about our competitiveness, and it’s been all wisecracks ever since. At big events, like our weddings, we took silly photos to keep animosity from rearing its head. I smile whenever I look at them.” —Carolyn Smuts, 41, Huntington Beach, CA 

More Tips

Cut Back: If there’s a lot of friction, limit your time together, whether that means fewer lunches or shortening a visit.

Gain Perspective: Acknowledge the part your parents played in your dynamic. Even the best-intentioned moms and dads make mistakes. Discussing the relationship each of you had with them can help you see your sibling’s point of view.