“She gets to go to the movies with her friends! How come I can’t go?”
“You love him more than me!”
“I wish I were an only child!”
Parents have heard it all when more than one child resides under their roof. Although siblings can be the closest of friends, it’s rare to find a child who gets along perfectly with all of their siblings.
Brothers and sisters fight — it’s just the natural ebb and flow of family life. Different personalities and ages can play a role, but siblings also often see themselves as rivals, competing for an equal share of limited family resources (like the bathroom, telephone, or last piece of cake) and parental attention.
Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up, but it can drive parents crazy. The key to minimizing disputes at home? Know when to let your kids work out their problems themselves and when to step in and play referee.
The Root Cause of Conflict
Kids aren’t always the most rational of human beings — especially younger children. Sometimes, the smallest issue can turn into a major battle and strain a sibling relationship to the breaking point.
Attention. Children are always vying for their parents’ attention. The busier the parents are, the greater demand is for their attention and the less they can focus on each child. When there is a new baby, it can be hard for the other child to accept losing their position as the center of attention. Sometimes, the parents’ attention is focused on a child who is sick or has special needs (for example, because of a learning disability). Kids will act out and misbehave to get the attention they want if they feel like they’re being ignored.
Sharing. Most households don’t have unlimited resources. That means all siblings will have to share at least some of their possessions. Giving up a toy or other favorite possession to a sibling can be especially hard on young children.
Unique personalities. Your oldest child might be headstrong while the youngest is quieter and more introverted. Differences in temperament can lead to clashes. Age and gender differences also can lead to sibling fighting.
Fairness issues. Children are like little lawyers, always demanding fairness and equality and fighting for what they perceive are their natural born rights. A younger sibling might complain that their older sister gets to go to a concert and they have to stay home, while the older sister whines that they have to baby-sit their little sister instead of going out with their friends. Feelings of unfair treatment and sibling jealousy can lead to resentment.
Finding a Good Family Balance
The screaming might be driving you nuts, but avoid getting in the middle of an argument unless a child is in danger of getting hurt. Try to let your kids resolve their own issues. Stepping in won’t teach your kids how to handle conflict, and it could make it seem as though you’re favoring one child over another — especially if you’re always punishing the same child.
Some disagreements are easier than others for kids to end on their own. Here are some tips for resolving the conflict when sibling fighting escalates to the point where you can no longer stay out of it:
Separate. Take your kids out of the ring and let them cool down in their own corners — their rooms. Sometimes, all kids need is a little space and time away from each other.
Teach negotiation and compromise. Show your kids how to resolve disputes in a way that satisfies both siblings involved. First, ask them to stop yelling and start communicating. Give each child a chance to voice their side of the story. Listen, and don’t be judgmental. Try to clarify the problem (“It sounds like you’re really upset with David for taking your favorite video game”), and ask your kids to find a solution that works for everyone involved. If they can’t come up with any ideas for resolving the issue, you introduce a solution. For instance, if the kids are fighting over a new game, propose that you write up a schedule that gives each child a set amount of time to play with the game.
Enforce rules. Make sure all of your kids abide by the same rules, which should include no hitting, name-calling, or damaging each other’s property. Let your kids have a say in how the rules are established and enforced. They may decide that the punishment for hitting is losing their TV privileges for one night. Letting your kids play a role in the decision-making process will make them feel like they have at least a little bit of control over their own lives. When your kids follow the rules, praise them for it. The rules may be different depending on the age of the child, just as the privileges and consequences may vary with the age of the child.
Don’t play favorites. Even if one of your kids is constantly getting into trouble and the other is an angel, don’t take sides or compare your kids (for example, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”). It will only make your kids resent each other more. Giving one child preferential treatment can also hurt the relationships between you and your children.
Don’t make everything equal. There is no such thing as perfect equality in a family. An older child will inevitably be allowed to do some things their younger siblings can’t. Instead of trying to make your kids equals, treat each child as a unique and special individual.
Give kids the rights to their own possessions. Sharing is important, but children shouldn’t be forced to share everything. All of your children should have something special that is completely their own.
Hold family meetings. Get together with the entire family once a week to hash out any issues. Give every family member a chance to air their grievances, and then come up with solutions together.
Give each child separate attention. It can be hard to spend time alone with each child, especially when you have a large family. But one of the reasons siblings resent each other is that they feel they aren’t getting enough of your attention. To let your kids know that you value every one of them, make one-on-one time for each child. Carve out special days when you take your daughter shopping or your son to the movies — just the two of you. Even 10 to 15 minutes of your attention each day can make your child feel special.
When Sibling Fighting Gets Out of Control
It’s completely normal for siblings to fight from time to time. But when fighting escalates to the point that one child is becoming emotionally or physically victimized, it needs to stop. Repeated hitting, biting, or “torturing” behaviors (for example, incessant tickling, teasing, or belittling) are forms of sibling abuse and justification for you to step in. If you can’t stop the violence yourself, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a mental health provider to get immediate help.