As long as there is more than one child in the house, sibling rivalry is inevitable. The bane of many parents’ existence, sibling fighting often leaves Moms and Dads feeling exhausted and worn out by all the bickering and teasing, and wondering why their kids seem to fight so much.
They want to find out how they can promote a warm and close relationship between their offspring that will carry forward into their children’s adulthood.
You may relate to some of the following reactions we have heard from parents about how they feel about their children squabbling: angry, furious, helpless, out of control, exasperated, hopeless, powerless, sad, confused, disappointed, frustrated, overwhelmed, agitated, and less frequently, amused.
Parents worry that their children will:
- get physically or emotionally hurt,
- have their self-esteem damaged especially if the conflicts are chronic,
- become bullies,
- never stop fighting,
- have poor relationships as adults,
- lack empathy,
- not care for others.
The different forms of sibling rivalry
Parents are often amazed at the different forms that sibling rivalry can take and how creative and mean children can be to their siblings. Here are just a few of the ways that children can provoke one another:
- stealing things,
- challenging a belief,
- simply looking at each other,
- breaking something that belongs to the other one,
- throwing something at the other one,
- hiding something that is important to the other one.
Some of these tactics are probably agonizingly familiar to you, and you can probably come up with a few more ingenious ways that your children seem to torment one another!
To most parents, all the fighting seems so unnecessary, gets on their nerves, and can be upsetting because they don’t like seeing their children hurt each other or be mean to one another. And many parents have added pressure because they feel like they have to resolve the problems like a wise old owl!
The Benefits of Sibling Rivalry
Weary parents often wonder: Why do kids fight? It makes no sense to us adults!
Actually, it is interesting to think about the sibling fighting from your children’s perspective.
Why children fight
- get attention from you.
- feel powerful.
- get a break from boredom. Annoying a sibling may seem more exciting than anything else going on.
- connect with their sibling.
- get physical contact.
- become the ‘favored one’ in their parents’ eyes by making their sibling look bad.
These are all things that children need, but fighting with a sibling is not the best way for them to achieve these goals; you can guide them to find more appropriate ways to get their needs met.
What children learn from the fighting
In addition, children actually do learn important life skills through the arguing they do with their siblings.
They learn to:
- deal with power struggles.
- manage conflict and resolve differences.
- be assertive and to stand up for their position.
- negotiate and compromise.
Parents’ Expectations vs. the Reality
Even with these positive outcomes that can result from siblings fighting, often the seemingly unending nature of the arguing can make a parent wonder: “Why do so many people have more than one child?” (and more specifically, “Why did I have more than one child?”)
Parents typically imagine their children would:
- be loving,
- not fight,
- be fair to each other,
- share and want to play nicely with each other,
- not seem to enjoy hurting each other,
- work together with kindness and consideration when they have conflicts,
- not want to annoy their parents,
- not try to kill each other if left alone with each other.
You may have had other positive images of your children’s relationship before you ever had the kids. Sometimes, these positive things do happen, and it can warm your heart to see your children be loving and kind to one another.
But other times, you can despair that they will ever get along or even like each other.
When your expectations do not match the reality, you may feel a sense of loss as you give up the image you had of your children being warm and loving to each other all the time.
Even though you might feel sad about this reality, it is best to give up the fantasized image and accept that fighting and rivalry come with the turf of having more than one child.
By accepting the fact that siblings will fight, and there will be times when they seem to do everything they can to hurt one another, you will not think that you must be doing something wrong, or that something is wrong with your children.
Once you come to terms with this inevitability, you will be in a stronger position to come up with plans for managing the fighting.
How your parents handled sibling rivalry
Another point to remember: How you handle your own children’s conflicts can be influenced by how your parents dealt with rivalry between you and your siblings. Did you ever hear any of these comments from your parents when you were growing up?
“Just stop fighting; I can’t take it anymore.”
“Don’t bother me with your silly fights; just work it out yourselves.”
“I don’t care who started it; you’ll both be punished.”
“Why can’t you just be nice to one another?”
“If you don’t stop fighting, I will tell your father/mother.”
Sometimes you may find yourself responding to your children in the same way that your parents responded to you. This may be because you don’t realize you are doing it, or you don’t know how else to respond.
But when you consciously think about which responses your parents used that were effective and which were not, you can find alternative and better ways to cope with sibling rivalry with your children.
Insights from “images vs. reality”
Remember that sibling rivalry is inevitable to some degree. It does not mean that there is something wrong with your children or with the way you are parenting.
Children gain some benefits from the fighting even though it seems so pointless to you.
- You will be in a stronger position to manage the rivalry when you give up any images of a totally harmonious relationship between your children.
Being aware of how your parents handled rivalry between you and your siblings can help you to discard those approaches that you now see were not helpful and to be more intentional in using those approaches which you see were effective.
Being aware of the factors that influence sibling rivalry can help you to be more understanding and help you to respond in more sensitive ways to the sibling issues that arise.
The birth order of each of your children has an impact on them individually as well as on the sibling relationship. And your birth order in your family of origin also impacts you as an adult.
Knowing the effects of birth order can help you to be more understanding about the underlying dynamics of sibling rivalries and the overall sibling relationship, and you can use this information to respond in more sensitive ways to the sibling issues that arise between your children.
Many studies show that different birth orders carry their own characteristic response patterns because of the different experiences siblings in different birth orders have in their families.
First-borns tend to identify closely with the parent who makes more of the decisions in the family, is more proactive, and task-oriented (traditionally the father). First-borns are interested in results and productivity, need to feel on target and tend to be perfectionistic, reliable, responsible, well organized, and serious.
Second-borns or middles
Second-borns or middles tend to identify closely with the more expressive and emotional parent (traditionally the mother). They are interested in the quality of performance and tend to be in tune with people’s emotions. Feeling that they ‘belong’ is very important to them.
They often function as mediators, avoid conflict, are independent, extremely loyal to their peer group, have many friends, and are more likely to be a maverick. Sadly for them, there are the fewest pictures of these children in the family album.
Third-borns tend to relate to pairs in the family (for example, two parents, two siblings, etc), are interested in maintaining balance in relationships between people, need to have choices and tend to use humor in dealing with situations.
The youngest often look at the whole family picture and are interested in maintaining family harmony. They tend to be tuned into the emotions of the individuals in the family and the family as a group. They can be manipulative, not take responsibility for their actions, be perceived as show-offs, use humor to get what they want, and are frequently charming, precocious, and engaging.
Remember that this is not an exact or hard science and that not all children fit these expected characteristics. But it can be interesting to see how much or how little your children match the stereotype.
Each birth order has its advantages and disadvantages and no one position is really better than any other. Knowing this can help you be more empathic if and when your children complain about what they see as the disadvantages of their birth order. This understanding can also broaden your perspectives and help you to broaden your children’s perspective about their birth order.
It is also important to remember that sometimes your sibling position in your family of origin impacts how you relate to you own children.
For example, a father may have difficulty being sympathetic to his younger children if he felt, as the oldest in his family, that he had the burden of caring for his carefree younger siblings. Or, a mother may struggle to sympathize with an oldest daughter if she always felt that her older sister had more privileges and was favored more.
A few other things to remember about birth order:
Because no sibling can ever achieve the birth order status of any other, there is always unequal power among siblings; a second child may wish he could be first and a first may wish she could be the “baby.”
In blended families, as new children enter the family, they may lose their original birth order so the oldest may find herself to be the middle child. Such displacement often affects the sibling relationships.
Spacing among siblings
Siblings who are close in age have high access to one another and are more likely to be physical with one another; siblings who are spaced further apart have less access to one another and tend to be less competitive because they usually spend less time together, are interested in different things, and are involved in different activities.
Siblings who are temperamentally “easy” may be treated differently by parents than siblings who are “more challenging”; temperamentally “easy” children tend to be “liked” more, and children with more challenging temperaments may annoy their siblings (and parents) more.
If there are differences in how parents react to their children, this could increase the intensity of the competition between them. Also, depending on each of the siblings’ temperaments, they may be more or less likely to get along with each other.
For example, a very active but emotionally sensitive youngster may “bug” his quieter, more sedentary brother to play with him, only to get hurt and upset when his sibling wants to be left alone to read his book.
In certain families, a child of one sex or the other may be preferred; if the child of the less appreciated gender is born, that child may grow up the recipient of such messages as “we wish you were a boy” instead of a girl. Such messages will influence how that child relates to her other siblings and can increase sibling rivalry, especially with the child who is the more desired gender.
Hunger, fatigue, illness, and developmental disequilibrium can affect siblings’ relationships, even if just until the children’s physical needs are addressed. Siblings living in a small house or apartment who have to share a room might argue more because of their close and frequent proximity.
Parenting style and family ambiance
Parenting approaches range from being very aggressive and overly harsh to very permissive and overly lax. Children raised in families at either end of this continuum tend to fight more.
When parents are very strict, rigid, and use overly harsh discipline or corporal punishment, the children tend to fight more with siblings when they can get away with it because aggression has been modeled for them.
Children raised in homes where the parents are very permissive or neglectful don’t feel that they get enough attention and don’t have rules to guide their behavior, so they tend also to fight more.
In the middle of these two extremes are families that:
- respect individual needs,
- treat children as unique and special people,
- foster cooperation rather than competition,
- and encourage a positive and loving connection to the family.
This approach helps to promote high self-esteem in the children. This, in turn, has an impact on the children’s relationships with one another; there will be less need to compete or to fight for love, attention and respect, or to prove their worth by denigrating a brother or sister.
Sibling issues often intensify when there are changes in the family, such as the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage, and so on.
Although technically children may be raised in the same household, differences in the circumstances can alter their experiences. This includes such factors as the finances of the family at any given time, which parents worked and when, who was in charge of the children, where the family lived, and the nature of the parents’ relationship at the time each sibling was growing up. All of these can impact the children’s relationships.
Ages of your children
It can feel like the sibling rivalry between your children is on-going, never changing, and will never improve. Actually, the good news is that sibling rivalry does change as children enter different developmental stages and levels of maturity. This means that parents need to be flexible in responding to the conflicts that arise:
a “dog-eat-dog” period in which there is lots of fighting; parents have to intervene frequently. Young school-aged children – adherence to a new rule: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” or tit for tat; parents have to intervene less often than when the children were younger.
Older school-aged children
the “law and order” stage when children use rules to ensure fairness and protect against cheating; parents have to intervene even less.
High school and beyond
the children begin to develop an adult conscience and to feel that it is not right to exploit a sibling; they can use conflict resolution techniques on their own if those have been taught to them.
Using this information to help manage the rivalry
Use your knowledge of birth order to understand each of your children’s positions and feelings; help them to see the advantages of their position.
Consider the other factors that influence the sibling relationship so that you can be more understanding of your children’s experiences and perhaps use this knowledge to mitigate the rivalry.
Remain hopeful and optimistic by remembering that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside.
In the heat of the moment, when your children are in the midst of a fight that is really getting under your skin, you can feel at a loss as to what you can do to handle the situation.
If you consider in advance an array of strategies you can pull out of your parenting tool belt, it may help you to respond effectively when your children are “itching for a fight” with one another.
Continuum of fighting
The following information can give you some guidelines about what might be an appropriate stance to take about when and how to intervene. We call it the “green light to red light” guideline.
With this in mind, you can think about what your children need from you when they engage in fighting with their siblings. That can help you decide if, when, or how to intervene.
Normal Bickering, minor name calling
Parent’s role – Stay out of it.
Borderline, volume is going up, nasty name-calling, mild physical contact, threats of danger
Parent’s role – Acknowledge anger and reflect each child’s viewpoint.
Potential Danger, more serious, half play/half real fighting
Parent’s role – Inquire: “Is it play or real?” Firmly stop the interaction, review rules, and help with conflict resolution.
Dangerous Situation, physical or emotional harm is about to or has occurred
Parent’s role– Firmly stop the children and separate them. If a child is hurt, attend to that child first, review the rules, and possibly impose a consequence.
What your children may need at each of the levels
Do they need:
- attention, respect?
- outside help to stop the fighting?
- protection from getting hurt?
- time to work it out?
- guidance to process conflicts?
- ways to prevent conflicts next time?
- ways to make amends?
- ways to empathize?
- ways to forgive and reconnect with the initiator?
Thinking about what your children may need can guide you in how to handle the fighting, and when and how to intervene.
One way to manage sibling rivalry between your children is to establish family rules in your home.
Having rules in place is a way to communicate your family values and forces you to think in advance about what behavior is important to you and what you want to enforce.
Rules are an effective preventative strategy.
In terms of sibling rivalry, rules can set a tone and communicate your expectations about how you want your children to relate to each other. You can refer back to the “family rule” when children fight or do not treat each other with respect. Include them in discussions about what rules should exist in your family in terms of how people should treat each other.
Here are a few rules that many families find useful to have in place:
Handling conflicts and anger
“No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
“We treat each other with respect.”
Parents’ role when there is conflict
“If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
Hurt or property is damaged
“Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
Personal possessions and boundaries
“We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
“No “tattling” to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sister just put her muddy shoes on the sofa is tattling; a youngster reporting to his mother that his young sister is standing on the sofa and is close to falling off is telling.
Problem Exploration and Conflict Resolution
Another invaluable tool that you can teach your children is the skill of conflict resolution. At first and when they are young, you will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own.
This process involves each child expressing his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it.
This skill helps your children to navigate relationships with peers and is useful throughout life. It makes them feel competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems without fighting.
Remember that in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed.
You can model for your children when it comes to handling conflict:
Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
For more information about the skill of problem exploration and conflict resolution, you can see our on-demand article on this topic posted on our website.
Suggestions from Barbara Coloroso in Kids are Worth It:
Use cool-off times
First, help the children calm down, then address the situation by giving each child an opportunity to express his side of the story.
- Enter the room where your children are fighting slowly and quietly.
- Stand without saying a word.
- Take action, modeling calm and patience. For example, turning off the television or separating kids who are fighting.
- Describe what you see. For example, “I see two children who both want the remote control.”
- Explain the need for a “plan” – help them engage in a conflict resolution process.
“Notepad, pencil, one story” technique
Have children work together to come up with one story they can both live with – this process helps them to see the other person’s perspective.
The “sit and permission to get up” approach
They can both get up as soon as they give each other permission to get up. An apology is not the key here (don’t demand that they apologize); cooperation is key. Both children have power over the other one; they are interdependent. This helps them to calm down and then they can work on resolving the problem.
“You hit – you sit” approach
Children need to learn that hitting is not an appropriate way to handle conflict.
“We do not hit in our family under any circumstances. Use your words to tell Sean how angry you are.”
To a young child, you can add, “You can calm down in your room, in the rocker, or on my lap.”
For older children, offer a choice between sitting and walking. “You can sit or take a walk until you are calm enough to go back and handle the situation with words, not with hitting.”
Remove a toy children are fighting over.
Separate children when they are fighting or teasing one another. For example, have them go to opposite sides of the room.
Enforce logical consequences. For example, if they are fighting over who has control of the remote for the TV, the television gets turned off.
Help children to express their feelings and to understand and empathize with the feelings of their siblings.
Use time-outs, not to punish but to calm down and re-group.
Give older children privileges as well as responsibilities.
Help older children learn to ignore provocative behavior of younger siblings.
Make tattling unrewarding.
Encourage Healthy Sibling Relationships
The following list is more general and encourages a parental attitude that will minimize rivalry. But remember, some conflicts will inevitably exist as long as you have more than one child at home.
Expect many episodes of sibling rivalry.
It is normal for families to have problems, issues, and conflicts.
Don’t blame yourself unfairly for the way your children behave and don’t set unrealistic goals for family harmony.
What is important is that your children have healthy ways to work the conflicts out.
Treat your children as the unique individuals they are.
Make each child feel special. Each person’s needs, feelings, and perspectives are important.
Don’t show favoritism.
Do not compare your children to one another either favorably or unfavorably.
Stay calm and objective.
Stay out of arguments that are only harmless bickering.
Make need rather than fairness the basis for decisions.
In response to the common complaint from children that “It’s not fair,” tell your children, “Fair does not mean equal; it means giving each person what they need.”
Come up with a list of basic rules that fit your family values.
Examples of basic rules are “no hitting” or “no foul language”. Tell your children that things can’t always be done the way they want and that they can think and feel at the same time: “When you are angry at Ruby, you can still tell her how you feel without hurting her.”
Don’t look for someone to blame or punish.
Your children will learn more by working out the problem with each other.
Don’t referee a fight if you don’t know what happened.
Focus instead on the misdeed itself, invoke the already established family rule that prohibits the act, and disapprove of it.
Remember, you don’t have to worry about “who started it;” you did, by having more than one child!
Don’t get in long discussions about what happened.
All of that attention you are giving your children is a reward for the arguing and fighting.
Encourage communication and understanding of feelings among siblings.
Help children to develop a sense of empathy and a respect for how their siblings feel.
Let your children know that you believe they can be creative about finding solutions to problems with their brothers and sisters; help them learn the skill of problem solving.
Be aware of developmental stages.
Young children have a hard time sharing. They need to “possess” before they can share.
Do not force children to be friends with their siblings.
This may come in time, when they are ready, and through their own wishes. However, you can insist that they treat each other respectfully.
Don’t bemoan in the children’s presence that they “fight all the time.”
They will live up to the billing!
Don’t allow children to play one parent against the other.
Talk directly and privately with your co-parent if you disagree with a parenting decision.
Consider outside help.
If things seem to be out of hand you can seek out family therapy.
Messages to send
Following are things you can say to your children about sibling rivalry – either directly or indirectly by how you relate to your children and other people and by the general atmosphere you create in your home:
“You don’t have to like your brothers and sisters all the time.”
“I hope that you and your brother/sister will always be there for each other.”
“You can ask for help to resolve differences when you need it.”
“You can have my attention without having to act up or act out or be mean to your sister.”
“Physical or verbal aggression is not permitted. Period.”
“Our family is a safe place for children and adults to live and grow up in.”
If you believe these messages and communicate them to your children, you will go a long way to managing the sibling rivalry in your family in the short term and to setting your children up for a caring and close relationship at either end of this continuum in the future.
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