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Why siblings fight and what to do about it

sister and brother fighting

Anyone who grew up with a sibling knows that fighting comes with the territory, but when our own kids get into it, it can be worrying. We wonder, “Are they creating lasting damage to each other?” or “Will they ever get along?” You’ll be relieved to know that, in the vast majority of families, there is no lasting psychological damage caused by sibling fights. Here is some information on why siblings fight with each other and how you can help everyone deal with it more effectively.

Why siblings fight

The number 1 reason for sibling squabbles is competition for parental attention. Kids need attention from you, and they will do everything (good and bad) in their power to get it. You can shape a lot of behavior by what you pay attention to and how you praise your children. That’s why it is important to give adequate attention to all children, especially for positive behavior. The more positive behavior is noticed and specifically praised, the less often children will need to act out to get your attention.

Why it’s not such a bad thing

Is it stressful, annoying and exhausting when kids fight? Yes. Yes, it is. But is it important for their development as relational human beings? Also, yes. Through the fine art of fighting, siblings teach each other important concepts like conflict resolution and problem-solving. They also give each other plenty of practice with forgiveness. They might be furious with each other 1 minute and playing nicely the next. That’s a good thing, preparing them for healthy relationships throughout their lifetime. The next time a sibling fight breaks out between your kids, maybe you can say to yourself not, “What’s wrong with them?” but, “Wow! They’re learning so much!” It’s worth a shot, anyway.

How to reduce fighting

As much as we would love to wave a magic wand and prevent all fights, that wishful thinking may not bring us the peace we’re seeking. There are, however, things we can do to lessen the likelihood of fights at predictable times or in predictable circumstances.

  • Notice hunger cues. When kids are tired or hungry, they are more likely to take it out on each other. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have snacks ready to go. Before dinner is a very common time for kids to fight because they are not only hungry, but they are not getting adult attention if you are preparing the meal. You can deal with this by offering satisfying snacks, giving kids tasks to help with dinner or distracting them with something they love, like a show or game.
  • Let them know where you are. If you’ve ever been on the phone or in a work meeting at home, you know that kids are never more interested in your whereabouts than when you’re trying to have a conversation with other adults. If possible, check in with kids before calls or meetings to make sure they have everything they need. Let them know when you’ll check in with them again so they don’t feel desperate to reach you in the middle of your important meeting.
  • Understand change is stressful. Transitions of any kind can create more tension between siblings, so have some extra grace during changes in school format, activities, seasons, etc., and model and encourage open communication about feelings. Prolonged stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, a long-term illness or family difficulties can result in kids fighting more with siblings. Encourage kids to come to you with whatever they are facing and actively listen to their concerns.

When parents should intervene

Remember when we said kids fight for parental attention? Well, if siblings pull you into their dispute, your presence perpetuates the fighting. That’s why you should never assume the role of referee. Instead, try these tips:

  • If the kids fighting are fairly well matched, you can call in, “Do you need me to come address the problem?”
  • If they say yes, don’t ask who did what, who started it or who ended it. You are only stepping in to give the kids a break from each other. You can say something like, “You don’t get to play together if you can’t resolve your differences without fighting or getting physical. For the next 10-20 minutes, you’re on your own. No playing together.”
  • If they are squabbling over a toy or an activity, the toy goes in timeout or the activity gets suspended.
  • The next time they fight and you ask, “Do you need me to come resolve this?” they will likely look at each other and decide “No!” they can handle it on their own.
  • For the most part, you don’t need to teach conflict resolution directly. You can encourage kids to figure it out on their own or face a consequence like lost playtime or lost access to a toy.

How to deal with fights between kids of different ages

It is not uncommon for older siblings to take the blame for all fights with younger siblings. It is natural for you to want to protect young ones, but you need to be mindful of not creating resentment in the older child by making them responsible for every conflict. Often, there is a dynamic to which both kids contribute.

  • If a younger sibling is always getting into the older sibling’s stuff, precious belongings need to be kept out of reach of the younger sibling.
  • If siblings share a room and the younger is messy or destructive, do not make the older one responsible for keeping the room clean.
  • Do not reflexively come to the rescue of the younger sibling in arguments.
  • Early on, facilitate positive interactions between siblings by having the older child get involved in activities with the younger that are beneficial to the older (e.g., outings, treats, entertainment).

How to deal with conflict in families with stepsiblings, adopted siblings or foster siblings

In blended families, adoptive families and foster families, there is a higher risk that kids will complain about favoritism. It is only natural they will be competing for parental attention. Staying calm, consistent and compassionate is the key to building healthy sibling dynamics.

  • Don’t take sides or referee. Be a united front as parents.
  • Establish together certain things each kid doesn’t have to share.
  • In families with stepchildren, consequences should be communicated to each child by their biological parent if the children are older than toddler age. 
  • Remain calm and dispassionate in addressing expectations and consequences.
  • When you give a gift of an electronic, set up the expectation it still belongs to you as a parent, but it is available for the kids to use. That way, you are still in charge of how and when it gets used.

When to use timeout versus cooldown

 

Timeout is called by an adult to address fighting that can’t be resolved by kids.

  • Kids and objects can be put in timeout. For example, kids can have a timeout from playing with each other if they can’t get along. If they are arguing over something like a video game, the game can be put in a timeout.
  • Timeout ends as soon as a child settles down. The child should be praised for settling. Timeout is not a punishment and it shouldn’t go too long.
  • Kids that have more emotional dysregulation will need more practice (e.g. more timeouts) to learn to settle themselves.

Cooldown is called by anyone involved in a conflict to give themselves a break.

  • Cooldown is an opportunity to settle so everyone can think more clearly and is more in control of their actions and words.
  • If anyone (kid or adult) needs a cooldown time, they are allowed to call it for themselves. No one can call it for anyone else (e.g., “You need a cooldown!”).
  • You can model the behavior to encourage kids to do it (e.g., “I think I need a minute to cool down and I’ll come back when I am thinking more clearly.”).
  • Taking a cooldown doesn’t diminish your authority. In fact, you are more likely to lose authority if you get swept up in a heated interaction or if you are trying to reason with emotionally out of control kids.
  • Check back in after the cooldown to see how everyone wants to handle the situation. It might be decided that the issue doesn’t need to be rehashed and everyone can move on. It might just be that everyone is in a better place to talk out the conflict more calmly.

How to deal with “it’s not fair”

If you’ve ever dealt with a meltdown because “He got more fruit snacks than I did!” you know that kids are big on fairness. They will not rest until justice is served in their favor. That is why, very early on, it is good to communicate to children that your family responds to each other based on what each person needs, not based on perceived fairness. Everyone is different and everyone has different needs.

  • If there is constant bickering over who gets to sit in a certain seat, who has to do what chores or who gets to pick the meal, you can use even and odd days as an easy way to keep track.
  • Another tactic is to give kids who can write a notebook to write down their complaints. You can set a time to review it if you want or they can just treat it as a journal. Writing down complaints reduces kids’ out-loud whining and eventually, they’ll get tired of even writing down their own complaints.

When you can’t be there

If older kids (too old for a babysitter) are home together without parental supervision, do not put one of them in charge of the other. Instead, try this:

  • Say “I am going to pay both of you for making sure you are safe and getting along. When I come home, I’m going to ask each of you, did things work well between you.” If either kid complains it didn’t go well, neither gets paid. If they both make it work, they both get paid. It’s a way of putting them in alignment to do what’s best.

Where to find help

The book Siblings without Rivalry is a classic for a reason. It has been republished several times because it continues to offer parents helpful tips and encouragement.

If you have tried everything and there is still constant conflict and stress, then it may be wise to seek professional help from your child’s doctor. Emotional dysregulation is present in a number of childhood health conditions, and your doctor can help determine if there is an underlying health issue that might be affecting behaviors and symptoms.

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Child Psychology

Child Psychologist