How to Call a Truce in Sibling Rivalry

Easy Ways to Stop your Kids from Fighting

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You don’t need some fancy study to tell you that sibling fighting is a common thing – you see it every day in your own home; several times an hour, in fact.  And it’s not just you.  How many times have you offered a sympathetic smile to a mom in Target who is using her Batman voice to ask her kids to behave? Sibling rivalry happens. The question is, how to handle sibling fighting so that it stays healthy and doesn’t become traumatizing for your kids, you, and all the other moms in Target?

Normal Fighting or Scarred for Life?

Fighting in sibling relationships is a normal part of family dynamics. It helps develop vital social skills like empathy, being comfortable with disagreement, negotiating, and conflict resolution.  However, when taken to an extreme, sibling rivalry can escalate into personal attacks and even physical violence, which not only damage sibling relationships but also contribute to anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem.

How do you know when you’ve left the realm of normality and are headed straight to Planet Crazy? If you see an excessive amount of any of these behaviors, it’s probably time to seek out some parenting advice on how to handle sibling fighting.

  • Being violent, hitting or kicking
  • Constantly seeking attention
  • Intense frustration caused by inconsequential things
  • Excessive tattling
  • Bed-wetting
  • Regressive behaviors, like baby talk or thumb sucking
  • Constantly throwing temper tantrums
  • Acting out towards other people, pets, or inanimate objects

If you found yourself shaking your head and checking off way too many boxes on that list, read on for a few parenting tips on how to stop sibling rivalry.

Why Do They Compete with Each Other So Much?

So many times, parents ask themselves, “WHY are they doing this??!”, reasoning that if they can just figure out the cause, then maybe they can put an end to the sibling jealousy and competition. There are a lot of reasons that sibling relationships are fraught with fighting. Some of these can be addressed, and some you just have to accept as part of life.

First and foremost, siblings spend a huge amount of time together.  They are with each other more than anyone else, particularly early in life, and it is within their sibling relationships that they discover new skills – both emotional and physical – and test them out.  Everything from how fast they can run to who can figure out how to get Dad to give them extra chocolate for dessert. And, they want people – namely mom and dad – to see how good they’re getting at these things.

There are a few things that can exacerbate normal sibling jealousy and competition that are out of your control to change: having children close in age, having kids of the same gender, and having one or more kiddos who are intellectually gifted.  Sibling rivalry can also be affected by birth order, their innate personality or even experiences outside of the family unit.

So what’s a parent to do? By addressing a few environmental and situational factors that contribute to siblings fighting, you can lessen the likelihood that sibling rivalry will take hold.

Lack of Structure

The psychology of jealousy between siblings starts with anxiety. If kids aren’t given a relatively predictable routine with clear rules and consistent consequences, they don’t know what to expect. When they don’t know what to expect, they get anxious.  That anxiety can manifest as irritability, fighting or acting out, which are common symptoms of sibling rivalry.

By having a regular schedule when possible and giving kids clear rules and enforcing consequences, you can reduce the number of anxiety-provoking situations and decrease siblings fighting over who gets to do what and when they get to do it.

Unresolved Issues between the Parents

Some schools of thought suggest that the level of sibling rivalry mirrors the intensity of discord between the parents.  Siblings fighting might be the result of children copying the behavior they see in their parents. When the tension between Mom and Dad is unspoken, children can pick up on the emotional tension and then subconsciously act that tension out in their sibling relationships.

The best parenting advice in this situation is to treat each other the way you want your children to act. If you can’t get there on your own, then consider seeking relationship and parenting advice from a professional therapist.  A therapist will be able to help you resolve spousal conflict as well as work with you and your children to create a cohesive unit of siblings without rivalry.

Inadequate Problem Solving Skills

A primal instinct to take physical action to resolve conflict is within us all, but as we mature, we begin to understand why it’s important to not only resolve conflict as it happens but to also do it with words.  The same is true for conflict that arises because of sibling jealousy and competition.

When children are taught not to physically hurt each other without providing any acceptable alternatives for conflict resolution, everyday problems go unresolved and create hostility and sibling jealousy – a far cry from your goal of siblings without rivalry. Working with them on an everyday basis to develop the courage and skills to confront and resolve conflict successfully will go a long way towards ending unwanted sibling rivalry (see the parenting tips below for specific ways to do this).

Clear Expectation of Responsibilities

As children get older, they are entrusted with more responsibility and special privileges, such as later bedtimes or having a smartphone. This gives younger children a reason to strive for increased skills and maturity, so that they, too, can achieve the same level of respect as their older brother or sister and feel a sense of pride when they achieve similar milestones.  If kids are given the same privileges and responsibilities at the same time, it will inevitably lead to confusion and sibling jealousy as they jockey for the different “rewards” or attention.

Parental Indifference

In more extreme circumstances, parental neglect or abuse can lead to intense sibling rivalry. Kids have a high tolerance for negative attention; after all, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Siblings fighting is often a way that children will act out to get whatever attention they can from an emotionally absent parent.

Parenting Tips on How to Handle Sibling Fighting

First of all, don’t worry.  It IS normal.  Many experts will tell you that sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up. It is natural for kids to want to gain favor with their adult role models. That said, when the normal fighting in sibling relationships escalates into bullying or other types of extreme behaviors like physical fighting or emotional abuse, there are positive parenting solutions to sibling rivalry that can help you moderate the behavior back to acceptable levels.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #1: Encourage them to solve problems on their own. 

Siblings fighting and then being allowed to resolve the conflict by themselves will increase their self-confidence and independence.  If it starts to get violent, or one child is hurling hateful or hurtful insults at the other, then your job is to mediate and help them figure out how to handle sibling fights, not to solve it or decide who is right.

This can seem a bit vague and hard to put into practice, so here is an example to give you an idea of how to use this piece of parenting advice.

You love your children to pieces, but siblings without rivalry they are not. They are watching TV, and an argument starts.  They seem to be trying to work it out, but it keeps getting louder and louder until you hear the distinct sound of someone getting slapped and someone else shouting, “You are a stupid Meany, and I hate you!”

Step One: Calmly describe what you see as the problem.  For example, “Are you two having trouble deciding who picks what you watch on TV?”  When they respond with the inevitable “Yes! She keeps….” and “well he started it when he….” Head to step two.

Step Two: Ask each of them to give you their side of the story without blaming or insulting their sibling.  Make each child repeat what their sibling said was the problem to make sure they pay attention and don’t just stand there and roll their eyes.

Step Three: Ask them to solve it.  “Hmmmm. I see. What ideas do you two have for sorting this out?”  Make sure each one offers at least one idea.

Step Four: Let them pick out and try out one of the solutions, even if you know it’s completely off the wall (“We should put the remote in the freezer because s/he hates touching cold things”).

Step Five: If they can’t come up with anything workable on their own, then make a suggestion.  “How about you take turns picking a program or set a timer for how long each of you can be in charge?”

In time, they will learn how to do it on their own when they see that there are ways to solve problems other than shouting and blaming.  And speaking of blaming, this brings us to another of our parenting tips.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #2: Avoid the blame game.

How many times have you heard, “But she…”, or, “He started it!”?  It’s tempting to try to figure out who is right and wrong in an effort to find positive parenting solutions to sibling rivalry, but it can be more productive to blow right past that and ask for just the facts.  Saying something like, “No one is in trouble.  I’m not worried about who did what; I just need to know what happened so I can help you sort it out.”

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #3: Help your kids become team players.

Sibling rivalry is all about competition, so help your kids go from an “us versus them” mindset to a “we” mindset.  Refer to them as a team whenever you can.  For example, “You cleaned up the kitchen so fast!  You two make a good team.” Or, “You both make me laugh, but when you team up like that it’s hysterical!”

This positive parenting solution to sibling rivalry also works if they’re unhappy with you as a parent.  Even if they get mad, if they band together to be mad at you, it gives them the sense that they’re a team, not fighting each other for position.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #4: Treat them fairly, not equally.

One of the best answers I’ve heard to the question of how to handle sibling fighting is to treat them fairly, not equally. A five-year-old should not have the same bedtime as a 10-year-old.  If you treated them equally, they would both go to bed at the same time.  By giving them age-appropriate bedtimes, you take into consideration their individuality and act in ways that are fair and best for them. This helps raise siblings without rivalry and actually strengthens sibling relationships because, though they might grouse about it, they understand and appreciate fairness in action.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #5: Model behavior you want them to adopt.

Everyone in the house should be held up to the same level of expectations when it comes to fighting.  It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to figure out how to deal with sibling rivalry in toddlers, sibling rivalry in the teenage years, or trying to find sibling rivalry solutions for adults, no one gets to be cruel or threaten violence, and everyone should try to remain calm and understand the other person’s position.  This includes visitors to your home, so if the kids have friends over, the same thing applies.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #6: Build their conflict resolution vocabulary.

Often, aggressive, competitive behavior happens because the kids don’t know how to express what they’re really feeling.  Whether it’s sibling jealousy or anger over a boundary breach, it’s important that they learn how to verbalize what they’re feeling so that they can grow up as siblings without rivalry.

Age does make a difference, too – the words that are effective in how to deal with sibling rivalry in toddlers are different than sibling rivalry in the teenage years. When they’re little, it’s best to keep it simple with words like happy, mad, sad and so on.  As they get older, you can help them expand their vocabulary to include all sorts of “feeling words” like disappointed, hurt, confused, frustrated, left out, etc.  Not only does naming the emotion help them solve the conflict, but it also gives them a place to start when managing their emotions as well.

Whenever they struggle to describe how they’re feeling, it’s ok to make suggestions such as, “You seem to be pretty frustrated that Jack won’t let you watch what you want.”  Don’t worry if you get their feeling wrong, they will not hesitate to correct you.

If they’re not receptive to these kinds of conversations, one of the best positive parenting solutions to sibling rivalry is to start with conversations about other kids to make it less threatening.  For instance, if you see a kid at the playground having a total meltdown, get your own child to guess what the other child is feeling.  You can make your own guess as well to help them start to recognize different emotional states.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #7: Create a “Boredom Buster” jar.

Siblings fighting can be a sign that your kids are simply bored says one expert from Living Well Spending Less. Bored kids will find some way to break the monotony, and often times that is by picking a fight with their brother or sister, especially in the long hot days during summer vacation.  Create a “Boredom Buster” jar filled with suggestions for things to do like clean your room, match the socks, wash the car, cut the grass, etc.  They might not like what’s in the jar, but they will soon get the message that if they fight, they will get directed to the jar.

How to Stop Sibling Rivalry Tip #8: Take the sting out of the fight.

Often a little humor can diffuse fighting, and it’s one of the most positive parenting solutions for sibling rivalry.  I’m sure you’ve seen the video on the web of the mom who put her two kids in one shirt and made them slow dance until they could get along (if not, you can see it here, it’s awesome).

While some siblings might take that opportunity to slug it out in close combat, the spirit of the intervention is good.  Some parents say putting their kids in timeout together and making them hold hands works wonders; others have them sit face to face and maintain eye contact.  They’re not allowed to fight.  If they do, they get another minute.  Bottom line, they continue doing that until they can apologize and work out the conflict.

Conclusion

History and popular culture are filled with accounts of sibling rivalry.  From Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft, to King Lear’s three daughters, it’s everywhere. The trick is keeping it within healthy limits and using it as a teachable moment without resorting to your Batman’s voice. These parenting tips will help you down the road to less fighting, but if you’re looking for more resources, here are a few suggestions.

If you want a few more positive parenting solutions to sibling rivalry, check out Peter Goldenthal’s Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate which takes a look at how all the relationships in the family affect sibling rivalry.

Another good resource is Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which was a #1 bestseller and teaches parents how to decrease hostility between siblings.

Also read: How to Throw a Killer Birthday Party for Under $100?

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