Compiled by Michelle Young, M.S. Ed
Parent Resource Center
5905 Forest Pl, Ste 205
Little Rock, AR 72207
"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!" These are just a few of the complaints parents hear 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 his or her siblings.
Brothers and sisters fight. Part of the reason for the disputes is different personalities and ages. The other part is that siblings see themselves as rivals, competing for an equal share of limited family resources (e.g., bathroom and telephone time, or the 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 is to know when to let your kids work out their problems themselves, and when to step in and stop the fighting.
The Cause of Sibling Conflicts
Kids aren't always the most rational of human beings -- especially younger children. For this reason, sometimes the smallest issues can turn into major battles and strain sibling relationships to the breaking point.
Here are a few reasons why siblings fight:
Attention. Children are always vying for their parents' attention. The busier parents are, and the more demands there are on their attention, the less they can focus on each child. One of the biggest parental attention drains is a baby. When all of the attention suddenly turns to the family's newest arrival, it can be hard for the other child (or children) to accept losing his or her previous position as the center of attention. Sometimes the parents' attention is focused on a child who is sick or has special needs (for example, ADHD, learning disabilities, physical impairments). Whatever the reason, when kids feel as though they're being ignored, they may act out and misbehave to get the attention they want.
Sharing. Most homes don't have unlimited resources. That means all siblings will inevitably 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 the headstrong one, 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 her older sister gets to go to a concert and she has to stay at home, while the older sister whines that she has to babysit for her little sister instead of going out with her friends. Feelings of unfair treatment and sibling jealousy can lead to resentment.
How to Handle Sibling Rivalry
What should you do when your kids fight? Even if the screaming is driving you nuts, as long as your children are not in danger of getting hurt, don't get in the middle of the argument. 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. When sibling fighting escalates to the point where you can no longer stay out of it, here are some tips for resolving the conflict:
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 his or her side of the story. Listen, but 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 example, if the kids are fighting over a new game, 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. For example, 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.
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 her 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 his or her grievances, and 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 why 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 where 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 where one child is becoming emotionally or physically victimized, it needs to stop. Repeated hitting, biting, or "torturing" behaviors (e.g., 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.
For Further Reading
*He Hit Me First: When Brothers and Sisters Fight by Louise Bates Ames & Carol Chase Haber
Understanding Sibling Rivalry - The Brazelton Way by T. Berry Brazelton & Joshua D. Sparrow
*These books are available for check-out from the Parent Resource Center.
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