Sibling rivalry

Many times, I write these articles to find out answers to my own questions, based on personal experiences. Today is no different. My children are ages 16 and 11. They are perfect gifts from God whom I love very much. However, they fight! Like most siblings, they fight about anything from where to sit on the couch, to who gets to watch the next movie. At these ages, the struggle to communicate effectively brings out the need to be the right, and a stronger will to not back down. Disagreements or no-contact fights, inevitably do happen.

The gloves are off

Understanding why children fight, helps us handle conflict resolution. So why do these perfect little humans fight?

• Attention and control. When fights happen, it immediately gets the attention of the parents and now we (the parents) get to decide who is right or wrong. Children learn on an unconscious level that they can control the color of their parents’ faces, the volume of their voices, and their reserves of emotional energy. Siblings are in a constant battle to seek equal attention from parents. In most cases, the elder child is trying to establish dominance over the younger child.

• Evolving needs. It’s natural for kids’ changing needs, anxieties, and identities to affect how they relate to one another. For example, toddlers are naturally protective of their toys and belongings, and are learning to assert their will, which they’ll do at every turn. School-age children often have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so might not understand why siblings of other ages are treated differently or feel like one child gets preferential treatment. Teenagers, on the other hand, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together.

• Individual temperaments. Your child’s individual temperaments and their unique personalities play a large role in how well they get along. For example, if one child is laid back and another is easily rattled, they may often get into it. Similarly, a child who is especially clingy and drawn to parents for comfort and love might be resented by siblings who see this and want the same amount of attention.

• Relieve stress. An article in the Washington Parent suggests that children want to relieve stress because they love their sibling and merely want their attention to help reduce stress. It is someone they trust and care about. In many cases, starting a fight with a sibling instead of a friend is easier because a sibling will forgive easier, than a friend.

Conflict resolution

The question is, as parents do we intervene? What can we do differently to promote healthy relationships? The Loving Parent and Aha Parenting give us the following advice:

• Children need to witness their parents working out disagreements in a cooperative and nonviolent manner. Kids learn a lot from watching us.

• Parents must place primary responsibility for solving sibling conflicts on the parties involved-the children! In other words, parents, STAY OUT OF THE CONFLICT! Avoid picking a “winner” by letting your children figure out how to resolve the issue.

• Once the conflict has been settled by the siblings, parents can share ideas on how the conflict might be resolved in a healthy manner, if it were to happen again.

• Don’t compare children with each other. One of the most damaging statements is, “Why can’t you just sit and be good like your brother?”

• Celebrate your children’s differences and focus primary energy on helping them identify and build upon their strengths. The more we try to make our children the same, the more frustrated and angry everyone in the family becomes.

• Do give lots of individual attention. Children who feel loved and accepted for who they are will be less likely to fight.

• Enforce respect in your home. Set up an expectation that if anyone is disrespectful (this includes adults!), they need to “repair” the damage they’ve done to that relationship (Do a favor, help rebuild the tower you knocked down, make a card). It means that children can disagree but always stay respectful, even if when angry.

• Help them be a team. Try to make your children partners in avoiding fights with each other by setting up a cooperation jar and putting a coin in it every time you observe the children being nice to each other, including playing without fighting. Take one or more coins out whenever the children fight (If they express feelings in an appropriate, respectful way, they gain coins, especially since that is so hard for children). The children get to decide (together) how to spend the money.

Research suggests that siblings who fight are better at dealing with conflict resolution as adults. The truth is that having children who fight is completely normal. We want them to be independent thinkers, who can defend themselves when needed.


Carrie Kube is a director for Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area Board. All thoughts and opinions expressed are that of the author and not the board and/or its community partners.