Articles by Patricia Velkoff, PhD
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Why Do Siblings Fight?

Why can't our own children get along better with each other?  Is one child just too needy or irritable?  Are they too different in age or personality?  Is it the fault of our own poor parenting?  Through our frustration and confusion about how to teach them, we often lose sight of what is worth teaching at all.  

The relationship between siblings is one of the most fertile learning grounds for relationship skills.  It is a place to establish styles of sharing and ways to work through differences.  It is a place to learn how to hurt others, save face, and make up.  It is a place to learn how to start and end fights; how to work through temporary hatred of those we deeply love; how to show anger and also mercy.  Once we appreciate the complex, sometimes painful, but often satisfying give-and-take of close relationships, we may appreciate the importance of helping children learn to have conflicts in a way that works for everyone involved.         

When siblings fight, many parents go into hiding.  Some do so out of conviction that kids should work it out themselves.  Some parents avoid conflicts of any kind.  Others are simply as lost as their children about what to do.  Sibling fights are certainly "normal."  But who really believes that angry, righteous children are going to develop better conflict resolution skills by duking it out with other angry, righteous children?  Sibling fights may be common, but they can be quite destructive when guided by childish drives and emotions.  Parents have a lot to offer, if they are willing to get involved.  

WHY DO THEY FIGHT?

Sibling fights are often blamed on one child: she is too aggressive, too young to play well, too jealous; or he is tired, hungry, suffering from allergies or illness, or otherwise having a bad day.  Fights are blamed on differences between children in age, personality, interests, and talents.  These problems are sometimes overemphasized, but they can be quite real and can leave siblings with few friends, interests, or skills in common to create a natural bond.  Still these factors rarely explain the conflicts that concern many parents. 

Rivalry can be fierce when siblings are very alike in talents or interests, or even when they share body type of hair color.  Fighting can help them provie their differences.  This kind of fighting does not work, of course; it simply ties the two more closely to each other, through their negative emotions. 

Children can be sensitive to perceived or real differences in how parents treat them.  They will fight to get parents to eliminating stereotypes or be even-handed about privileges or discipline. 

When parents act as "telephone operators" to monitor all sibling interactions, this fosters conflict and prevents closeness.  Children will mirror fights between their parents, showing what they have learned by watching and implicitly asking if this is good.  When parents fight a lot, children sometimes fight to distract them, to ally with one parent over the other, or to energize a depressed or unhappy parent.  These family factors should not be ignored in trying to understand why siblings fight. 

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?

Parents can do a lot to reduce the frequency and intensity of fights between children.  When parents make regular individual time with children, they often feel appreciated individually and less driven to compete with siblings.  Time away from the family can also give children needed breaks from each other.  Children also need constructive time together.  Activities that can be enjoyed by all family members regardless of age or skill level can help children have fun together.  Game stores and libraries can be great places to get ideas on fun activities for all ages. 

Teaching children how to solve differences constructively does not mean taking over for them, but it does mean getting involved.  Children (adults, too!) do best when, as a first step, their point of view is heard and accepted as valid.  Children rarely do this for each other -- parents do need to help each child hear the otherís wishes.  In a conflict over a toy, for example, each child should be encouraged to state verbally what he or she wants, and to hear and acknowledge what the other child wants. 

After stating their positions and being heard respectfully, children should be encouraged and helped to develop their own solutions and compromises.  If they are having difficulty doing this, several solutions can be proposed by parents, from which the children can choose (for example, taking turns with a toy, finding a similar toy for one child, or putting the toy away for a short time).  Only as a last resort should parents provide the solutions for their children, when they are unable to propose fair solutions themselves.  This process is slow but will create more lasting peace and respect between children than many quicker solutions.  In the absence of adult guidance, what children learn from their conflicts is often haphazard at best, or destructive at worst. 

The following suggestions have been helpful to many parents in managing sibling conflicts. 

  1. Create opportunities for constructive contact and enjoyment.  Extracurricular classes, magazine subscriptions, board and card games, and clubs have all been used to develop common interests among siblings. 
  2. Help explain children to each other.  Steer children away from negative, hostile explanations of each otherís behaviors.  Help them understand that a bump was accidental, intentions were benevolent, and a toy was borrowed not out of aggression but from selfishness.
  3. Appeal to children's pride, desire to be grownup, and concern for others. While this can be overdone and lose its effect, most children want to be more grownup, particularly if there is a model (cousin, babysitter, friend) whom they would like to emulate. 
  4. Clarify expectations and create clear rules of acceptable behavior.  Parents frequently back off from requiring children to minimize their conflict, which is often interpreted by children as covert permission to fight. 
  5. Set up contingencies in advance, rather than punishments later.  An example of this is: "If you can play all morning without a fight, we'll go visit the pet shop after lunch."
  6. Assume the conflict is purposive, and ask: Why is this conflict happening at this time in this way?  What in the larger family might be contributing?  How can that be solved?
  7. Assume a teaching attitude.  What lessons do your children need to learn in dealing with each other?  How can you contribute to their maturity?   
  8. Once you have taught the basics of fair fighting and your children have begun to resolve their conflicts constructively, let them work it out while you watch.  Parental solutions are less likely to result in cooperation and closeness than solutions that children develop themselves.
  9. Avoid searching for the "guilty" party.  Praise all children for maintaining peace and correct all children for creating disturbances.  It is remarkable how children will help each other behave cooperatively when they know that no one "guilty" party will be found and punished. 
  10. Don't use rivalry as an incentive for compliance.  Parents sometimes challenge children to compete with each other.  In the short run, this may get a task accomplished.  In the long run, however, it fosters a spirit that pits children against each other. 
  11. Don't "play fair," if that is a compulsive endeavor to give equally to each child.  This can feel quite artificial to children who, rather than feeling cherished when it is their turn, feel confused about their real worth to their parents. 
  12. Don't force children to like each other.  During sibling fights, it is rarely useful to remind children how much they like each other most of the time, or how close they will be when they get older.  Just focus on solving the current conflict. 
  13. Try to spend individual time with each child every day.  While this can seem like one more time-consuming requirement, the positive influence on childrenís' behavior can more than compensate for the time and effort involved.  It is worth giving up something else to gain this one-on-one time.
  14. Manage adult conflicts as you want children to manage their conflicts.  Parental modeling is the single best method of teaching children how to fight fairly and resolve fights constructively. 
  15. Resolve adult conflicts.  When parents can't resolve their differences, children may see this as the norm in relationships.  When parents improve their own relationship, children usually follow suit.

Sibling relationships are such a rich place for learning skills, creating intimacy, and developing life-long friendships that they deserve active and thoughtful input from parents.  Only with our help can our children learn to make the most of their time together.