While many kids are lucky enough to become the best of friends with their siblings, it’s common for brothers and sisters to fight.
Often, sibling rivalry starts even before the second child is born, and continues as the kids grow and compete for everything from toys to attention. As kids reach different stages of development, their evolving needs can significantly affect how they relate to one another.
Celebrity psychologist Charissa Bloomberg joins Expresso to discuss ways in which to improve difficult sibling dynamics in the family.
Why Kids Fight
Many different things can cause siblings to fight. Most brothers and sisters experience some degree of jealousy or competition, and this can flare into squabbles and bickering. But other factors also might influence how often kids fight and how severe the fighting gets. These include:
- 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. So if a baby brother or sister picks up the toddler’s toy, the older child may react aggressively. School-age kids 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. All of these differences can influence the way kids fight with one another.
- Individual temperaments. Your kids’ individual temperaments — including mood, disposition, and adaptability — 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.
- Special needs/sick kids. Sometimes, a child’s special needs due to illness or learning/emotional issues may require more parental time. Other kids may pick up on this disparity and act out to get attention or out of fear of what’s happening to the other child.
- Role models. The way that parents resolve problems and disagreements sets a strong example for kids. So if you and your spouse work through conflicts in a way that’s respectful, productive, and not aggressive, you increase the chances that your children will adopt those tactics when they run into problems with one another. If your kids see you routinely shout, slam doors, and loudly argue when you have problems, they’re likely to pick up those bad habits themselves.
The different forms of sibling rivalry
Parents are often amazed at the different forms that sibling rivalry can take and how creative and mean children can be to their siblings. Here are just a few of the ways that children can provoke one another:
- stealing things,
- challenging a belief,
- simply looking at each other,
- breaking something that belongs to the other one,
- throwing something at the other one,
- hiding something that is important to the other one.
Some of these tactics are probably agonizingly familiar to you, and you can probably come up with a few more ingenious ways that your children seem to torment one another!
To most parents, all the fighting seems so unnecessary, gets on their nerves, and can be upsetting because they don’t like seeing their children hurt each other or be mean to one another. And many parents have added pressure because they feel like they have to resolve the problems like a wise old owl!
Factors that Influence Sibling Rivalry
Being aware of the factors that influence sibling rivalry can help you to be more understanding and help you to respond in more sensitive ways to the sibling issues that arise.
The birth order of each of your children has an impact on them individually as well as on the sibling relationship. And your birth order in your family of origin also impacts you as an adult.
Knowing the effects of birth order can help you to be more understanding about the underlying dynamics of sibling rivalries and the overall sibling relationship.
You can use this information to respond in more sensitive ways to the sibling issues that arise between your children.
Many studies show that different birth orders carry their own characteristic response patterns because of the different experiences siblings in different birth orders have in their families.
First-borns tend to identify closely with the parent who makes more of the decisions in the family, is more proactive, and task-oriented (traditionally the father). First-borns are interested in results and productivity, need to feel on target and tend to be perfectionistic, reliable, responsible, well organized, and serious.
Second-borns or middles
Second-borns or middles tend to identify closely with the more expressive and emotional parent (traditionally the mother). They are interested in the quality of performance and tend to be in tune with people’s emotions. Feeling that they ‘belong’ is very important to them.
They often function as mediators, avoid conflict, are independent, extremely loyal to their peer group, have many friends, and are more likely to be a maverick. Sadly for them, there are the fewest pictures of these children in the family album.
Third-borns tend to relate to pairs in the family (for example, two parents, two siblings, etc), are interested in maintaining balance in relationships between people, need to have choices and tend to use humor in dealing with situations.
The youngest often look at the whole family picture and are interested in maintaining family harmony. They tend to be tuned into the emotions of the individuals in the family and the family as a group. They can be manipulative, not take responsibility for their actions, be perceived as show-offs, use humor to get what they want, and are frequently charming, precocious, and engaging.
Remember that this is not an exact or hard science and that not all children fit these expected characteristics. But it can be interesting to see how much or how little your children match the stereotype.
Each birth order has its advantages and disadvantages and no one position is really better than any other. Knowing this can help you be more empathic if and when your children complain about what they see as the disadvantages of their birth order. This understanding can also broaden your perspectives and help you to broaden your children’s perspective about their birth order.
It is also important to remember that sometimes your sibling position in your family of origin impacts how you relate to you own children.
For example, a father may have difficulty being sympathetic to his younger children if he felt, as the oldest in his family, that he had the burden of caring for his carefree younger siblings.
Or, a mother may struggle to sympathize with an oldest daughter if she always felt that her older sister had more privileges and was favored more.
A few other things to remember about birth order:
- Because no sibling can ever achieve the birth order status of any other, there is always unequal power among siblings; a second child may wish he could be first and a first may wish she could be the “baby.”
- In blended families, as new children enter the family, they may lose their original birth order so the oldest may find herself to be the middle child. Such displacement often affects the sibling relationships.
Spacing among siblings can effect intensity of rivalry
Siblings who are close in age have high access to one another and are more likely to be physical with one another; siblings who are spaced further apart have less access to one another and tend to be less competitive because they usually spend less time together, are interested in different things, and are involved in different activities.
Siblings who are temperamentally “easy” may be treated differently by parents than siblings who are “more challenging”; temperamentally “easy” children tend to be “liked” more, and children with more challenging temperaments may annoy their siblings (and parents) more.
If there are differences in how parents react to their children, this could increase the intensity of the competition between them. Also, depending on each of the siblings’ temperaments, they may be more or less likely to get along with each other.
For example, a very active but emotionally sensitive youngster may “bug” his quieter, more sedentary brother to play with him, only to get hurt and upset when his sibling wants to be left alone to read his book.
In certain families, a child of one sex or the other may be preferred; if the child of the less appreciated gender is born, that child may grow up the recipient of such messages as “we wish you were a boy” instead of a girl. Such messages will influence how that child relates to her other siblings and can increase sibling rivalry, especially with the child who is the more desired gender.
Hunger, fatigue, illness, and developmental disequilibrium can affect siblings’ relationships, even if just until the children’s physical needs are addressed. Siblings living in a small house or apartment who have to share a room might argue more because of their close and frequent proximity.
Parenting style and family ambiance
Parenting approaches range from being very aggressive and overly harsh to very permissive and overly lax. Children raised in families at either end of this continuum tend to fight more.
- When parents are very strict, rigid, and use overly harsh discipline or corporal punishment, the children tend to fight more with siblings when they can get away with it because aggression has been modeled for them.
- Children raised in homes where the parents are very permissive or neglectful don’t feel that they get enough attention and don’t have rules to guide their behavior, so they tend also to fight more.
In the middle of these two extremes are families that:
- respect individual needs,
- treat children as unique and special people,
- foster cooperation rather than competition,
- and encourage a positive and loving connection to the family.
This approach helps to promote high self-esteem in the children. This, in turn, has an impact on the children’s relationships with one another; there will be less need to compete or to fight for love, attention and respect, or to prove their worth by denigrating a brother or sister.
Sibling issues often intensify when there are changes in the family, such as the birth of a new baby, when a baby becomes mobile, when a sibling goes off to school, when a sibling leaves the family for college or marriage, if there is a divorce or a remarriage, and so on.
Although technically children may be raised in the same household, differences in the circumstances can alter their experiences. This includes such factors as the finances of the family at any given time, which parents worked and when, who was in charge of the children, where the family lived, and the nature of the parents’ relationship at the time each sibling was growing up. All of these can impact the children’s relationships.
Ages of your children
It can feel like the sibling rivalry between your children is on-going, never changing, and will never improve. Actually, the good news is that sibling rivalry does change as children enter different developmental stages and levels of maturity. This means that parents need to be flexible in responding to the conflicts that arise:
A “dog-eat-dog” period in which there is lots of fighting; parents have to intervene frequently. Young school-aged children – adherence to a new rule: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” or tit for tat; parents have to intervene less often than when the children were younger.
- Older school-aged children
The “law and order” stage when children use rules to ensure fairness and protect against cheating; parents have to intervene even less.
- High school and beyond
The children begin to develop an adult conscience and to feel that it is not right to exploit a sibling; they can use conflict resolution techniques on their own if those have been taught to them.
Using this information to help manage the rivalry
- Use your knowledge of birth order to understand each of your children’s positions and feelings; help them to see the advantages of their position.
- Consider the other factors that influence the sibling relationship so that you can be more understanding of your children’s experiences and perhaps use this knowledge to mitigate the rivalry.
- Remain hopeful and optimistic by remembering that some sibling rivalry is inevitable and that as children mature and learn ways to handle conflicts, the rivalry will usually subside.
Strategies to Manage the Mania
In the heat of the moment, when your children are in the midst of a fight that is really getting under your skin, you can feel at a loss as to what you can do to handle the situation.
If you consider in advance an array of strategies you can pull out of your parenting tool belt, it may help you to respond effectively when your children are “itching for a fight” with one another.
Continuum of fighting
One of the questions that parents have about managing sibling rivalry is: “When should I intervene and when is it better to let the kids work out the disagreement themselves?”
The following information can give you some guidelines about what might be an appropriate stance to take about when and how to intervene. We call it the “green light to red light” guideline.
With this in mind, you can think about what your children need from you when they engage in fighting with their siblings. That can help you decide if, when, or how to intervene.
- Green light
Normal Bickering, minor name calling
Parent’s role – Stay out of it.
- Yellow light
Borderline, volume is going up, nasty name-calling, mild physical contact, threats of danger
Parent’s role – Acknowledge anger and reflect each child’s viewpoint.
- Orange light
Potential Danger, more serious, half play/half real fighting
Parent’s role – Inquire: “Is it play or real?” Firmly stop the interaction, review rules, and help with conflict resolution.
- Red light
Dangerous Situation, physical or emotional harm is about to or has occurred
Parent’s role– Firmly stop the children and separate them. If a child is hurt, attend to that child first, review the rules, and possibly impose a consequence.
What your children may need at each of the levels
Do they need:
- attention, respect?
- outside help to stop the fighting?
- protection from getting hurt?
- time to work it out?
- guidance to process conflicts?
- ways to prevent conflicts next time?
- ways to make amends?
- ways to empathize?
- ways to forgive and reconnect with the initiator?
Thinking about what your children may need can guide you in how to handle the fighting, and when and how to intervene.
One way to manage sibling rivalry between your children is to establish family rules in your home.
Having rules in place is a way to communicate your family values and forces you to think in advance about what behavior is important to you and what you want to enforce. Rules are an effective preventative strategy.
In terms of sibling rivalry, rules can set a tone and communicate your expectations about how you want your children to relate to each other. You can refer back to the “family rule” when children fight or do not treat each other with respect. Include them in discussions about what rules should exist in your family in terms of how people should treat each other.
Here are a few rules that many families find useful to have in place:
- Handling conflicts and anger
“No hitting, use words to say what you are upset about.”
- Family Values/morals
“We treat each other with respect.”
- Parents’ role when there is conflict
“If I get involved, I will determine the outcome.”
- Hurt or property is damaged
“Whoever caused the hurt or damage must make amends.”
- Personal possessions and boundaries
“We don’t take someone else’s things without asking first.”
“No “tattling” to get someone in trouble; you can “tell” to get someone out of trouble.” For example, a child telling his mother that his sister just put her muddy shoes on the sofa is tattling; a youngster reporting to his mother that his young sister is standing on the sofa and is close to falling off is telling.
For more information about using rules, you can see our on-demand article or archived live online seminar about this topic posted on our website.
Problem Exploration and Conflict Resolution
Another invaluable tool that you can teach your children is the skill of conflict resolution. At first and when they are young, you will have to walk them through the whole process after each conflict. In time, they will be able to resolve their conflicts with their siblings and others on their own.
This process involves each child expressing his point of view and listening to the other child’s point of view, generating a number of possible solutions that work for each of them, choosing one solution, and trying it.
This skill helps your children to navigate relationships with peers and is useful throughout life. It makes them feel competent and capable as they see that they can come up with solutions to problems without fighting.
Remember that in order to engage in a problem exploration process, the children must be calm enough to dialogue. Time out may be called until both are calm enough to proceed.
You can model for your children when it comes to handling conflict:
- Use “fair fight” rules yourself.
- Use cool off times to calm down first; then re-enter the situation.
- Give second chances and opportunities to make amends.
For more information about the skill of problem exploration and conflict resolution, you can see our on-demand article on this topic posted on our website.
Suggestions from Barbara Coloroso in Kids are Worth It:
- Use cool-off times
First, help the children calm down, then address the situation by giving each child an opportunity to express his side of the story.
- “The Plan”
- Enter the room where your children are fighting slowly and quietly.
- Stand without saying a word.
- Take action, modeling calm and patience. For example, turning off the television or separating kids who are fighting.
- Describe what you see. For example, “I see two children who both want the remote control.”
- Explain the need for a “plan” – help them engage in a conflict resolution process.
- “Notepad, pencil, one story” technique
Have children work together to come up with one story they can both live with – this process helps them to see the other person’s perspective.
- The “sit and permission to get up” approach
They can both get up as soon as they give each other permission to get up. An apology is not the key here (don’t demand that they apologize); cooperation is key. Both children have power over the other one; they are interdependent. This helps them to calm down and then they can work on resolving the problem.
- “You hit – you sit” approach
Children need to learn that hitting is not an appropriate way to handle conflict.“We do not hit in our family under any circumstances. Use your words to tell Sean how angry you are.”To a young child, you can add, “You can calm down in your room, in the rocker, or on my lap.”
For older children, offer a choice between sitting and walking. “You can sit or take a walk until you are calm enough to go back and handle the situation with words, not with hitting.”
- Remove a toy children are fighting over.
- Separate children when they are fighting or teasing one another. For example, have them go to opposite sides of the room.
- Enforce logical consequences. For example, if they are fighting over who has control of the remote for the TV, the television gets turned off.
- Help children to express their feelings and to understand and empathize with the feelings of their siblings.
- Use time-outs, not to punish but to calm down and re-group.
- Give older children privileges as well as responsibilities.
- Help older children learn to ignore provocative behavior of younger siblings.
- Make tattling unrewarding.