Sibling Rivalry: How to help with constant sibling fighting
Siblings fighting. It drives parents crazy and makes family dynamics difficult and, at times, stressful. Why can’t they just get along?
Whether it’s fighting over the TV remote, or who is using what colour texta, or bigger issues like power dynamics between older and younger siblings, sibling rivalry affects all of us at one point or another in our lives and, as parents, we just want them to get along for five minutes!
We asked Developing Minds to talk us through some ideas on how to encourage our kids to get along and what to do and say when we need to intervene.
13 Ideas for When Siblings Fight
Parents report that fights amongst brothers and sisters are one of the most painful parts of parenting. Some research has found that, depending on their age, on average, kids fight for about 10 minutes of every hour they play together. There are no quick and easy solutions to sibling conflict, but I’ve listed a few key ideas to keep in mind.
1. It’s normal for siblings to fight
All siblings fight. Actually, all animals fight. We have a built in instinct to fight to get what we want and to try to be dominant in some way. Adults have similar feelings of annoyance and displeasure with people, it is just that we have learnt to hide it! So if your children argue, bicker and fight with each other, you are not alone. And your kids are normal.
2. There are some good things about siblings fighting
Fighting amongst siblings can lead to positive outcomes. It helps children and young people learn a number of skills including:
- conflict resolution
- anger management
- dealing with not getting own way
- managing disappointment
- learning that the world is not fair
Imagine if your child never experienced any conflict or fights: what a missed opportunity for learning. If we can think of every fight between siblings being a potential learning experience for children, it takes away the need for us as parents to try to eliminate the fights completely, but instead simply try to reduce the number or intensity of them.
3. Try to reduce the sources of the conflict
For a week, record what exactly is being fought about. Then analyse your data. Do the same old fights happen again and again? For these “regular” fights, see whether some kind of system or routine can be put in place. For example, are there fights over TV/phone/computer use? Draw up a regular routine that eliminates any possibility of negotiation or confusion. For instance: “Child X has the computer between 4pm-5pm and child Y has it between 5pm-6pm. The computer is not used at any other time. If child X stays on the computer after 5pm then he forfeits his right to the computer the following evening, as does child Y if she tries to use the computer before 5pm. The kitchen oven clock is the agreed upon timing device.” Are there continual fights about shared room/drawer spaces? Draw up a visual plan of who gets what space and at what times. Ask the siblings to help you come up with these routines and systems and then make sure they are written down.
Some parents say, “but they should just have to learn to share”. People do have to learn to share and take turns it is true. But this is hard enough for adults to do, let alone children. Let’s give them a break and make it easier by reducing the conflict at least some of the time – there will be plenty of time to learn to share and take turns as they get older.
4. Help Children Avoid the Trouble Times/Spots
In the same way, analyse the times and places that siblings fight. Do your siblings always fight just before tea time? Do they always fight on long car trips together? Does the last week of the school holidays consist of world war three? If you know conflict is likely to happen at certain times and in certain situations, see whether any of these situations can be avoided in the first place. Would allowing a special DVD or another engaging activity for the 30 minutes before tea be helpful? Can the budget stretch to handheld games or personal CD players for the car on long trips? Is a school holiday program for one or more children a possibility in the last week? If you can help kids avoid triggers for fights, you are doing everyone a favour – although fighting can be positive as outlined above, endless and constant arguments are NOT good for kids (or the parents who have to listen to them).
5. If there is one “antagoniser” much of the time
Is there one child who seems to always be causing fights? One on one time with this child is needed to try and help him/her feel more secure, and to attempt to discover what is behind the antagonising. Be careful however, as sometimes the child who appears to be the antagoniser is being quietly teased and tormented by another sibling, and is simply less subtle about their own behaviour when they lash out.
6. We must teach kids conflict resolution skills – but before and after the fight is best, not during
Just as we teach our children how to read, use a knife and fork and how to catch a ball, we should be teaching them conflict resolution skills. The best time to do this is when there are no fights happening at that particular moment. Younger children benefit from brainstorming and role playing. Teach and give options for what to do when they feel hard done by. Teach and give options for what to do when they feel frustrated.
Older children learn through parents describing what works for them, and generating discussion. Help them identify what helps them when they feel exasperated. Help them think about options for when they feel things are not fair. Teaching conflict resolution and anger management skills is an ongoing task. Do it explicitly and regularly – don’t just hope they pick it up as they go along.
7. Give children a good reason for them to make the (big) effort to resolve conflict
For some squabbling, it is worth allowing children the opportunity to “work it out” themselves. Remember this is a huge effort for kids, and there has to be some reason in their minds to make this effort. One strategy is to tell them they have five minutes to resolve the conflict on their own and if it is not done by this time, the toy will be taken away, computer switched off or both be in time out. Alternatively, you might provide a reward: for example, tell them they have five minutes to resolve the issue and if they do so successfully they can both watch a video or go to the shops with you. Also remind them of the benefits for themselves of resolving the conflict, (“hey you guys because you sorted that out yourself, now you have more time to play”).
For younger children, you might need to intervene to some minor extent to “coach” them through the resolution process, but over time (and with older children and teenagers) you might more regularly insist they do it themselves. In any case however, watch closely and notice the areas in which they need additional conflict resolution/anger management skills, and work on these at the next opportunity (when there is no fight happening).
8. Sometimes, try removing the audience
If fights go on and on, cheerfully tell them they can keep on fighting as long as they want – but outside (hopefully in the cold). Alternatively, walk away yourself. If you are pretty sure that no-one will get hurt, simply removing the audience to their fights can sometimes stop some arguments.
9. Notice and praise co-operative play
We need to make sure we notice co-operative play. When children are playing well together, notice. Make a point of commenting appreciatively and thanking them. Point out the benefits for them and yourself of the peaceful times. Sometimes the only attention children get is when they are fighting. This sets up a negative cycle.
10. Don’t forget children need time apart
Encourage all members of the family to have time alone without siblings around. Being alone is an important skill. Also, when children have spent time apart they are often more likely to get along with family members when they get back together. It is important for each child in the family to have their own hobbies, interests and time spent doing things apart from the rest of the family. It might even be “room time” where each child spends time in their own (or a separate) room, not as a punishment but simply to break up the time spent together.
11. Violence is not negotiable
All children in the family should know that there are certain house rules that are not negotiable. These can include – any physical violence (including pushing and jostling), name calling, swearing at someone, taunting and yelling. There should be an immediate consequence (known by all parties in advance) for these behaviours which is consistently and decisively applied every single time it occurs.
12. Look “deeper”: what is really going on?
Sometimes siblings fight as a way of expressing stress and sadness in their own life. When siblings are constantly fighting, check out how things are going for them in other areas. Spend one on one time with each child or young person and give them the opportunity to talk. Is the older child feeling imposed upon by the younger child, or do they feel too responsible for the younger child? Is the younger child feeling intimidated by or jealous of the older child? Sometimes children and young people have genuine grievances against another sibling. It is important we give them space to air these – not in the midst of an argument – but one on one at a later time.
13. Children often need help initiating and maintaining play ideas
Often the best way to reduce conflict, is to focus less on conflict resolution and more on increasing the positive interactions between kids. The most positive sibling relationships are not necessarily those without fights – they are the ones where there is conflict AND fun.
Siblings sometimes need help in working out how to start games that are appropriate for both ages, how to play together in ways which are fun and kind. We need to step in before the fights happen and give some ideas (words to say and things to do) to help them learn to do this.
For extra help in dealing with children who constantly argue, consider going to counselling.
Calm Kid Central has a video for parents/carers on helping siblings get along and have fewer fights.
ABOUT DEVELOPING MINDS
Children and teens experience tough times just like adults do. They feel sad, worried, stressed, angry, frustrated and overwhelmed. They don’t quite know how to cope with stress, they need help learning to act in positive ways, they struggle with relationships and benefit from support in many other ways.
Developing Minds specialise in helping children and teens – and the people who support them. For nearly 20 years, Developing Minds Psychology and Education has cared for, supported and worked with thousands of South Australian children and young people. Working with children ranging from the age of 4 through to 17, the team are fully qualified child psychologists and work with children and teens, and then depending on their age, also with their parents. If appropriate we also work with schools and other supports. We have two clinics in Adelaide (city and south).