Sibling Rivalry

One of the biggest triggers for parents, especially when your kids are young, is fighting. When you love both of your kids and they are being mean to each other, it can be very hard not to be reactive. Unfortunately often our reaction is not helpful and causes more tension and fighting.

When my kids were young, one of the many things that drove me into becoming a parent educator was my kids fighting. I know now that my overreaction often caused that much more fighting. I’ve learned a lot about how to calm them down and engage their higher values. Today I’m going to share a few of the tools that I used to turn my fighting kids into mostly loving siblings.

First, I want to share the findings of Po Brunson and Ashley Merryman in Nurture Shock ( These authors found that what matters most in terms of long-term benefits from having a sibling, is the net overall effect of their interactions. In other words, if your kids fight sometimes, that is not near as big a deal if they have more time when they get along and enjoy and support one another. Siblings whose relationship was fairly cool, and who mostly ignored each other, often have a much cooler, less supportive adult relationship. So although the latter siblings would be easier to parent, our ultimate goal of having our kids be allies for each other in the world would not be met if our kids have a net negative or even non-existent relationship.

Some of the tips I’ve incorporated into my parenting that have been so helpful are:

1. Calm yourself first.

2.Seek to understand your child’s emotions, and to communicate your understanding.

3.Help your child see other perspectives for the situation.

4. Facilitate negotiaton if appropriate.

5. Apply consequences if necessary.

1. Calm yourself first! If I hear my kids talking with raised, possibly angry voices, I immediately take a few deep breathes. I don’t run to them, I walk while reminding myself that they have good skills for conflict negotiation, and that even if they resort to the low road and name call or something else that they shouldn’t , that over time, these behaviors will continue to diminsh.

This approach is so important, and is drastically different than the approach that many parents use. Do you ever rush to your kids, yelling and determined to extinguish the fighting? Unfortunately that’s what I used to do, and the result was like adding fuel to the fire. My high energy and tension just make them more tense and more likely to erupt. If you yell at them to stop it, you are in effect contributing by doing one of the things you want them to stop.

Part of calming yourself includes building your faith in yourself and your children to figure things out. Ironically one of my claims to fame as a parenting educator is the fact that parenting was so hard for me. I started out a parenting mess, and slowly built my belief that I could become the parent I wanted to be. I wish now I had realized how much of my parenting challenges were because I didn’t believe in myself or my ability to learn how to be the great parent I was meant to be. If I had begun with a solid faith in myself and my kids, I could have saved myself a lot of grief and got to a better place as a family much quicker.

2. Seek to understand! It is fine to match your child’s intensity and even raise your voice, if you are doing so in order to communicate your understanding of the situation. You can say something like, “Wow, you two are really upset! Whatever is going on obviously is really getting you going.” That approach will start the process of calming your child down as he or she hears that you get how torqued up he or she is. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand.” When you do this, your kids will ultimately feel your support because they get that you care how they feel, instead of jumping to conclusions about who has done what.

From the perspective of your child’s brain, as Jennifer Kolari ( says, when your child feels your empathetic connection, opiates are released in his or her brain. This chemical reaction is a powerful calming agent, and aids in your child’s resiliency. So not only are you helping your children calm down in the moment, you are helping them build pathways that lead to resiliency in other situations as well.

Please note that you are not condoning or agreeing with either child’s actions. If you communicate that you understand what your child is saying, you don’t have to say that you agree with her interpretation of the events. Feelings are not right or wrong, and many parents skip the step of acknowledging feelings, and thus loose the ability to shift them. After feelings are dealt with then other view points can be considered (see next point).

3. Once your child feels understood, help him or her to see other ways of looking at the situation.This often is not possible in the moment. Your children may need to cool down before they are able to consider anyone else’s perspective. Just yesterday my kids got in an argument about a basketball game that they played at camp recently. This morning my daughter was able to hear us talk about how the situation could have looked from her brother’s side. Last night, all I could do was empathize with her about how irritating it is when you are sure your team won, and your sibling is disputing that fact. However, that empathy was what it took to calm her down and open her up to hearing another perspective this morning.

4. Facilitate a negotiation if that is appropriate. This is a great way for kids to learn negotiation skills, including taking time out and returning to the negotiation if they get stuck, or if their tempers start to flare. Even quite young children can learn to negotiate, and your time spent helping them, or mediating, will be directly helpful to their social skills. Teach them concepts like making sure both sides feel like they won, so that they build good will for next time.

5. If necessary, apply consequences to your children for continued fighting. Kolari suggests giving your kids a few days to improve on their own, and then applying a reward or consequence according to how they are doing. If you can tie things that they both want to their behavior, that is a logical consequence for both of them. Sometimes this is necessary because one or both kids are benefiting in some way from the fighting. One sibling may actually enjoy getting the other one going, and in which case voluntary compliance isn’t going to happen.

Limits combined with helping your children deal with their feelings in the moment, are very helpful. Sibling rivalry is actually a powerful training zone for kids to learn how to deal with their strong feelings, and the inevitable conflict that they will experience with people in their lives. As a parent, it is a powerful opportunity for us to build our children’s resiliency, while helping our children learn to value and treat their siblings with respect.

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