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When Siblings Fight

Just last week my (now grown) kids and I were looking through old photo albums. Brian and Erin couldn’t believe how chummy the two of them looked as little kids. There was hardly a picture where they didn’t have their arms around each other or their chubby little hands weren’t tightly clasped. Their sweet little friendship couldn’t have appeared more endearing.

“Wow! So there WERE times growing up when we could stand each other!” Erin remarked.

Brian chortled, obviously recalling the majority of their childhood memories characterized by the two arguing, torturing, and eventually, completely ignoring each other. From early adolescence on the way through high school, both knew EXACTLY how to push the other’s buttons. It seemed to me like they relished the opportunity to do so – for years.

“Man, I was SO mean to you!” Brian said apologetically. Erin simply laughed.

Two siblings fighting

Wired to bicker

I’ve enjoyed these pleasant interactions between my youngest kids for nearly a decade now. Brian and Erin, now in their thirties with kids of their own, are fiercely proud to call each other not just family, but closest of friends. Their epic siblings fights are a distant memory. For much of their young years I couldn’t imagine that it would turn out this way.

Parents everywhere are raising kids who just can’t seem to get along. These kids usually end up laughing about it as adults but this doesn’t make it any easier on the parents. A certain amount of bickering, fighting, and arguments are just a normal part of growing up. Siblings seem wired to annoy one another, something that can escalate as they get older. I haven’t met a parent yet who has found a way to eliminate all sibling rivalry and arguments from family life.

Sibling squabbles are training grounds for life

The good news is that you wouldn’t want to live without any sibling conflict! Not only is it unrealistic, but as your kids negotiate getting along they are gaining skills they will use for the rest of their lives. Alison Pike, author of Siblings – Friends or Foes, argues that we shouldn’t try to stifle all sibling conflicts. Research has shown that when siblings fight or upset each other they are also learning how to regulate their emotions and respond to the emotions of others.

That’s not to say the more your kids rail on each other the better, but you can find comfort knowing that at least they are gaining important social skills! Think of your house as a “safe training ground” for working through conflict, gaining skills that will serve them well outside the home. Do your best to stay out of minor conflicts. Letting your kids work things out on their own can be the best thing for them.

The art of intervening when siblings fight

This does not mean that you should let your kids have no holds barred fights or that you should tolerate constant bickering. You can and should play a role in helping your kids work through conflict productively. Step in if your kids can’t seem to resolve a conflict on their own, the conflict is escalating, or there is constant conflict over the same issue. Your kids rely on you to help them practice good conflict resolution.

The moment you decide to intervene is often the same moment that you are at your wits’ end. Take a couple of breaths and try these tips:

Guide problem solving and resolution.

    • Stay calm when siblings fight and arguments escalate!
    • Avoid taking sides.
    • Listen to each child’s perspective without interruption. Encourage them to name their feelings and speak only for themselves.
    • Ask your kids to brainstorm possible solutions.
    • Avoid solving the problem for them. Give them the structure, not the solution. The goal is to help them learn how to resolve the argument on their own.

Not every conflict needs a long mediation process.

    • Make it clear that violence is never allowed and that everyone has the right to be safe in your house.
    • Communicate your expectations and consequences for out of bounds behavior clearly and stick to them. Having clear house rules for particular “problem spots” that you can rely on helps you avoid constant negotiation.
    • Avoid long, drawn out lectures. Keep your explanation firm, short, and sweet.
    • For example, “We agreed that there would be no fighting over video games so now the video games need to go off for the rest of the day. I look forward to seeing you two play games together tomorrow without fighting.”

Build a foundation for respectful, collaborative behavior.

    • Siblings often fight because they are competing with one another. Find ways to turn competition into cooperation. Try, “Do you think the two of you can rake the backyard in under twenty minutes? The leaves are waiting! Ready? Go team go!!”
    • Involve your kids in defining respectful behavior when everyone is cooled off and the situation isn’t loaded. What does respect look like in your family? How do we show one another respect?
    • Teach your kids ways to cool off including deep breaths, run outside, time with music etc.. Practice these strategies for fun!
    • Affirm your kids when you see them working out conflict in effective ways.
    • Model good conflict resolution with your partner and other adults in the home.

Take a step back – why are siblings fighting?

Sometimes you spend so much time putting out fires that you forget to look at the bigger picture. Why are siblings fighting? Sometimes it is just because they are in the same room and anything will spark a fight. Often, kids fight just to get your attention. Show them that there are better ways to get attention than annoying their siblings. Be sure to give special attention to your kids when they are getting along!

If a specific issue comes up over and over again, this is a great opportunity to talk with your kids when everyone is calm to come up with a plan. How might they avoid this type of argument? What are the triggers? What words could they use? Your kids might not follow through in the heat of the moment, but this practice is critical. Remember, your house is training grounds for life!