Sibling Rivalry Solutions (Tips for keeping the peace)

Siblings fight.  It happens.  One minute they are playing quietly together, and the next they are pulling, pushing, yelling, and grabbing.  It happens in an instant.

Sibling relationships are often a child’s first introduction to the world of friendship.  Sibling relationships provide lessons in sharing, communication, frustration tolerance, coping skills, working together, and having fun.

Sibling relationships can also lead to fighting and rivalry.

Jealousy and competition are often the triggers of fighting and rivalry, but there are other factors that also contribute:

Hunger, boredom, and exhaustion can make happy kids cranky in a heartbeat.  Sticking to your routine when it comes to eating, playing, and sleeping can help decrease these triggers.

Fighting for attention is another common trigger.  In the eyes of a child, any attention is good attention.  When a child feels that he is receiving an unequal amount of attention, he will do anything to get it back.  Good or bad.  Sometimes a little cuddle time with a good book is all he really craves, but verbalizing that can be very difficult for a toddler or preschooler.

Siblings (particularly those close in age) also struggle to define who they are in the family, and that can breed more competition.  Riley was perfectly happy with her love of ballet, princesses, and art until Liam’s love (make that obsession) of cars blossomed.  Suddenly she has a new interest in cars and a new love of hiding Liam’s favorite cars.

Research shows that kids tend to fight more and play more aggressively in homes where fighting and aggression are considered “normal” and the parents look the other way.  A little roughhousing is one thing, but aggression is another.

Research also shows that kids tend to be more aggressive in homes where stress is high and/or where family time is not consistent.  Stress happens and life gets busy, don’t beat yourself up if this applies to you.  Try to find coping skills that help reduce your stress and ways to sneak in extra family time (game nights are always fun and reading to your children is a great way to connect, even when you’re short on time).

So how do we stop the fighting?  Sometimes predicting and preventing the triggers can save you some stress, but that’s not always possible.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids get along:

1. Don’t play favorites: It seems so obvious, and yet it happens all of the time.  Some kids are more outgoing and have very specific interests, while others are quiet and enjoy quiet time activities.  It’s easy to focus on the one who never stops talking or always has something specific to discuss.  Riley sometimes feels slighted by the focus on cars around here, hence her newfound love of them.  Celebrate each child’s talents and interests as much as possible. Riley is often praised for her love of art, her creativity, and her fashion sense.  Every child deserves positive attention.  Make it happen.

2. Establish & review the house rules: A few sensible house rules can go a long way toward establishing boundaries.  Review them often and stick to them.  Particularly if you are in a house full of boys (who tend to be more physical in their play), make sure your kids know the limits when it comes roughhousing versus aggression. It’s a fine line that is quickly crossed when kids get over-stimulated.  It’s up to you to make sure they understand.

3. Time in together: Sometimes kids get stuck in a loop trying to state their cases or win the argument. Instead of sending everyone to separate corners, try taking a time in together. Sit with your kids and practice deep breathing together. Once the immediate frustration passes, help your kids brainstorm ways to solve the problem.

4. Me time and special time: With Riley on summer vacation, the kids are back to being together all of the time.  They play well together, so for the most part it works.  But kids need downtime and time alone with their parents.  Even kids as young as 2-3 years old need time to decompress. Liam loves to bring some cars to his crib and hang out, and Riley enjoys playing with her toys in her room.  Even when space is limited, providing each child with a few special toys of their own that they keep in their own box helps them feel that they have their own space. Let them choose a few toys to keep in a safe place and pull them out when the kids need a break.  Try to give each a child some alone time with you each week. I know firsthand how hard this can be, but I also see how much happier they after a little 1:1 time with Mommy.  Fit it in where you can.

5. Listen & acknowledge feelings: Sometimes the arguments seem so absurd that it’s hard to find the patience to tune in, but to your child those feelings are very real.  Listen to what is upsetting your child and acknowledge how she feels.  Growing up is a hard job, but children who feel heard and understood have higher self-esteem and better coping skills.

6. Praise getting along: Just this morning I was halfway through a load of laundry when I realized that the house was way too quiet.  I ran down the hall to find them…having a tea party!  I poured on the praise and was rewarded with huge smiles and an invitation to the party.  Kids love to be praised, and praising a behavior generally means that behavior will be repeated. Catch them being good as much as possible!

7. Teach them to praise: I’ve been accused of being an over-praiser (among other things).  It’s ok, I can take it.  The result of my heavy focus on positive reinforcement is that my kids compliment each other often.  Just this morning Riley said, “Liam, you look so fancy in that in shirt”.  He smiled and hugged her in return.  Later in the morning Liam said, “Yaya (Riley) that painting sure is great”.  Teaching your kids to praise and compliment each other helps them to learn that it feels good when people say nice things. Riley often reports in on how she helped a friend who was feeling sad at school.  Empathy is the best gift you can give your child, and sometimes that starts with something as simple as praise.

8. Scrapbooks & Baby books: Toddlers and preschoolers love to walk down memory lane.  Having a special baby book or scrapbook for each child shows that they are special in their own way. Family photo albums are wonderful for sharing memories, but sometimes we all need a little “me” time!

9. We can work it out: If a fight is minor and doesn’t escalate too quickly, try to let them work it out.  Preschoolers are learning the art of negotiation and taking turns, so try to let them practice before you jump in for the save. Often times they will work out a trade or turn taking schedule.

Siblings will always have reasons to squabble, but the good news is that learning to work things out at home means that they will be more successful when confronted with stress out in the world.  Help your child along the way and step back and let them work things out when they can.  Before you know it you will be storing that referee outfit in the back of the closet!


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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