10 Tips for Dealing With Sibling Rivalry

Invaluable tips on creating a cooperative home environment
two sisters fighting

There they are again, fighting and screaming over that same stuffed animal and that last slice of pizza. How many times have you had to play referee between those two? It’s exhausting. You’re frustrated, overwhelmed and frankly, just plain tired of your kid’s constant squabbles.

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Pediatrician Sigmund Norr, MD, offers some helpful tips to create a peaceful, cooperative home environment when you can’t help but think, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Rivalry is inevitable but manageable

The first step in making family feuds more manageable is understanding their causes. Your kids don’t fight just because one toy is better or one piece of cake is bigger. Instead, the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes such as birth order and family dynamics.

Competing desires for your attention and differences in developmental stages can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding. Rivalry can even affect them as they get older with their self-esteem and even their friendships. Most of these causes, like age difference or temperament, are impossible to change. That makes sibling rivalry, unfortunately, inevitable.

“All hope is not lost,” says Dr. Norr. “There is no way to stop the bickering forever, but there are many ways to minimize conflict and to maximize productive resolution. Start with small changes.”

Here are the top 10 tips for conflict prevention and intervention among children:

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Preventing sibling rivalry

There are five ways to create a family dynamic in which sibling rivalry is a rarity and not the norm:

  1. Stay calm, quiet and in control. Pay attention to what your kids are doing so you can intervene before a situation begins or escalates. Keep your cool and your kids will learn to do the same.
  2. Create a cooperative environment. Avoid comparing your children, favoring one over the other or encouraging competition between them. Instead, create opportunities for cooperation and compromise. Don’t forget to set a good example, too. How parents interact with one another sets an example for how their children should interact. If your children see that you or your spouse slams doors or have loud arguments, they’re more likely to do the same and see it as a proper way of handling their problems.
  3. Celebrate individuality. Children are less likely to fight if they feel you appreciate each of them as an individual. Start by avoiding labels and pigeonholing and let each child know that they’re special to you by spending time with them individually. If one child loves to run around outside, grab your sneakers and soak up the sunshine with them. If the other child likes to spend time reading their favorite book, snuggle up next to them. Then, make sure that everyone has the space and time they need to be alone.
  4. Plan fun family time. Family dinners, playing board games, spending time at the park and doing activities are a great way for children to bond and share positive memories together. These moments give children less incentive to pick fights with each other and give them an opportunity to spend more time with you. 
  5. Treat kids fairly — not equally. For parents, fairness is essential, but fair doesn’t always mean equal. Punishments and rewards should be tailored to your children’s individual needs. For example, you don’t have to give two children the same toy. Instead, give them different toys suited to their ages and interests. That kind of fairness will go a long way.

Intervening in sibling feuds

What do you do when those inevitable fights occur? Here are five ways to handle disagreements in a positive way:

  • It takes two to tangle. Rarely will you witness the events leading up to the fight. Instead of playing the blame game, focus on each child’s role in the situation.
  • Listen. During a fight, most children are frustrated and emotional. Listen to your children and respect their feelings. Although their emotions are not an excuse for negative or aggressive behavior, children will be more likely to cooperate if they feel they are being heard. If your child starts to hit, reiterate that violence is not tolerated and is not acceptable. Tell them that using their words is the only way to solve a problem and you’ll be there to hear them out.
  • Give children problem-solving tools. In order to avoid future disputes, use conflict as an opportunity to provide your children with tools for solving future problems. Demonstrate how they might compromise, share or approach a similar situation in a more positive, appropriate way.
  • Make punishments private. If a spat between siblings results in the need for punishment, avoid making the conversation public. This can shame a child in front of his or her siblings, creating greater animosity between them. This is the time to teach a lesson — not make an announcement.
  • Have a family meeting. Gather the family and talk to give everybody a chance to say what they want to say. It’s also an opportunity to establish house rules that family members can agree to follow. Hang these rules in a public space, like the kitchen, to remind everyone of their commitment to being a happy, healthy family.

Rivalry can be amplified during COVID-19 quarantine 

Sibling conflicts can be more intense and frequent in the face of these unusual times. 

“With face masks, self-isolation and the lack of hand-holding and hugs, it’s important to have structure with daily routines but also have enough variability to not be boring,” says Dr. Norr. 

Video games and social media are a big part of the current culture, but it’s important to watch what your children are doing, who they’re doing it with and how long they’re spending on their electronic devices. 

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“Mix it up with one child on and another child off of the internet and promote interactive board games,” he says. “When things get tough and tense, it’s a good idea to do some physical activities to work off their energy.”

To help drain their energy levels, try an exercise boot camp complete with situps, jumping jacks, playing leapfrog or squatting and walking like a duck. 

Siblings will fight no matter what. However, the problem-solving techniques you teach them now will serve them well as they grow older in their day-to-day lives.

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