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Sibling Fighting: 5 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Get Along

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW
Sibling Fighting: 5 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Get Along

We’ve all heard the following phrases from our kids: “Stop touching me!” “Give that back!” “Knock it off!” “MOM, he took my stuff!” “DAD, she won’t stay on her side of the car!” Sometimes it’s simply annoying and frustrating, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Other times, arguments cross the line into verbal and physical abuse. If you’re the parent of an oppositional, defiant child, you know that when they butt heads with brothers or sisters, they usually go “all in.” What starts as something minor quickly escalates to full-blown fighting and things can quickly get out of control. Parents often end up in the role of referee, just trying to regain peace in the home.

In these cases you have things getting heated on both ends of the sibling rivalry: one child not willing to give up control or take responsibility and the other child who views him as a disruption to the family unit.

Related: Are you tired of breaking up sibling fights in your family?

Why Do Things Get So Heated With My Defiant Child?

  1. Low frustration tolerance. All kids have some difficulty tolerating frustration, particularly kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These children will fight to gain control in any situation. The idea of giving in to another child—especially to a sibling—is unheard of in their minds.
  2. Feelings of resentment. Siblings of ODD children are usually very aware of the level of stress in their home. Oppositional Defiant kids often deliberately annoy or aggravate others—sometimes because they are bored, feeling spiteful or feeling miserable themselves. They have difficulty accepting responsibility and tend to blame others for conflicts. This frustrates not only us as parents, but other children in the home as well. They can start to resent the ODD child, who they view as creating chaos and problems for others. It can leave the other kids in the family feeling hurt and angry. In these cases you have things getting heated on both ends of the sibling rivalry: one child not willing to give up control or take responsibility and the other child who views him as a disruption to the family unit.
  3. Related: How to parent an ODD child without going crazy.

  4. The Bill Cosby Factor. In his stand-up routine, Bill Cosby shares how he handles sibling conflict in his home. He describes hearing his youngest child, who was around four years old at the time, yelling “MINE! MINE! MINE!” The comedian describes how he leaves the comfort of his couch to find his two daughters in a tug-of-war over a hairbrush, the older child saying, “No, give that back, it’s not yours!” Mr. Cosby, a loving parent, shouted, “Will you just give it to her?! Don’t you hear your little sister yelling?!” As the older child goes off crying about things being unfair, Mr. Cosby called out, “Hey, relax. She’s got stuff of mine, too!” He summarizes, “Parents are not interested in justice, they’re interested in quiet!”

    The comedian’s story of intervening between his daughters is funny, in part because almost all of us can relate as parents. But which of us isn’t guilty of going to the child we know will be more likely to listen to us—more likely to put an end to the conflict—and trying to get her to resolve the issue with a sibling? Faced with two children—one who refuses to cope or negotiate or listen in any way, and one who has at least some age-appropriate skills—a parent is more likely to focus on the second child and ask her to “walk away” or handle things appropriately. This can also contribute to resentment on the part of that sibling, who has her own breaking point and will get tired of always being the one responsible for resolving the conflict.
  5. Related: Does your ODD child fight with siblings—and with you—constantly?

Sibling Fighting: How to Help Your Kids “Work It Out”

The idea of allowing children to “work it out” during a conflict is that it teaches them how to resolve arguments or differences of opinion on their own. But when one of your children is Oppositional-Defiant, it changes things. If you’re the parent of an ODD kid, you’ve likely experienced the frustration that comes from trying to negotiate with that child. Siblings experience that very same frustration, but don’t yet have the skill set to effectively deal with the situation. They need you—the parent—to help them. Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Teach Your Children How to Avoid Negative Situations. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Walking away from a situation where your brother or sister is starting to get upset is one way of stopping a conflict before it begins. Help your kids identify situations where it’s best to “stop it before it even starts.” You might say, “What does Tim do when he’s starting to get in that angry mood?” Your other child might say, “His voice gets louder and he starts pointing at me.” You can then say, “When you see those warning signs, just walk away—nothing good is going to come of staying in there with him and trying to ‘win’ the fight.”
  2. Related: How to stop fighting with your child

  3. Teach Your Children How to Recognize and Set Boundaries. Let your child know that everyone has the right to their own physical and emotional space. If someone is deliberately provoking you with words or actions, you have the right to ask them to stop or to walk away. If that person follows you, they are crossing a boundary. Unfortunately, ODD kids tend to believe strongly in their own right to boundaries, but have little or no respect for the boundaries of others. This translates to statements like this: “I know I took your video game , but stay out of my room!” This can be extremely frustrating for siblings to deal with. If your child sets a boundary with a sibling and it’s not respected, that’s the time to come get you—the parent—for assistance and support in enforcing those boundaries.
  4. Praise Problem-Solving. If one of your children does tend to be the one who walks away from fights or tries to negotiate with siblings rather than argue, make sure you recognize those attempts in a positive way. Learning to cope and problem solve is part of growing and maturing. Recognize that and praise any attempts either child makes to resolve a situation positively.
  5. Ensure Restitution. If one of your children harms a sibling or takes something from them, make sure there is a consequence. For example, if Jake breaks Tyler’s game, he needs to pay for it. If he can’t pay for it, give him opportunities to earn the money from you to pay Tyler. Or, Jake may need to give something of his own, that he values, to Tyler. This accomplishes two things: Jake becomes the one who pays the price for his own actions (instead of Tyler) and Tyler learns there is justice in your home. Now, some parents may say, “Are you kidding?! If I took something that belonged to my ODD kid and gave it to his sibling, World War III would be declared!” But don’t allow your Oppositional Defiant child to hold family members hostage for fear of retaliation. In the real world, if your ODD child steals from or harms others, there’s restitution. If you decide the form of restitution we recommend would be hard to stick with or truly dangerous, identify another form of restitution that will fairly compensate the child who was wronged in the first place and then follow through.
  6. Related: How to give your defiant child “fail proof” consequences.

  7. Be Proactive by Identifying Triggers. Help your kids, particularly your ODD child, identify situations that seem to be particularly upsetting or that provoke an argument between siblings. Then help your children identify ways to cope with those situations or avoid them altogether. Show your ODD child how managing his anger or emotions actually gives him more control in a situation than by reacting to someone else.

The Game of Life

A family is like a sports team playing the game of life together. Not all the players get along. Not all the players like each other. But that’s not a ticket to be mean or disrespectful. Your role as a parent is to model good sportsmanship, teach skills and intervene when necessary. If one of the players fouls a teammate or refuses to follow the rules, your job as The Coach is to bench that child temporarily in a time out. (You can’t trade him to another team, no matter how much you may want to in the moment—and unfortunately The Coach isn’t allowed to hide out at the hot dog stand until the game is over!) Even though at times we need to be able to laugh at what feels like the absurdity of parenting, we are interested in justice as parents—but we’ll take the quiet whenever we can get it!


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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

READER'S COMMENTS

My children fight all the time I put them in time out but it doesn't work they go back do the same thing they fight everyday.

Comment By : tonia d

I implemented some of your suggestions and it worked! Great advice!

Comment By : allforHim

i'm working on the implementation of ur stuff and sometimes i am more successful than others. the different personalities are challenging.

Comment By : bacdok

I will start trying to implement these suggestions at once, but have a question. My older son (ODD), who is 12, will lash out at his 5 year old brother, usually when no one else is in the room. I'm aware that the 5 yr old is capable of starting things occasionally, but he is usually easy going and most witnessed episodes are initiated by my older son. When we say something to him about his abusive behavior to his brother, he always comes back with statements about us "always blaming HIM" and us "never believing him", etc. What is an effective strategy for dealing with situations that start when the parents aren't looking and then get totally overblown?

Comment By : Inaieu

two boys 5 and 7. 5 year old teases and teases the 7 year old. 7 year old just wants to play by himself and refuses to play with 5 year old - help

Comment By : brothers5and7

* To “Inaieu”: Thank you for asking such a great question. It can be very frustrating when siblings fight and you’re not sure who started it. It might be more effective to focus on giving each of your children the tools to deal with the situation instead of focusing on who started it. We would suggest sitting down with each child and problem solve ways to handle the situation after things have calmed down. You can also let them ahead of time that there will be a consequence for fighting. It’s important to talk to your kids about what they are thinking in these situations or what they are trying to accomplish by the behavior that occurs with the siblings. Let your kids know their reasoning doesn’t justify their behavior and talk about what they can do differently next time this situation comes up—give them some other words to say or come up with a plan to go outside and play or go to their rooms. As Kim and Marney suggest in the article, giving your children the skills and then allowing them to work it out themselves helps them develop the ability to resolve conflicts on their own. It’s important to hold each of the children involved responsible for their part. I understand it may seem unfair to hold both siblings accountable when one child started it. Keep in mind, you are teaching all of your children the skills needed to deal with conflict successfully. If they choose not to use those skills and instead choose to stay in the argument, then both kids are responsible in part for what happens. As for how to hold them accountable, we would suggest using task oriented consequences, such as loss of TV or computer games until he or she can go for a certain amount of time not fighting. Here are a couple of articles on problem solving and consequences you may find helpful: Kids Who Ignore Consequences: 10 Ways to Make Them Stick & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". We wish you and your family luck as you continue to address this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “brothers5and7”: Thank you for asking such a great question. I can understand how frustrating this situation is for you. It’s understandable your oldest son would want to play by himself. It sounds like he’s using an appropriate problem-solving skill of separating himself from a bothersome situation. What’s probably going to be most effective is to problem solve with your youngest son about what problem he’s trying to solve with the behavior and what he can do differently next time. It will also be helpful to hold him accountable for the behavior by giving him a task-oriented consequence at the end of the problem-solving conversation. For example, there could be loss of a TV privilege until he can go for an hour without teasing his brother. There is a great article that explains how to problem solve with your child that you can read here: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” We wouldn’t suggest trying to make your older son play with his younger brother when he’s being teased. Forcing him to play with his younger brother may cause some resentment to develop between the two of them. Instead, it may be beneficial to have them play together in small intervals when you can be present to supervise. This, coupled with the problem solving, is probably going to be an effective way of addressing the issue. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I have 18 year old twin girls who fight constantly. I think the issues are jealousy and rivalry between them. They have completely different personalities and although I know that deep down they love each other, their behaviour towards each other is very antagonistic. One twin sulks constantly when she is at home and retires to her room because she "likes her space". The other is much more sociable and really wants to be friends. They fight over everything, from who should drive to wearing each other's clothes. I am exhausted and stressed out from constantly trying to keep the peace. What to do?

Comment By : TwinMom

* To “TwinMom”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how frustrating this behavior is for you. It can be difficult for parents when siblings argue and fight. Some envy and rivalry between siblings is normal. It’s OK that they disagree; disagreements are part of most relationships. What isn’t OK is how they are choosing to deal with their disagreements. It’s natural to want to act like the referee to their arguments in an attempt to keep the peace. What may be more effective is to let them work out their disagreements on their own. As difficult as it may be, try not to get involved in their arguments in the moment. You might coach each of them about what they can do when they disagree or aren’t getting along. You would want to have these problem-solving conversations with them one on one when things are calm. You may also want to consider a consequence when their arguing and fighting get out of hand. We would suggest using a task-oriented consequence such as loss of cell phone privilege until they go for 24 hours without arguing. We wish you and your family the best as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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Related keywords:

Siblings Fighting, Sibling Rivalry, ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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