Siblings bicker—it’s what they do. They tease and taunt and fight. It can drive parents crazy and wear us down—and for good reason.
Seemingly harmless at the beginning, sibling bickering can lead to destructive sibling rivalry, including verbal and physical abuse.
Many parents believe that children should resolve disputes on their own without parental intervention. And these parents have a valid point because if they intervene in every fight, then their kids will never learn to resolve disputes on their own. Moreover, when parents intervene and try to figure out who started it (which is often impossible), they wind up taking sides. And taking sides is a bad idea.
Other parents believe that children need parental intervention to resolve disputes. And these parents have a point too. We can’t expect our kids to resolve disputes effectively on their own—they need their parents’ help and guidance. They need their parents to show them how to get along without fighting all the time. And when there is a dispute, they need their parents to tell them what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to arguing and fighting.
So what is a parent to do? Let their kids fight? Or constantly intervene? No wonder we’re confused when it comes to handling sibling struggles!
The truth is, it depends on the situation. The key is that parents need to be thoughtful and intentional and not simply react to their kids. To help you do that, here are six ways to end the constant bickering and to get the sibling rivalry under control in your home.
Set ground rules for how you expect siblings to treat one another. For instance, make a rule for your family that no matter how stressful things get, everyone treats one another with respect. And respect means no name-calling and no hitting. You can say to your kids:
“In our home, it’s OK to argue, but you can’t call each other names, and you can’t hit each other.”
And then let them know the consequences if they don’t follow the rules.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
Generally, it is a good rule of thumb to give your kids some space to work out their differences on their own. Stay calm, and don’t be afraid to let them argue.
If the arguing heats up, unless it’s particularly vicious, ask them to take it somewhere else so that they don’t disturb you. Or simply tell them to separate and take a time out until they have cooled off.
As parents, often without being aware of it, we can contribute to our kids’ feelings of jealousy and rivalry by taking sides. To determine if this is happening, observe how you react to your kids’ typical dispute.
For example, for a long time, I would blame my son, Sam, for being the instigator of conflict with his brother. When I took a more careful look, I realized that I was not being fair. Here’s what I discovered.
I noticed that when the two had a dispute, Sam was willing to argue, whereas Josh, who was the quieter of the two, would pull back and disengage. In other words, Josh tends to avoid conflict, whereas Sam tends to confront it. As a result, I found myself blaming Sam for the disputes because he was making the most noise and doing the most talking. Sam was right when he would tell me I always sided with Josh!
The right approach is to be impartial. Don’t take sides and don’t assume that you know the whole story. If you do, and if you tend to favor one child, you will increase the rivalry between your kids.
Related content: Sibling Rivalry: Good Kid vs. Bad Kid
In calm moments, teach your children ways to resolve conflicts. One approach is for each person to state the conflict, think of possible resolutions, and then together pick out the one that works best for both people. Use a recent squabble as an example. Walk through the conflict and the resolution with your kids. And, of course, do this when everyone is calm.
When my kids went through periods of fighting a lot, I learned that it was necessary to look at my (and my husband’s) relationship with each child. As I observed the subtleties of my behavior, I saw more clearly that I was inadvertently playing a part in how my kids were feeling about each other.
If your child says to you, “You seem to like Johnny more than me,” take a close look at how you are reacting to each child before telling him that his feelings are not valid. For instance, I noticed I would call my husband with excitement when one of my boys played a good soccer game, but I didn’t necessarily do that with my other boy’s accomplishments. I was inadvertently favoring one child and thus contributing to their rivalry.
Another time, my sister gently pointed out that I seemed to only worry about one son and never the other. She made me realize that I was projecting my needs and fears onto one child but not the other. And my kids noticed this difference.
My mistake was that I wasn’t seeing each child as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses. My perspective wasn’t objective, and my kids picked up on that. It’s important, although admittedly sometimes hard, to see your kids’ differences without labeling them as the smart one, the pretty one, the helpful one, the messy one, the one that is like difficult Uncle Paul. In the end, by labeling your kids, you contribute to the rivalries that lead to fighting and bickering.
Therefore, don’t use labels. Treat each child as a work-in-progress with different personalities and gifts and things they need to work on. You don’t have a messy child, you have a child who needs to work on keeping her room clean. You don’t have a smart child, you have a child with good study habits and who got good grades last semester. And you don’t have a slacker child, you have a child who needs to work on not procrastinating.
By not taking sides or trying to be the judge, by taking a close look at your relationship with each child and your tendencies when stress between your kids occur, and by not tolerating bullying behavior, you will help reduce sibling struggles. You will not get rid of sibling bickering, no matter what you do. But, you can make your home a safe place where each child is seen as an equal and appreciated for who he is.
Parents can also inadvertently cause rivalry if the parent tends to confide in one child about the other or share personal or family information with one child and not the other. Parents might tell one child, “Don’t tell your sister,” because the parent believes she is too sensitive and can’t handle it. This creates alliances, insiders and outsiders, false roles, and labels.
The sibling on the outside senses her position in the family and, in response, will likely react negatively to her sibling.
Are you an over-reactor or an under-reactor? If you are like me, then you tend to overreact when you hear your kids arguing with each other. I tend to move in quickly to try to stop the fighting and to fix things. Why? Because their fighting causes me stress and anxiety which I want to go away.
If you tend to overreact, then try managing your stress first before jumping in the middle of the fight. Give your kids a chance to resolve the dispute on their own and don’t jump in just because you need your stress level to go down. Ask yourself whether you’re jumping in because your kids need your help to resolve the dispute, or because you need to resolve your own stress.
In other words, jump into the fight because your kids need it, not because you need it.
If instead, you tend to do the opposite, like my friend, Jan, then you tend to underreact when the kids are fighting each other. When Jan gets stressed, she tends to freeze up and tries to escape from the situation. As a result, she often fails to intervene when intervention is called for.
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong here in how to manage sibling bickering and rivalry. What’s important is that you have self-awareness in your parenting and that you’re thoughtful and intentional in your approach rather than reactive. If you can do that when your kids fight, you will get a handle on what is actually necessary for you to do, if anything.
Related content: Siblings at War in Your Home? (Declare a Ceasefire Now!)
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.