Approved by the What’s Up Moms Medical Advisory Board
“My 4-year-old used to be so great with his little brother, but now the fights never end! Any advice?”
I’ll be honest: At no point in medical school or residency did we spend much time learning about sibling rivalry. But during the past decade in private practice, I have repeatedly fielded questions about it from frustrated parents. And as a mom of three young children myself, my greatest challenge as a parent is figuring out how to respond to the inevitable fights and squabbles.
The good news? Research seems to indicate that siblings are always learning from each other, and that children with younger siblings develop empathy earlier than most. And all of the teasing, fighting and negotiation have the potential to teach all children important conflict resolution skills in the context of a loving relationship.
Of course, sibling rivalry is normal, and children will naturally find ways to be competitive. They are, after all, fighting for limited resources (often that’s your attention!). One thing that child developmental experts generally agree on is that the point isn’t to make sure they never fight, but to help them learn to fight well. There’s no magic bullet for sudden sibling harmony (if only!) but here are some strategies to help successfully deal with sibling rivalry — and some to avoid.
Try to limit/avoid:
To some degree, labels are inevitable. But anytime you hear yourself saying “He/she’s the ____ one”, think twice. Often the message to other child is that that role is already taken. So if one sibling is the “athletic” one, it might deprive the less coordinated child the pleasure that organized sports can offer. If one sibling is repeatedly described as “brilliant,” the other sibling may discount the power of hard work and determination to achieve whatever academic or professional path appeals to them. And for the labeled child, even if it’s a “positive” label, it can be equally unhelpful because that child might feel that she can’t show negative feelings without risking being loved less.
“Look! Your sister is already dressed and ready for school!” will rarely motivate a child to move more quickly and might actually foster resentment instead. It’s human nature to compare. But by focusing on one child at a time, parents can help reduce some of the natural competitiveness among siblings.
If we intervene every time there’s an argument, we deprive our children of the chance to develop important social and adaptive skills. Most child developmental experts recommend trying to steer clear of conflicts unless there’s potential for physical harm or bullying. I know there have been times when I’ve cautiously bit my tongue and observed some teasing or poking that seems cruel or unnecessary, only to find the kids dissolved into giggles moments later (I still don’t understand that dynamic!). And when intervention is needed, go ahead, but help the kids to talk to each other directly, share their emotions, and come up with a solution together. In many cases, saying “I trust you two to come up with a solution,” and leaving the room can really work wonders (once they’re old enough, of course).
Things that are helpful:
Validating emotions can go a long way. “It must be so frustrating to have your little brother take your things. You were really enjoying your tower.” It makes it more likely that your child can process the next part — “but it’s not okay to push him” — if he/she feels that you fundamentally understand them.
Reflect on your own sibling relationships
Turns out many of us bring more bias into the situation than we may realize. Think about your own sibling relationships growing up, and how they may be coming into play. If you were always getting picked on as the youngest in the family, you might naturally sympathize more easily with the youngest child who seems to be the victim. If your little sister was constantly “getting away with murder,” you might empathize more with the older child who’s space is frequently disrupted. If you were an only child, you might have idealized the loving relationship you’d expect to have with a sibling. Sometimes just being aware of your own past and your own triggers can help you avoid those knee-jerk reactions and patterns in which you’re repeatedly taking one child’s side.
In my experience, this is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the intensity of conflict in the home. If each child gets 10-15 minutes of devoted, distraction-free play time with each parent, those connective experiences seems to “fill their tank,” so to speak, so that children tend to become less competitive for attention.
This is huge, and will be different for every age group and every unique family dynamic. During a calm moment, take some time to think about the problem and some potential solutions. For toddlers, this might be thinking about “property rights” rules to enforce in the home. (In our house, the best toy is usually whatever toy is in another child’s hand… so figuring out when to encourage sharing and when to respect a child’s ownership is helped by having some general rules that we can apply across the board.) School-aged kids love helping to write up family rules to post around the house. Older kids often benefit from scheduled family meetings.
Create opportunities for sibling connection
Creating a space for sibs to have fun together can help deepen their bond in small but important ways. If you’re playing competitive games, for example, Kids vs Parents is a great way to divide up the family. If they share an interest in a certain activity (baking? water play?), make that happen more often. I love having my older kids help with the bedtime routine. It can be as simple as having everyone give each other a goodnight hug and a kiss, or having the older child read a bedtime story to the younger child. Over time, these small moments of connection build up and create a deeper bond of affection and goodwill.
One of my all-time favorite books on this topic is Siblings Without Rivalry. The authors present a nuanced, practical approach to dealing with conflict, and I’ve seen many parents report greater calm in the home after reading it. Given that sibling connections will often be the most long-lasting relationships in a person’s life, working on the sibling relationship in the childhood years can help set the stage for a truly meaningful lifelong bond.