Siblings are going to fight with or without your intervention. What should you do? Teach them negotiation and conflict resolution skills and then let them practice without you.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
November 11, 2020
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Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Dear Tired of the Fighting,

As someone who did not grow up with siblings close to my age, I have found my own children's sibling fights completely mystifying. Why can't they just let it go? Why do they keep arguing when it doesn't matter? Why can't they be nicer to each other? They all seem to be decent little human beings on their own, so what is this transformation when their sister uses their brush by "mistake?"

I often picture siblings in conflict like wrestlers circling each other in a ring, partially releasing their fury about stuff that has nothing to do with their siblings, and partially overperforming for the audience "entertainment." As you know, we are the audience and can all agree this is not entertaining!

However, sibling conflict from the safe confines of a contained, home-based ring is sharpening skills for real-life, and often it is best for you to say and do very little.

Benefits of Siblings Fight

One way to categorize reasons siblings fight has been to break it down into four domains: jealousy, property disputes, personal/physical space, and just-for-the-fun-of-it. What children gain from sibling relationships, though, are monumental life skills, such as negotiation, emotional regulation, advancement of verbal skills, and understanding others' emotions. So, as much as we want to squash it or may fear it represents a problem in the family, sibling conflict has potential to serve a greater purpose in child development, and we often need to let it run its course.

What Parents Should Do

Experts recommend two key parts to your response: avoid taking sides and do less as children get older. For preschool ages, we need to model hands-on conflict resolution skills as they are learning how to tame all the impulses (for example, label emotions and identify solutions for them).

For ages around 5-9, we can level up to facilitate problem-solving between warring parties with prompts, such as: "How do you think your sister feels right now?" and "What are some ways to solve this problem?" With time and practice, they will need less prompting. An often-advised strategy is to acknowledge each child's position, name the problem, and encourage them to figure out a solution—without you.

With older children or children who have shown mastery of problem-solving skills, we should do even less. For you, it could be as simple as encouraging them: "You all need to figure this out" and walking away. A major benefit of this approach is that if the fighting has been designed to get your attention, and you remove your attention, that on its own may de-escalate the conflict.

If You Can't Walk Away

If you are in a situation, however, when you cannot walk away, like trapped in a moving car, it's OK to intervene simply because it's hard for you to listen to the arguing. It can help to come up with your own trademark, go-to slogan like, "I know you two can figure this out" or "There's clearly a problem, what can you do next?" And then let them do the rest. If you have to pull over and simply wait it out, that works too, especially when you are headed somewhere they want to go.

Just a few days ago, I was on the side of the road staying quiet while taking deep breaths, after issuing clear instructions that the youngest needed to stop crying/demanding, and the oldest needed to show some kindness after name-calling before we could proceed with our library outing. It took a few minutes, but my three children—ages 6, 9, and 10—settled down their emotions and made a plan. I stared out the window at all the cars driving past us, keeping my eye on the ticking clock, which was much more pleasant than joining their conflict.

When Parents Should Intervene

Most sibling conflict is normal and equitable when averaged over the high frequency of squabbles throughout the day. However, there are situations when behavior departs from "normal" to count as bullying. Bullying or abusive behavior is a different dynamic from typical sibling conflict, typically with a pattern of one sibling always in the role of perpetrator toward a younger, weaker sibling.

In these conflicts, the older, bigger, stronger sibling may be physically aggressive in ways that cause harm and will escalate over time if not addressed. Typical teasing becomes emotionally abusive when it crosses into cruelty, and again, is routinely directed from one sibling to another instead of the back-and-forth verbal zingers siblings usually exchange. Unfortunately, parents often ignore these bullying interactions as "normal" when they need to intervene to protect the targeted child. If this is the dynamic, professional support may be warranted for the older sibling whose behavior is likely rooted in other problems.

The Bottom Line

Just as "kids will be kids," siblings will fight. A lot. Just because it's normal does not mean it's pleasant, and we have every right as parents to want it to stop. The key to navigating the long path of their lifetime sibling relationship though, is to fade your involvement. Model negotiation and problem-solving, observe them use these skills, and then trust them to do it on their own. So, the next time you walk in from getting something done and they are fighting, do what they need based on their ages and abilities, and then walk right back out.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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