5 Ways to Keep Siblings From Fighting
Oh, the things siblings do to torment each other. They fight over stuff that doesn't seem worth thinking about, much less fighting over. In one study, toddler- and preschool-age brothers and sisters had an average of more than six fights per hour! My own kids relentlessly argue over timing: who gets to brush their teeth first in the morning, and who gets to wash their hands first before dinner. Pick a verb, any verb, and I'll bet you ten dollars that my kids have injured one another in a squabble over who gets to do it first.
Even when kids do thoughtless or seemingly cruel things, they often aren't fully aware of their actions and the consequences. Sometimes they're curious about cause and effect, and siblings are convenient objects on which to carry out their experiments. What do kids fight over most? Physical possessions. Toys, clothes, art supplies, iPads, pillows—name something in your house, and chances are your kids will argue about it at some point. My neighbor's kids recently got into a screaming fight over whose turn it was to hold an empty potato chip bag. Sounds silly, but it's all about perceived fairness and value. An empty potato chip bag may not seem like anything special when it's in the trash, but the minute your daughter has it in her hands, your son will notice how shiny and pretty and crinkly it is and need it right this instant.
However, the ways we engage with our kids give us at least some control over how much they'll argue. Here are four ways that you can reduce conflict before it happens—and help your kids learn to start resolving their disputes by themselves.
Teach your kids to consider their siblings' feelings.
A few months ago, after my kids got into their 42nd fight of the day, I signed up for my very first clinical trial—of a new online intervention called the More Fun With Sisters and Brothers Program. It was designed by psychologist Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Northeastern University to test whether parents can teach their kids skills to help them get along better.
Siblings often squabble because they come to situations with different points of view and desires. My 6-year-old, for instance, loves to knock on my 9-year-old's door to ask him to play with her when she's bored. But my older one likes to read alone and thinks her frequent requests are intentionally trying to annoy him. One of the goals of the program is to help siblings understand each other's perspective, and Dr. Kramer teaches families to use the phrase, "See it your way, see it my way." So I might ask my son to explain what he thinks is going on in his sister's head, and he might say, "She knows I want to be alone, and she's trying to bother me!" Then I could ask my daughter if that's really what she was thinking and intending. She might explain, "No, I just really want to play with him." Then I'd ask her to explain what she thinks her brother is thinking. She might say, "He just wants to be mean to me because he doesn't like me!" And then he might say, "I'm really tired and just want to be alone for a while." When kids learn to consider and eventually predict other people's feelings and perspectives, they develop a skill known as theory of mind, and this helps them have healthier sibling relationships.
Don't compare your kids.
We can't help noticing the ways in which our children are unique, and we often try to celebrate their differences. But when we highlight one child's strengths, our other kids might interpret our comparisons as critiques or, worse, as self-fulfilling prophecies. I remember this from my own childhood. My parents sometimes described my sister as "the gregarious one," which was true. But sometimes it felt like a criticism of me, as well as a prediction of who I would become, even what kind of career would be appropriate for me. And it made me jealous of my sister! This is obviously not what my parents meant to do.
Sometimes we compare our kids even when we're trying to compliment them: "Oh, you're kicking the soccer ball almost as far as your brother does!" Instead, you can just say, "Look how far you kicked the soccer ball!" Likewise, avoid trying to motivate your child by saying something like, "When your brother was 5, he got himself dressed every day. Why can't you do that?" I may have said this exact thing to my daughter a few months ago in a moment of frustration, but comments like these can make kids feel bad about themselves and fuel sibling resentment.
Strive for equality, but don't stress over it.
I've often worried about whether I'm treating my kids exactly the same—in part because my kids seem obsessed with fairness. ("She got the bigger half of the cookie! No fair!") But Dr. Kramer has found that kids are often quite generous in how they interpret "fair treatment." In one study of sibling pairs, three quarters of kids who perceived that their parents treated them and their siblings differently still felt that this treatment was fair. When they aren't being treated the same, they try to figure out why—and if they can come up with an explanation that seems reasonable, they'll cut their parents quite a bit of slack. ("My mom spends more time with my brother than me, but it's okay because my brother really is going through a hard time.")
Plus, equal treatment isn't always the same as fair treatment. If both your 4-year-old and your 8-year-old have to go to bed at the same time, that's certainly equal, but the older child isn't going to consider it fair. And kids much prefer to be treated fairly than equally; they want their individuality to be respected and understood.
Don't force your kids to share on your timeline.
My kids are always fighting over toys: "She's been playing with that ball for four hours!" As parents, we often feel forced into the role of deciding when one child's turn is over, which means we also have to strong-arm that kid into handing the toy over to their sibling. It's a thankless job that leads to more thankless jobs, and in the end, pretty much everyone winds up grumpy.
Consider what happens when you step in to force your firstborn to hand something over to your second-born: The older child is going to feel angry at you—the person in power who has taken away their toy—and also mad at their little sibling, who now gets the thing they desperately want. The whole experience is not going to teach them to learn how to share. And your other kid just learns that if they yell loudly enough, they will get exactly what they want. In fact, the entire scenario reinforces bad behavior: It tells kids that it's okay to grab toys away from one another, since you as the parent just did that yourself. And they know that at any point, you might swoop in to take a toy away to give it to their sibling, so they'll become singularly obsessed with keeping the toy for themselves.
Instead, let your kids take what psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, calls "self-regulated turns." When a child has a toy, they get to decide how long their turn is before they share it. (I know what you're thinking: Your other kid is never going to get the toy. And what are you supposed to do when they're wailing the entire time they are forced to wait? You can start by acknowledging their feelings and frustration: "You're so mad that you have to wait for him to finish playing with the ninja sword!") It's okay to set certain limits on how long each child's turn can be; perhaps it has to end by bedtime at the latest, so the next morning, no matter what, the other child automatically gets their turn. But when their sibling does finally hand over the toy, the great thing is that it will happen willingly, and they'll both have positive feelings toward each other during the exchange, which will reinforce the joy they can get from giving, and the benefits that come from being patient.
The first time you try this, it might not go well. But once both kids get used to it, they might end up being a bit kinder to each other, and make your life a little bit easier. Hey, it's worth a shot.
Be a mediator, not a referee.
Psychologists used to tell parents to stay out of sibling conflicts so kids would learn how to solve problems by themselves. But research has shown that this approach often backfires. Left to their own devices, siblings rarely resolve conflicts constructively, and the older or more dominant child usually "wins" through strength or coercion. At the same time, we shouldn't referee sibling fights either, because you won't always know who's "right," and even when you do, the minute you take one child's side over the other's, the losing child feels resentment that degrades their sibling relationship and fuels further conflict. With kids ages 3 and up, research has found that it's most effective to act as a mediator instead. Stay calm and use this strategy.
- Lay down ground rules that prevent further fighting while the issue is being worked out: "You two sound so upset! We're going to take some deep breaths, and I'm going to take the bear you're fighting over and put it up in the cabinet. Then we're going to talk about this, with no interrupting, okay?"
- Ask each of your kids to describe what happened and identify the points of contention and common ground: "So you both agree that Connor was playing with the bear. Jayden says he asked for a turn, but, Connor, you said you didn't hear him? That made Jayden feel frustrated, because he thought that you were ignoring him, and then he hit you."
- Foster empathy by encouraging them to discuss their feelings and then asking each child to repeat what the other said: "So, Connor, why did Jayden say he got so mad? Jayden, why did Connor start yelling when you hit him?"
- Help them brainstorm solutions to the problem (and if their ideas are far-fetched, try to rein them in). "What are some ways the two of you could fix this? What could you do differently next time? Hmm, but if we buy 600 more of these bears so you never have to share, what might happen?"
An important aspect of mediation is that you need to acknowledge your kids' emotions. When we yell at our kids to stop arguing, we send them the message that the feelings they're having—the ones that are driving their yells and cries—aren't valid. Mediation does the opposite: It validates everyone's feelings. This makes each child feel heard and respected, and helps each child learn to respect everyone else's feelings. By fostering our kids' ability to understand other perspectives, we build skills that will last a lifetime.
When my kids used the technique to resolve a fight that transpired after my daughter threw my son's UNO cards across the room, I was amazed: They each (willingly!) apologized to each other and then cleaned up the cards together afterward. Of course, sometimes they still fight over who gets to brush their teeth first. But slowly, I'm seeing changes. Every time that I facilitate a mediation, it feels like an investment in my sanity—and in my kids' well-being.
From How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A**holes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting—From Tots to Teens, by Melinda Wenner Moyer, to be published July 20, 2021, by G.P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2021 issue as "Battle of the Siblings." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here