How to Stop Sibling Rivalry

Most siblings have disagreements at some point, but frequent, intense fights can cause serious damage. If you've had it up to here with your kids' constant fighting, we'll help you reach a sibling cease-fire.
Erin Patrice O'Brien

First there's the screaming fit over who gets to put the key in the front-door lock. Then there's the shoving over whose turn it is to sit on the window bench. Finally there's the Disney dance party turned WWE cage match, which ends with my 7-year-old, Blair, shouting, "Drew started it!" and my 5-year-old, Drew, screaming, "Blair started it!" and me yelling, "Stop yelling!"

I turn to my husband, Thad, and state the obvious: "We have lost control of the asylum."

Our kids fight every single day -- in the car, in the bathroom, in the supermarket. These two little girls, who barely a year ago were as close as Kate and Pippa, now feud like Kardashians. Far too much of our precious family time is spent negotiating truces. Yet nothing changes. The next morning, the battle hymn plays and, just like that, they're off to the front lines again.

Of course, it's comforting to know we aren't the only ones whose kids spar. A University of Illinois study found that siblings ages 3 to 9 typically have arguments several times an hour. Whether you have girls, boys, or a mix doesn't matter. Most siblings squabble.

While it's true that disagreements can help sisters and brothers hone social skills such as negotiation and compromise, there is a downside: Frequent, intensive fighting heightens kids' risk of depression and anxiety and can lower their self-esteem. Researchers have found that battling siblings are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, including drug use, as adults.

That puts a new perspective on my girls' latest scuffle of the day (over the ownership of a legless Monster High doll). I'm seriously worried: I can't deal with another 15 years of being a referee, and I don't want my girls to grow up to be bickering, sniping, it's-not-fair-ing, I-hate-you-ing sisters.

It's a real possibility, though. The way your kids interact early on tends to stay consistent as they get older, according to Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She developed More Fun With Sisters and Brothers, a researched-based program in which 4- to 8-year-olds learn to resolve differences and manage their emotions.

The good news: "You can change the pattern of fighting among your kids," says Dr. Kramer. But you have to be willing to put in the work.

Help your kids become team players.

Preventing fights from flaring up in the first place is the surest way to promote harmony. Start by referring to your children as a team as often as possible ("You're such a good cleanup crew" or "You two are quite the silly dancing duo"). This gets you in the habit of praising their positive interactions. I'll sometimes go the other way, poking fun at them: "Your singing together sounds like chickens squawking during a fire alarm." Not only does this make them laugh, but it also moves them to defend their Ariana Grande-like abilities to me -- as a team.

"Siblings who feel like they're working together, rather than being opponents, will naturally help each other out," says Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., who codeveloped Penn State's Siblings Are Special project, which teaches grade-school brothers and sisters (and their families) to play nicely. He suggests setting up situations in which your kids join forces, such as building a fort or making muffins. Stavroula Grivas, a Philadelphia-area mom, learned that strategy from her own parents.

"In order to earn playtime, my three siblings and I had to clear the table," says Grivas. "The younger kids stacked dishes and the older ones cleared and washed them. Then we dried and put them away. Working together, it took no time at all."

Expand their emotional vocabulary.

Lots of sibling conflicts occur because young children don't know the proper way to express what's bothering them. That's why toddlers resort to biting and hitting and older kids impulsively spout statements they don't truly mean ("I hate you!"), which can easily turn a minor argument into a big-time battle. The more words a child has to describe his feelings, the more likely he is to stay calm, notes Dr. Kramer. So if his little sister knocks over his block tower, he can tell you, "I'm angry that she ruined my project" instead of hitting or yelling at her. "It's important to talk about emotions beyond happy, sad, and angry," says Dr. Kramer. Expressing out loud how you feel, whether it's "annoyed," "disappointed," or "confused," will teach your kids new words to express what they're feeling -- a significant first step in learning how to manage emotions.

Rather than waiting until your kids are upset to have a discussion, take advantage of teachable moments. When we're at the park and see another child freaking out, I always ask the girls, "What do you think he's feeling?" When they default to describing the emotion as "mad" or "sad," I fill in the blanks: "If my sand shovel broke, I'd be pretty frustrated, wouldn't you?"

For some children, tattling and telling important information to an adult can seem like the same thing. Learn how to help them understand the difference and what the consequences should be for tattling.

Erin Patrice O'Brien

When to intervene during sibling squabbles

Try to stay out of it.

When your kids are quarreling, check in to make sure it's not becoming physical or emotionally heated. Then let them know you'd like them to resolve the conflict on their own (but that you're happy to help out if necessary), says Dr. Kramer. That's how Chris Loprete, a Los Angeles dad, handles fights between Braden, 8, and Henry, 5. "If we hear our kids squabbling, we won't jump in unless we notice that the arguing is becoming intense," he says.

But you should always intervene if one of your kids is verbally abusive ("You're a stupid loser and everyone hates you"), destroys the other one's cherished possessions, or hits or bites. A study published in Pediatrics found that children who taunt, insult, slap, or push their sibling can do as much mental and physical damage as any playground bully.

Keep your cool.

Charging into a war zone and yelling "Stop it right now!" might shock your kids into silence, but it won't prevent them from resuming their clash as soon as you leave the room, says Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate. I know. I've done it more than once. Sure, it's hard to listen to your kids fight and difficult to manage your anger -- both at them and at yourself for not being able to keep the peace. But consider counting to ten before you storm into the room. "I stop and look at their baby pictures on the wall," says Roseanne Tredinnick, a mom of three from Haddon Township, New Jersey. My serenity-restoring trick is a sign I wrote on a piece of paper and taped to the wall in the kitchen. It says, "Three deep breaths." Every time I look at it, I follow these directions. It really does help.

Be a coach, not a ref.

If you need to get involved, your job isn't to decide who's right and who's wrong. You're merely a mediator. Start the conversation by stating what you've heard or seen: "You seem to be having trouble deciding who gets to wear the plastic high-heeled dress-up shoes." Have each child explain her side of the story without shouting or hurling insults. To make sure they're listening to each other, have them repeat what the other one has said. Then ask the million-dollar question: "What can we do to solve this?" Let each kid share her ideas. Try one of the proposed solutions, no matter how crazy it sounds ("Okay, let's give the high heels a time-out in the freezer"). If they need further direction, offer suggestions ("Each of you could wear them for ten minutes; we'll set the timer to keep track").

Remind yourself that your kids are practicing the art of conflict resolution: expressing themselves calmly, listening, validating other perspectives, and coming to an agreement. This approach requires time and energy, but the payoff is worth it. "Doing it every time they fight is difficult," admits Dr. Kramer. "But if you adopt this strategy a few times, they'll pick up on it. And eventually, they'll learn to resolve disagreements without you, which is the whole point."

Parents Magazine

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