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

By Vicki Glembocki and Rebecca Kahlenberg
April 03, 2008
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All parents dream of a wonderful relationship between their children, but sibling rivalry is a natural part of growing up. Disagreements between siblings have several advantages, like honing social skills such as negotiation and compromise. There’s also a downside, though:  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.

Parents may be alarmed to hear that 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.

Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Why Do Siblings Fight?

Siblings fight because they're hungry, tired, bored, or they want Mom and Dad's attention. Sometimes they squabble because they're simply sick of spending so much time together. 

Among younger children, sibling fighting might occur because they 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. 

Sibling Fighting Solutions

Wondering how to get siblings to stop fighting? Follow this sound advice from parenting experts. 

Prevent Fights From Starting

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. 

"Siblings who feel like they're working together, rather than being opponents, will naturally help each other out," says Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., who co-developed 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. 

Expand Their Emotional Vocabulary 

The more words a child has to describe his feelings, the more likely he is to stay calm, notes Dr. Kramer. So if your daughter knocks over your son’s 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.

Try to Keep a Distance

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. 

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.

If you do 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. 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."

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