If you have more than one child, it’s guaranteed that you’ve experienced sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry can take the form of arguing, name-calling, tattling, physical fighting, competition and comparison, taking one another’s belongings, and other behaviors.
For parents, dealing with sibling rivalry is frustrating, exhausting, and upsetting. Most parents dream of their children being loving, kind, and supportive of one another. Use these strategies to minimize sibling rivalry and help your children form a loving bond!
Understanding Sibling Rivalry
Sibling rivalry is normal and even inevitable. It’s important to understand although you can minimize the bickering, you’ll never eliminate it entirely. Siblings squabble because of jealousy, competition, conflicting needs and temperaments, and sometimes out of boredom or even as a way to connect with one another or gain attention from you.
Believe it or not, there are even some benefits to sibling rivalry. It can help children learn to navigate power struggles, compromise, manage and resolve conflicts, set boundaries and be assertive, and more. Ultimately, the goal is not to eliminate sibling rivalry. The goal is to use conflicts as teaching moments, maximizing the possible benefits of sibling rivalry.
At the same time, you can put rules, structure, and connection-building practices in place that will reduce unhealthy and excessive sibling warfare.
1. Establish Family Rules
In collaboration with your children, create and post clear family rules to help minimize conflict. Rules related to sibling conflict may include no hitting, using words to solve the problem, asking before using something that belongs to someone else, calling each other by their names (not mean words), etc.
2. Define Family Values
It’s also helpful to establish shared family values like respect, kindness, and supporting one another. Creating a family manifesto is a great way to provide a sense of unity and direction for your family. Again, getting the children involved in the creation process makes this strategy far more powerful.
3. Encourage Empathy and Kindness
Empathy and kindness are teachable skills. Teach children to identify and understand the emotions of others by modeling these values yourself and celebrating when you see your children demonstrate them too. Use specific language: “You helped your sister tie her shoes!” (by focusing on the kind and helpful acts, you’ll encourage more of them).
4. Model Healthy Conflict Resolution
Children learn social skills from observing the adults in their lives. Model the use of “I feel” statements rather than blaming, and active listening rather than ignoring or minimizing the feelings of others. You can also model cooling down when you’re upset, navigating healthy compromise, and treating others with respect. If you struggle with managing emotions/conflict, now is a great time to start practicing! After all, it will be difficult to teach or model skills you haven’t learned yet.
As you slip up along the way (as is natural), own your mistakes. Say something like, “Oops. I should have taken a minute to cool down before I said that. Are you willing to let me try again?” This, too, teaches a valuable lesson to your children.
5. Let them Problem-Solve
With minor sibling squabbles, it’s a good idea to let your children navigate the issue themselves. If the conflict escalates, you will need to intervene. Before intervening, take a minute to gain your composure so that you can model healthy problem-solving and a calm response to conflict.
Allow both children time to express their viewpoints, reminding them to use appropriate and helpful language if necessary. Reflect their viewpoints back to them: “So you’re saying…?” Acknowledge the feelings of both children and frame the conflict. “You want to watch different TV shows, but there’s only one TV. How can we solve this problem?” Take suggestions for resolutions from your children. If they struggle, offer a few ideas, like taking turns choosing what to watch or agreeing on a TV show that both children enjoy. Together, commit to trying a solution, then go back to the drawing board as needed. This is a powerful problem-solving that will benefit your children for a lifetime.
6. Teach Calming Strategies
Teach children calming techniques like deep breathing, journaling, squeezing a pillow or stress ball, etc. Remind them that screaming, calling names, and hitting will only escalate the conflict. If they calm down first, they can find a helpful solution.
It may also be necessary to give your children some time to cool off before solving the problem. Separate the children and send them to different areas of the home to calm down as needed. Don’t frame this as a time-out. You can say, “We’re going to solve this problem together, but you need to take a few minutes to calm down first.”
7. Teach Assertiveness
Conflicts between siblings also provide an opportunity to teach children about assertiveness and boundaries. Provide words that children can use to set boundaries and teach others how they would like to be treated. For example, you might say, “Tell your brother, ‘I don’t like it when you call me names. My name is Jonah. Call me that instead.’”
This strategy is especially effective when children tattle. Although tattling is frustrating for adults, it shows that your children trust you to help them solve problems. When our response honors this trust, it’s more likely that our children will continue to talk to us about their issues, even as teenagers.
Instead of reprimanding children for tattling, teach them the words to use in moments of conflict. As they learn assertiveness, the tattling will decrease. Using similar language, be sure to teach children what to do in moments of conflict. For instance, instead of simply telling children not to push, tell them to say “excuse me” when they want their sibling to move. It may seem obvious to us, but children need to be directly taught healthy social skills.