“You are being mean!” said my son. His face filled with disappointment. “I’m never sharing my truck with you ever again.” He added, walking away with a deep sigh.
I had been listening to my son and daughter. It was a small conflict, yet big feelings were involved. They were struggling to play together. And, in this moment, they were not able to find any understanding or empathy for each other.
Why do siblings fight?
There are many reasons siblings may argue or fight. Here are some of the more common reasons:
Love me. Do you Love me?
Even when we strive to be loving and fair, children may struggle with sharing love.
While we know our love to be boundless, young children are just not able to truly believe that. Sometimes the way we act also gives off the impression that our love is neither endless or equal. (It’s impossible to be perfect!)
Being love insecure is a natural and normal part of childhood. And it can at times, precipitate sibling fights.
Look at me. Only Me!
Right along with needing to feel loved, children need to know they belong and matter. Children crave individual attention, lots of it! Especially attention just for the unique individual beings they are. Not any attention focused on how they might stack up or compare to their sibling.
If your child KNOWS that you could never love anyone else more than you love him, he won’t find himself jealous of his sibling very often. So your first focus needs to be strengthening and sweetening your relationship with each child. –Dr. Laura Markham
Understand me. Understand my basic needs.
Waiting even two minutes can at times seem impossible if a child is hungry, tired, or running on low on parental attention. This is a big reason behind toddlers acting out when babies arrive. Beyond basic needs, mismatched temperaments can also be big triggers for sibling fights.
Like in the case of my two children, their temperaments on this morning seemed to be part of the problem. One child energetic and looking to test out every possible play idea, as fast and furiously as possible. The other, on this morning mellow, inquisitive and patient, looking to test out play ideas slowly, meticulously.
Sibling Fights Don’t Have to Rule Family Life
When siblings aren’t getting along, we can see these as moments for learning. Learning how to practice empathy, understanding and compassion for others. Learning how to express needs, boundaries and wishes in a respectful and clear way.
Sibling rivalry doesn’t have to rule your family dynamic. The idea that siblings fight all the time and can’t ever get along doesn’t have to be reality. Siblings may become best friends, or not. At the very least, with guidance, children can learn to live in a respectful, cooperative way with siblings.
When parents strive to create supportive, safe, loving homes that honor differences yet values cooperation, siblings can learn to get along.
What can you do to reduce sibling fights?
Model empathy, personal boundaries and healthy conflict resolution.
Coach children during conflicts (when needed). Stepping out of a judge role and taking on a more neutral, facilitator role. Here is an example, from that same morning:
“You sound upset. How can you let your sister know what you really want?” I asked, gently encouraging more dialogue between brother and sister.
“I want to play with that water and with you. That is what I want. The water play looks like fun.” My son said to his sister.
“Well, can you ask mom to make you a water bin? I just want to keep floating my dolls in this one. You can play NEXT to me. I like to play with you. I don’t like your truck on top of my dolls.” Said my daughter, expressing her needs, boundaries and offering a solution.
What about when sibling fights get physical or out of hand?
1. Step in and limit behaviors that are hurtful.
2. Then, take time to listen and validate feelings. Taking turns as needed to speak to each child and remembering that coaching role.
Andrea Nair, psychotherapist and parenting expert suggests approaching children with an attitude of “You two are having a hard time—I wonder what we can do,” instead of “He or she is the problem.”
3. Focus on needs and boundaries over criticizing the behavior that was unnescessary. (Usually children are quite aware that hitting or hurting a sibling was wrong. Children need less help understanding that, and much more help getting back to feeling loved, understood and safe.)
4. Use respectful communication and discipline with the intent to teach. Focusing on solutions and agreements instead of punishments. This actively strengthens connection, a sense of cooperation, capability and well-being.
At a time when children are NOT fighting take some pro-active measures:
Implement calm down plans to help children develop self-regulation skills. (The book Twelve Alternatives to Time Out has a chapter dedicated to helping children create and use personalized calm down plans)
Talk about ways your child can deal with anger and frustration that don’t involve physical agression.
Have special time with each child, every day (or least once a week for older children) to refill your child’s need for individual attention.
Encourage siblings to have special time together, where they can enjoy each other’s company and you don’t interrupt them for an agreed upon time.
Allow and Trust children to work out small disagreements, interferring only when you notice that your coaching may allow siblings to express and resolve conflicts.
Lastly, strive to stay calm if your children fight. It’s quite natural for children to believe they must compete for love and attention. As children discover their own talents, interests and overcome normal childhood insecurities about love and significance, your calm, loving guidance and focus on connection and cooperation will make a big difference.
Peace & Be Well,
Why Siblings Fight (and Why We All Fight Like Siblings) by Dr. Kelly Flanagan
Solutions for Siblings by Becky Eanes of Postive Parenting Toddlers and Beyond
A surprising Approach to Sibling Rivalry by Amanda of Dirt & Boogers