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Sibling Squabbling

Rules Can Set You Free

1602_ParentalGuidance_QWe just spent a weekend with my brother’s family, and it broke my heart! His kids get along perfectly. What can I do about the perpetual fighting that goes on between my kids (ages seven, nine, and thirteen)? Our house is the scene of constant sibling conflict. My husband says we need to shut it down, but my mother thinks this is normal for kids of any age. Should I be worried?

1602_ParentalGuidance_AI would like to suggest a compromise between your mother and your husband. Yes, sibling conflict is normal, but if it feels like it’s too much or unmanageable, there are steps you can take to achieve more harmony in your family.

As impartially as you can, observe your children and their interactions. When do the majority of conflicts occur? Are the three children always involved, or is there a main instigator? What are the conflicts about? Do you see any patterns? Knowing what the conflicts are about will help you put a system in place to lessen the squabbles. Also, spend some time thinking about your brother’s family and what you really liked about their interactions. This, too, will help you determine what steps to take. Finally, take a look at yourself and your interactions. Do you mesh perfectly with one child, or always favor one? Any insight you can gain will help you change your family dynamic.

Sibling conflict, or rivalry, is completely normal. It actually helps children develop social competence by learning how to negotiate relationships, including the wide array of feelings within these relationships. Children learn how to deal with jealousy, anger, conflict, and disappointment through their sibling relationships. They also learn how to share, cooperate, look out for another person’s welfare, and see another person’s point of view. In essence, they learn to be empathetic, a critical foundation to successful social interactions.

There are many steps you can take to change your current family dynamic. First, you and your co-parent have to be on the same page. Being in agreement makes for a united front, and your children won’t be confused.

Together, make a list of basic ground rules that will always be enforced – non-negotiables, so to speak. For example, you might prohibit violence of any type. This means your hands, feet, body, and words cannot be used to inflict harm or threaten someone. Another ground rule could involve the way language is used. It is okay to require that phrases or words like “stupid” or “shut up” be off limits in your family.

Once the non-negotiables are established, bring in the children to set up some other clear rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Just like anything else with kids, you have to mean what you say, and say what you mean. So, if you establish that electronics are taken away for breaking a rule, you have to enforce that.

Help them understand what you are expecting of them. They will not get along all the time; that is unrealistic. Children have conflicts for many reasons. You may have noticed that most conflicts occur when your two youngest are left to play on their own. They may need some help getting started with an activity or establishing the ground rules. You may need to be more hands-on as they learn this new pattern of interaction. Or the opposite may be true. Maybe you jump in too quickly to settle disputes, and you need to let them learn to compromise and negotiate more with each other. Remember, enforce the non-negotiables and see what they can develop on their own.

As your family establishes new patterns, praise positive interactions whenever you can. This will help your kids be clear on what it is you like. Try to spend some one-on-one time with each child so they have your undivided attention.

Be patient and consistent, and watch the fighting diminish.


Denise Noble is a mom of two and has master’s degree in counselor education. She is affiliated with, the parenting education arm of Greater Richmond SCAN, and has coached parents and worked with families for nearly twenty years.
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