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Sibling Squabbles – Navigating the Challenges of Sibling Rivalry

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Siblings in luchador costumes jumping over a couch with their father dressed as a referee.
Sibling conflict is unavoidable. It’s just part of life with young humans whose “life-giving skills are still developing,” Cartmell explains. But that conflict can have benefits.

Sibling rivalry can cause kids can say some mean things, oftentimes without recognizing how painful their words are. During her middle school years, Mikayla, our oldest, would declare, “I wish I didn’t have any siblings,” after a spat with a sister or brother. “Then it could just be me and Mom and Dad.”

Harsh words, and not exactly the most prudent way to make peace with a sibling. Micah, our youngest, was especially outraged by any implication that life would be better if he didn’t exist. So these altercations would usually go downhill from there with more harsh words, tears and the booming punctuation of slammed bedroom doors.

Why can’t they just get along? It’s the enduring question of parents around the world. I like how Dr. Todd Cartmell, author of Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry, outlines the root sources of sibling rivalry:

  • Parents have more than one child.
  • Those kids live in the same home.

I guess that sums it up. Sibling conflict is unavoidable. It’s just part of life with young humans whose “life-giving skills are still developing,” Cartmell explains.

But that conflict can have benefits. Years of working through the ups and downs of family life is how brothers and sisters develop those life skills. And managing conflict together creates lifelong bonds. It helps kids develop empathy and authenticity, character traits that transcend childhood to equip them with better communication and conflict resolution skills in the future.

So how do parents lead children to treat one another with maturity and civility? Recognizing the family dynamics that spark sibling rivalry can help you guide your kids to make better decisions during their interactions with one another. Here are some big contributors to sibling conflict and some ways to respond:

Breaking Boundaries

Oh, how kids can fight! They bicker over toys and spaces and annoying noises. They argue over fairness and about who smeared jam in their new book. Many of these conflicts are ignited by real or perceived violations of a boundary. Children, particularly younger ones, don’t often have a good understanding of how their actions and words affect others. 

“At times you’ll need the wisdom of Solomon to dispense justice in the face of conflicting testimony or inconclusive evidence,” says Dr. Paul Reisser, author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care. Indeed, when sibling conflict happens, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of the he-started-it and it’s-not-fair squabbling.

Instead of getting frustrated, ask yourself:

What is the real boundary here? Some boundaries are legitimate common-sense standards that kids are going to have to learn to accept. Other perceived boundaries may simply arise from one child’s personality or current mood. Kids have yet to develop maturity and everyday common-sense. So, yes, it’s good when kids are not obsessed with controlling their spaces, possessions and circumstances. But it’s also good to have respect for sensible boundaries, recognizing the activities and interests of others.

So parents must work to nurture an attitude of sacrificial love and selflessness in their kids’ hearts. Sibling conflicts are often the simple result of self-centeredness, so cultivating a loving, selfless attitude can help avert the fighting.

Can my children work it out by themselves? Maybe, so don’t jump in right away, unless there’s a threat of injury. If you intervene too quickly, you don’t give your kids the opportunity to develop their conflict resolution skills. Even when you step in, do so with curiosity and a gentle nudge toward having your kids solve their own problem. Ask, “What’s a good solution to this problem that seems fair to everyone?”

Dr. Reisser suggests that parents keep an eye out for imbalances of power and conflicts that don’t seem to have a fair resolution. Avoid having a “let them fight it out” mindset for every conflict because some of your kids may feel bullied or develop a sense that they have no allies in the family. 

Am I making assumptions about the situation? It’s easy to observe patterns, perhaps that one child tends to spark conflict more than others. But don’t play favorites, Dr. Reisser advises. “The fact that one child is normally more compliant than another doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of instigating wrongdoing.”

Sibling Rivalry and Comparisons

Every parent of more than one child notices that children have a heightened sense of what is fair. They’re always comparing themselves to others, analyzing which sibling got the bigger treat, the longer time on the video game system, the slightly larger reward for finishing a task.

Nurture a balance. Kids like things to be fair, and even though a big part of life is recognizing the hard truth that life isn’t always fair, no one’s life at home should be a source of persistent injustice.

As kids grow older, comparisons start to become a larger issue. Some comparisons may be minor differences that do not affect a good relationship, but they can also be a source of ongoing conflict between siblings. Keep reminding your kids that everyone is created differently, and we will spend the rest of our lives living with different types of people. See your family life as a training ground for helping your kids learn to live in society and within the body of Christ.

Help children recognize that they are unique and special. Differences do not make one lesser or greater than a sibling. “Parents of more than one child will regularly have to exercise a delicate responsibility: recognizing and praising each child’s unique skills, strengths and accomplishments without implying that one sibling is somehow better than another,” explains Dr. Reisser.

There will always be comparisons, but siblings should generally treat each other as being on the same team. “Build a culture of love and respect in your home,” says Dr. Cartmell. Have fun together. Whether it’s a family movie night or a hike with a picnic lunch, you’re nurturing peace and teamwork, giving your kids a safe space to bond and relate to one another. 

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

Competition for Attention

I often think of when our oldest, Mikayla, got her first sibling. We had tried to prepare her for the arrival of her sister, as much as it’s possible to lovingly inform a toddler that she’s not going to be the center of the universe anymore. While she mostly handled the transition well, there were crying and confusion those first few days when she saw Mommy holding Isabelle. It was a little preview for the next several years of our lives, of our children learning a simple skill of how to share parents.

As parents, we have limits to our capacity. But we need to make sure that we have time and energy available for every child in the family. Take walks, one on one, with each child. Dads, take a shy daughter to the hardware store with you, and stop for ice cream on the way back. Moms, teach your son to bake cookies. Listen as your children open up! Take interest in the things that interest her. 

Kids will still fight, of course, but they will grow through the conflict if they are secure in the knowledge that they are loved and cared for as an equal member of the family.

Sibling Rivalry: In the Heat of the Battle

Don’t get pulled into every conflict. Sometimes children will start an uproar in a misguided attempt to gain adult attention. Ignoring their efforts will reduce the odds of a repeat performance. Even if that isn’t their motivation, in some situations it’s reasonable to give children a chance to sort out their own conflicts.

But don’t let conflicts get out of hand. If the children are not arriving at an appropriate solution, if someone is being bullied, or if insults (or fists) are flying, call a time-out for tempers to cool down.

Repeatedly teach the principle of mutual respect and its implications. Conflicts and disagreements among children (and parents) must be settled within a framework of mutual respect. This is the basis for curbing insults and not allowing arguments to escalate into physical combat.

Administer discipline privately. The embarrassment of being disciplined in front of other people—especially other children who may secretly take pleasure in watching the punishment—is both painful and counterproductive and more likely to lead to resentment than improved behavior.

Discourage tattling. If one child tells you about the misdeeds of another, the second child’s behavior must be dealt with, assuming that the story is true. But if the first child seems smug or gleeful while reporting to you what his sibling did, or if he appears to gloat over the other child’s discipline, he needs to be reprimanded, too. The issue isn’t that he reported the wrongdoing; at times such information may prevent an accident or injury. But discourage the attitude of tattling that derives satisfaction or pleasure from another’s “crime and punishment.”

Remember that “this too will surely pass.” Will children who have squabbled so intensely for years actually have civilized relationships later in life? Yes, it’s true: In the vast majority of cases, a child’s passage into adolescence and adulthood ends sibling warfare and replaces it with pleasant camaraderie, deepening friendship and (most surprisingly) fervent loyalty.

Taken from Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care. Copyright © 1997, 2007 by Focus on the Family. Reprinted with permission of Tyndale House Publishers.

Listen to our broadcast as education expert Cynthia Tobias shares practical ways to manage sibling conflict.

© 2020 by Paul Reisser. This article first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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