Just as you get annoyed with your partner for constantly leaving dirty socks on the floor, siblings often get irked with each other. The only difference? The latter is more likely to result in tears, a yelling match and possibly thrown Legos. (Not to mention, it seems to be constant.) While regular arguments between siblings can do a number on parents’ and caregivers’ nerves, sibling rivalry — competition, jealousy and fighting between brothers and/or sisters — is part of the package when you have more than one child in any family.
“Obtaining family cohesion — particularly when parents have multiple children — is difficult and strenuous for a number of reasons,” explains Ruthie Arbit, a maternal and pediatric psychotherapist in Washington D.C. and the director of Arbit Counseling. “While each child is trying to assert their individuality, parents are working hard to ensure every member of the family is getting what they need. Additionally, new demands emerge as children grow, so you need to be flexible, while realizing that this is a complex process with guaranteed bumps along the way.”
Easy? Not necessarily. But there are a number of expert-backed ways to make the bickering less frequent and the arguments less heated.
Why do siblings fight so much?
According to Arbit, there are a number of factors that contribute to sibling conflict. Here are the most common:
Evolution. “From an evolutionary perspective, siblings fight over access to resources,” she says. “Be it toys and food or attention and parental love.”
Proximity. Arbit notes (and everyone can attest to!) that constantly being around the same person, with whom you have to share space, toys and activities, will inevitably result in irritation and arguments.
Competition. “Among siblings, there is often jealousy and competitiveness around skills and accomplishments,” she notes.
Assigned roles. “Many families have specific roles and niches that different family members occupy within the family dynamic,” Arbit says. “Meaning, if one child is always the instigator and identifies with that role, that identity will self-perpetuate.”
Age is another factor, according to Callie Christensen, creator of the children’s social-emotional brand Slumberkins, and her co-creator in the brand, Kelly Oriard, who is a family therapist, school counselor. “One of the biggest factors of sibling fights is their developmental stage,” Oriard says. “Children are still learning skills of emotional regulation, problem-solving, conflict resolution and repair. So when they grapple with tough situations day in and day out with a sibling, there are bound to be conflicts. For them, it’s a learning process.”
Additionally, if it seems like your children fight more than your neighbor’s, well, they might. According to the Mayo Clinic, variables such as age between kids and sex may cause more sibling fights. (Kids closer in age and/or that are the same sex may fight more.) Divorce may also incite sibling arguments, as children may feel compelled to compete for the attention of the parent with whom they live.
Is it normal for siblings to fight?
While frustrating and upsetting to parents and caregivers, fights between siblings are completely normal, according to Ali Hamroff, licensed master social worker at Liz Morrison Therapy. “Between spending extended periods of time together, fighting for mom and dad’s attention and different personalities, siblings are bound to fight,” she explains. “It happens in every family.”
And the silver lining to all those hours spent eyeing the Tylenol? Sibling arguments may come with long-term benefits for kids. “With the right support and encouragement from parents and caregivers, conflicts between siblings offer opportunities for social learning and skill building,” notes Christensen.
According to the Center for Parenting Education, sibling conflicts also provide kids with the opportunity to learn how to:
Deal with power struggles.
Manage conflict and resolve differences.
Be assertive and to stand up for their position.
Negotiate and compromise.
What to do about siblings fighting
A cacophony of bickering emanating from the playroom is a common trigger for parents and caregivers, and your knee-jerk reaction may be to intervene to try to defuse the situation — don’t. Unless kids are in an unsafe situation, experts across the board recommend staying out of it.
Here’s how you can best handle sibling conflicts:
Don’t get involved. “As hard as it is, I encourage parents to stay out of the argument for as long as they can,” Hamroff says. “Unless one of the children is in danger, see if they can sort it out on their own, as one of the main reasons arguing occurs is a lack of understanding in conflict resolution.” Hamroff notes that disagreements are always going to crop up (and that’s OK!), so learning how to deal with them is important. “Figuring out how to handle disagreements, resolve them and move forward is what matters the most,” she explains.
Don’t take sides. On the occasions that you do step in, it’s important not to take sides, as that will only add fuel to the fire. “If you’re going to get involved, say something like, ‘It doesn’t matter who started it, you both need to take a break and come back when you’re ready and can work it out,’” Arbit says. “This allows parents to avoid the blame game and gives children the opportunity to problem solve and manage dynamics without significant parental involvement.”
Don’t freak out. It’s not always easy, but try to remain calm. “If children sense how upset, annoyed or worried you are, it’s only going to add to the power struggle that’s already happening,” notes Hamroff. “Speak in a calm, supportive, impartial voice, and try to show each child their sibling’s perspective, which will help them be more understanding over time.”
Why do siblings hurt each other?
As Hamroff pointed out, when siblings are physically hurting each other, it’s time to intervene. That said, don’t immediately jump to assumptions that the child(ren) is violent or unstable just because things take a turn for the physical. Oftentimes, physical fights between siblings are a result of not yet having the tools for emotional regulation.
“It is very common for young children to become physically aggressive when they’re emotionally dysregulated,” Oriard explains. “As they get older and build skills to manage anger, this becomes less common.” Oriard adds that when children do get physical during conflict, it’s important for parents to remember that there’s nothing “bad” with them or their child. “It’s usually an issue of emotional regulation and needing skills to manage emotions in their body. However, parents should always take a strong leadership role to stop violence when it happens to keep everyone safe.”
How do you prevent sibling fights?
Unfortunately, there isn’t anything parents or caregivers can do to prevent sibling fights from happening altogether, but there are actionable steps that can be taken on the front end that may make them less frequent.
Carve out one-on-one time. “Make sure there are opportunities for the whole family to be together but also that there is designated alone time to allow each family member to pursue their unique interests,” Arbit says. “Additionally, when a parent is praising or redirecting a child, parents should be very mindful of who is in the room and how that other sibling is reacting. If possible, try to balance your compliments, so when you compliment one child, you also compliment or note the other child.”
Arbit also recommends having an overall “open-door policy” for one-on-one time. “Kids struggle with jealousy around how much attention another sibling is getting, so it’s important to let them know you’re always there,” she says. “Say: ‘If you ever need extra alone time with mommy, let me know and we can make it happen.’ This encourages kids to identify their needs, to advocate for themselves and to have their needs met by the parent.”
Pay attention. “Listen and hear the child’s needs, so you can figure out if there is an underlying issue for the arguments,” says Hamroff. “Is there something else that they are asking for? Check in with kids to see if something else is bothering them? Sometimes frustration and anger come out when really the child is feeling upset about something unrelated.”
Create a “team.” Hamroff advises presenting kids with opportunities to work together to create a team mentality among them. “Provide them with a job that they can complete together,” she says. “Having siblings work together versus against one another will organically allow for them to get along better. Rather than trying to beat the other one, they are now working towards similar goals.”
Teach a range of feelings. “Teach kids emotional expression beyond happy and sad,” Hamroff says. “Sometimes children don’t have the vocabulary to express how they are feeling, so as a result they resort to hitting and yelling. Model to children by saying: ‘I am feeling angry because Tommy stole my iPad.’”
Set routines and house rules. “This creates expectations in the home and more structure,” Hamroff says. “If the children know what they are expected to do, it is less likely that they will end up arguing.” For instance, Hamroff explains that, when watching TV, have one child choose something from 5-5:30 and the other from 5:30-6.
Create a calm-down corner. According to Hamroff, this is where the children can go when they feel their bodies getting out of control, have yelled or hit someone in the house or when they are so upset and are having trouble managing their emotions.
Model good behavior. It’s a lot of pressure, but ultimately, as parents or regular caregivers, you are the child’s biggest role models. “Everything that you do during the day, they are watching,” Hamroff says. “If you start yelling when you get mad or frustrated, then they are learning to do the same. It is your job and responsibility to model for them how to manage your emotions, how to resolve conflict and how to apologize for hurting someone else’s feelings.”
Acknowledge the good. Finally, be sure to recognize the happy and positive moments with children, Hamroff says. When you praise the times kids are working well together, it promotes positivity.