Are your children the best of friends or constantly arguing? Most will be both at different times. Often sibling rivalry starts even before the second child is born, and continues as children grow and compete for everything from toys to attention. As children reach different stages of development, their evolving needs can significantly affect how they relate to one another.

The constant arguing between siblings can be frustrating and exhausting but is a normal part of them learning how to stand up for their rights, defend themselves, express their feelings and practice their problem solving skills in a safe and nurturing environment. Rushing in to mediate these arguments can deny children the opportunity to learn important communication and conflict resolution skills.

Why Children Argue

Jealousy or competition is usually at the root of sibling rivalry and this often results in squabbles and bickering. Factors that influence how often and how severe fighting can become include:

Changing needs. As children get older they experience changing needs, anxieties and identities and this affects how they relate to each other. For example, toddlers asserting their independence are going to be more likely to become aggressive with a sibling who wants to share their things. Teenagers, on the other hand, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together.

Individual temperaments. Children have different temperaments, including disposition, mood and ability to adapt to change, and their personalities will affect how they get along. For example an anxious child may need extra comforting from their patents and this may be resented by other siblings.

Perceived Favouritism. If a child feels that there is favouritism towards a sibling, this can spark extreme resentment. Sometimes older siblings resent the attention that parents give to younger ones. Sometimes, a child’s special needs due to illness or learning/emotional issues may require more parental time and siblings may pick up on this and feel that it is unfair. They may act out to get attention or due to their fears of what’s happening to the other child.

Role models. The way that we as parents resolve problems and disagreements sets a strong example for children. Therefore if we want our children to resolve conflict in a way that shows mutual respect and is not aggressive, we must make sure that we do the same with our spouses and other relationships. If we are slamming doors and arguing loudly, these habits are bound to be picked up.

Diversion. Sometimes children will fight in an attempt to divert attention away from marital or other problems and they hope that their difficult behaviour will unite parents, and take the focus off their difficulties.

What to Do When the Arguing Starts

Although it is common brothers and sisters to argue, it’s certainly not pleasant. So what should you do when the arguing starts?

Whenever possible, don’t get involved. Step in only if there’s a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, your children will learn to call you when they have a disagreement, rather than working it out themselves. There’s also the risk that you — inadvertently — make it appear to one child that another is always being “protected,” which could foster even more resentment. By the same token, rescued children may feel that they can get away with more because they’re always being “saved” by a parent.

When getting involved, here are some steps to consider:

Separate children until they’re calm. Sometimes it’s best just to give them space for a little while and not immediately rehash the conflict. Otherwise, the argument can escalate again. If you want to make this a learning experience, wait until the emotions have calmed down.

Don’t put too much focus on figuring out which child is to blame. It is best to take the stance that anyone who is involved is partly responsible.

Next, try to set up a ‘win-win’ situation so that each child gains something. When they both want the same toy, perhaps they could take turns or find a way to share the object, otherwise it is removed.

Remember, as children learn to cope with disputes, they also learn important skills that will serve them for life — like how to value another person’s perspective, how to compromise and negotiate, and how to control aggressive impulses.

Helping Children To Get Along

Simple things you can do every day to prevent fighting include:

  • Set ground rules for acceptable behaviour. Tell children to to keep their hands to themselves and that there’s no swearing, no name-calling, no shouting, no door slamming. Create the rules together with them and discuss consequences for when they break them. This teaches children responsibility for their own actions, regardless of the situation or how provoked they felt, and discourages any attempts to negotiate regarding who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
  • Avoid favouritism and try as much as possible to make each child feel loved, cherished, appreciated and admired, and focus on their individual strengths.
  • Don’t let children make you think that everything always has to be ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ — sometimes one child needs more than the other and the current needs of each child need to be considered.
  • Be proactive in giving your children one-on-one attention, and where possible daily special time, directed to their interests and needs. Those of you who are familiar with our approach will know all about the virtues of daily ‘special time’.
  • Make sure children have their own space and time to do their own thing — to play with toys by themselves, to play with friends without a sibling tagging along, or to enjoy activities without having to share.
  • Try and communicate through what you say and what you do that they are safe, important, and loved, and that you will do your best to meet their needs.
  • Encourage connection and have fun together as a family. Whether you’re watching a movie, throwing a ball, or playing a board game, you’re establishing a peaceful way for your children to spend time together. This can help ease tensions between them and also keeps you involved. Since parental attention is something that many children fight over, fun family activities can help reduce conflict.
  • If your children frequently squabble over the same things, such as the iPad or the TV remote, post a schedule showing which child ‘owns’ that item at what times during the week. If they keep fighting about it, take the object away altogether.
  • If arguments between your school-age kids are frequent, hold weekly family meetings in which you repeat the rules about fighting and review past successes in reducing conflicts.
  • Recognise when children just need time apart from each other and the family dynamics. Try arranging separate play dates or activities for each child, and when one child is on a play date, you can spend one-on-one time with another.

Keep in mind that sometimes children argue to get a parent’s attention. In that case, consider taking a time-out of your own. When you leave, the incentive for fighting is gone. Also, when your own fuse is getting short, consider handing the reins over to the other parent (if possible), whose patience may be greater at that moment.

Getting Professional Help

In a small percentage of families, the conflict between brothers and sisters is so severe that it disrupts daily functioning, or particularly affects children emotionally or psychologically. In those cases, it’s wise to get help from a mental health professional. Seek help for sibling conflict if it:

  • is so severe that it’s leading to marital problems
  • creates a real danger of physical harm to any family member
  • is damaging to the self-esteem or psychological well-being of any family member
  • may be related to other significant concerns, such as your child feeling overwhelmed, or for example experiencing anxiety or depression

In some cases arguing at home, a space which provides unconditional acceptance is a child’s way of venting the frustration felt due to other difficulties such as problems with friends or at school. This may need further exploration.

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up, however if you have greater concerns such as described above, it may be worth having a chat with a qualified professional to explore whether more specific support is needed.

If you need more practical support, and are interested in learning how to support your children’s mental health, the POWER program has practical strategies to help you to understand and manage sibling rivalry as well as a wealth of other supportive parenting tools. This program will help you to understand your child’s mental health needs as well as offer supportive and practical tools to teach them to value themselves and understand what underlies their relationship with their siblings. This course also contains a wealth of strategies to teach children to self-regulate as well as the strategies needed to manage each step of this process from physical awareness, to emotional awareness, challenging thoughts, changing habits, managing anxiety and anger, and becoming empowered to manage situations more easily.