Addressing Sibling Rivalry in the Home

By Enid R. Spitz July 21, 2017

Sibling rivalry is practically guaranteed as soon as a family has more than one child. But that does not make it any easier to handle, or any less frustrating for the parents, most of whom have a very different ideal home life in mind.

Boy and girl fighting over a iPadWhen brothers and sisters argue, the entire family dynamic is rocked. Arguments at home can easily spill into each family member’s work or social life. Strife can make a happy, healthy family life seem like an unattainable dream. In extreme circumstances, it can even lead to enduring psychological or physical pains. This leaves parents frustrated and questioning their parenting ability.

What would a “good” parent do? How can I be a good parent? How can parents care for their children amidst this turmoil? And is there a way to stop kids fighting and eliminate sibling conflict?

* * *

“I wanted this world to still. I wanted to fix it and be fixed within it. But everything was on the move, the clouds, the wind…” wrote Hisham Matar in "Anatomy of a Disappearance." Parenting siblings who fight can feel eerily similar to that state of duress. Thing is, the world will always be “on the move.” Rather than spend time and energy wishing for some unattainable, perfect peace—it is much better to understand the turmoil and work with it as a natural aspect of life.

Caring for children while resolving family conflict is all part of this dance.  

Upset mom sitting on the sofa while brother teases sisterResolving sibling struggles has many pieces. First, is understanding how rivalry manifests and why. Next, is accepting that rivalry is a natural, and even necessary process.
A third is managing your own expectations as
a parent. Finally, compiling a toolbox of solutions and working diligently and mindfully
can calm the storm of siblings fighting and bickering.

* * *

Sibling rivalry, like most human interactions, has roots that go much deeper than what you see on the surface. At face value, rivalry can manifest in a variety of ways, including arguing verbally, physical altercations, stealing, name-calling, blaming, breaking or hiding things, tattling and even just staring. All of these behaviors are physical symptoms of unmet emotional needs. Just as people have different emotions and personalities, different children will express their needs in different ways. The first step toward managing sibling rivalry is often simply just observing children interacting and noticing how rivalry comes to the surface.

Why Sibling Fighting and Rivalry?

Understanding why rivalry happens is vital in order to address it. Once you’ve identified what rivalry looks like, trying to find the reason behind it is the next step. For many children, disputes are directly related to the need for interaction or attention. Arguments—though adults might not first think of them as a positive interaction—are at their core, human interaction. For children seeking connection, disagreements can be a quick way to get a reaction from both peers and parents. Even though it is a tumultuous connection, arguing is still a form of communication.

Housewife on phone while struggling with toddlerAnother main reason for children arguing is to get attention. Even though it is
not always true that children act out to gain attention from their caretakers, outbursts do tend to invoke a reaction from adults. The need for attention could also be a side-effect of boredom. Quarrels create conflict, get attention and therefore increase excitement, even if it's ultimately detrimental.

Power is one of the other main explanations for hostility. Whether the disagreement is an attempt from one sibling to gain dominance over the other, or a way to become the “favored child”—fights are ultimately an attempt to win. In many cases, the “prize” has less to do with an object or a superficial thing and more to do with a strong emotion.

Two angry brothers fighting with each otherSometimes, the rivalry is simple. While deep emotions can be the cause, environmental factors are just as likely to set children off, especially young ones. When children are uncomfortable—hot, hungry, tired, ill—or simply kept in close proximity for longer than they’d like, quarrels are common. Brothers and sisters are just like everyone else; they get unhappy when they are stressed or uncomfortable. But with siblings, there also happens to be another person readily available to take out that discomfort on.

* * *

This sounds illogical, but sibling fighting has its benefits. Before reaching for your toolbox of fix-it skills, consider the things that arguments can actually teach children. Even while you work to find a remedy and resolve conflict with your kids, acknowledging its place in natural childhood development might ease that gut reaction to stifle any conflict.

Teaching your children conflict resolution skills is  far more productive
than thinking that your family is failing when conflict arises.

Disputes with siblings, who are a huge part of children’s social life, teach children life lessons, including: how to manage power dynamics in social situations; how to respect differences of opinions; how to communicate wants and needs; and the need for effective communication and negotiation. Honoring these inherent life lessons can allow the conflict to seem less “bad” in the black-and-white, all-or-nothing sense.

* * *

Young family baking cookies togetherManaging your own expectations as a parent might not seem like a solution for squabbling children, but it is a huge step in easing your own discomfort and stress. Anxiety
is a direct effect of expectations not aligning with reality. For many parents, the desire or expectation that home life will be peaceful makes anything less than that seem disappointing. The same goes for expectations of children. Hoping that children will always communicate effectively and clearly, use their words, follow the rules and respect each other serves to set yourself up for disappointment rather than to set your children up for success. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having goals and striving for peace, but keeping expectations realistic will help mitigate anxiety before it starts.

Consider how these things are affecting your expectations of your children or your family life: a child’s birth order, gender, temperament, age or personality traits. Stereotyping a child as the “easy” child, the “difficult” one, the "responsible" eldest or the "temperamental" youngest creates unhealthy labels and set you up for disappointment or sadness when reality inevitably clashes with those expectations. Another thing to consider is how your own parents handled fighting within your own family—either with you and your siblings or amongst their own. If you were raised with parents who told you to “work things out on your own,” “just cut it out,” or who punished rivalry with similar militant parenting, that might subconsciously affect your own visceral reaction to your own children's arguments and fighting.

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Home-renovation-and-DIY-586932394_2122x1416.jpegThe final step is compiling a toolbox of skills to handle sibling rivalry in your family. Many people skip directly to this step, hoping for
a cure-all fix that will quickly subdue conflict. But understanding the
how and why of rivalry,
the importance of disagreements, and your own expectations will strengthen your eventual toolkit and your resolve to handle rivalry effectively.

Here are some solutions that use emotional intelligence to resolve sibling fighting.

  • Stay out of the fray until your presence is necessary. Children naturally learn conflict resolutions skills by working through issues.
  • Do not discipline children in front of one another; this only augments the natural rivalry and sense of hierarchy.
  • Educate your children with emotional intelligence tools; encourage empathy and active listening.
  • Give children as much attention for “good” behavior as for acting out. This will discourage them fighting for the sake of getting attention.
  • Set clear expectations for their behavior and talk about the repercussions of fighting. Then, stick to the plan you made.
  • Treat each child as a unique individual. You do not have to interact in exactly the same way with every child because each child has a unique temperament and communication style. Take this into account instead of using global, across-the-board punishments or rules.
In addition, sites like Family Life and Positive Parenting are good resources for information on family conflict management. Or check out Heartmanity's parent coaching or parenting classes and workshops.

Educational speaker Steve Maraboli said:

“Stop trying to 'fix' yourself; you're NOT broken!
You are perfectly imperfect and powerful beyond measure.”

He may have been talking to adults about their own self-perception, but the same is true of families.

Families that experience sibling rivalry are not “broken” or “wrong.” Arguments are a natural process and an outgrowth of family life. However, with the right awareness, emotional intelligence, and parenting tools, conflict can be a natural part of life without taking down the entire ship of family life.

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Enid SEnidRSpitz.jpgpitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for traumatic brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social well-being, neuroscience and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, enjoys a good whiskey, and loves being outdoors. Twitter: @enidrosalyn, Instagram: @littleyogibird.

Posted in Parents: Permission to Be Imperfect