10 Steps to Squash Sibling Rivalry

by Christa Melnyk Hines

Whether they arrive in the family biologically, through adoption, or remarriage, kids don’t get to choose their siblings. With diverse personalities collected under one roof, it’s no wonder brothers and sisters have antagonized each other—and aggravated their parents—since time began. Instead of losing your cool with your clashing kids, try a few of these tips to enjoy a more harmonious household and teach valuable life skills in the process.

Take a step back. Unless a sibling squabble is ramping up into a hair-pulling, cat-scratching, fist-fighting kind of affair, allow your kids to work out their disagreement on their own.

“I give parents permission to not get involved. When we intervene, we are not allowing the skills of conflict resolution or problem-solving,” says Jennifer Jackson-Rice, MSW-LSCSW, a therapist certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy.

Don’t take sides. When your child complains to you of an injustice committed by their sibling, you may be tempted to take sides, especially if one child got hit. But, it takes two to tangle. You can’t know for sure how the situation unfolded or what instigated the physical aggression.

Jackson-Rice encourages parents not to get into the weeds of who-did-what-when.

“There’s nothing positive that can come out of refereeing a sibling disagreement,” she says. “The only reason we’re involved is because someone wants attention from us, and it’s negative attention.”

Take breaks. Instead of playing judge and jury, separate your quarreling offspring for awhile.

“We need to take a break, and we need to calm down. It doesn’t have to be a punishment. It’s just learning to cope and get through the situation,” Jackson-Rice says.

Foster problem solving. Ask your kids to consider each other’s feelings and work toward problem-solving their disagreements, with empathy-building questions like: “How would it make you feel if your brother/sister said that to you?” and solution-seeking queries like:

“What can you do to help the situation?”

“It’s important for siblings to resolve their issues on their own so they can practice managing challenging interpersonal interactions,” says child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Simone Moody. “As a parent you will not always be there to rescue your children and solve their problems.”

Developing conflict resolution skills will not only help kids better manage a dispute on the playground, but will also serve them well later in life as they navigate confrontations in their personal relationships or with a pesky co-worker.

Establish house rules. “Make sure your kids understand your family values in terms of kindness and treating each other with love and respect,” says parent coach Sara Minges.

Sit down with your children to discuss your family’s values and a simple code of conduct, like keeping hands to yourself, using respectful language and sharing.

Reward the positive. “Set an attainable goal for following the rules to earn a desired reward,” Moody says. “Catch your children following these rules often. Provide praise immediately and give them a token to represent each step toward their goal.”

For example, you might create a sticker chart or marble/cotton ball jar and every time your kids work well as a team, they receive a token in the jar or a sticker on the chart. When the tokens reach a certain number, they earn a special family activity.

Know your hot buttons. “As parents, we are models for our children. It’s important to remain calm and respectful so that we can teach our children to treat others in the same manner,” Moody says.

When creating your house rules, consider the types of behaviors that your kids do that flip your patience.

“What are the things that drive you bonkers? Try to come out with as comprehensive or realistic a list as possible, whether it’s yelling and screaming, throwing things, stomping feet or using foul language,” Minges says.

With a plan in place, it will be easier to keep your cool. For example, you might say: “You know our rule about name-calling. This is your first warning. Do it again and you’ll lose your video game time today.” Calmly and consistently follow through whenever necessary.

“Kids will learn ‘Hey, I’m not going to be able to get mom or dad angry so that they just give in,’” Minges says. “If this is how it happens all of the time, it makes it harder for them to take advantage of the situation or try to get out of something.”

Acknowledge conflict resolution in action. “Remember to praise your children when they resolve an issue appropriately,” Moody says. “If only one child is managing the situation appropriately, give praise and attention to that child’s behavior (‘great job staying calm!’) and ignore minor misbehavior of the other child (taunting, boasting and complaining).”

By focusing on the positive interactions, the negative interactions are likely to decrease.

“Whatever we water grows. Whatever we pay attention to or whatever we give our kids attention for will grow,” Jackson-Rice says.

Don’t compare your kids. While competition can be healthy, it shouldn’t fuel all out war in your household. Try not to perpetuate sibling rivalry by drawing comparisons between your kids. One child may learn to ride a bike sooner than another, while the other figures out how to cross the monkey bars faster. One may be better at basketball while the other excels at art.

“Focus on each child’s individual strengths. Encourage your children to participate in activities that foster their unique strengths,” Moody says.

Also, spend time one-on-one with your kids by engaging them in their favorite activities, playing a game or going for walks together. Individual time strengthens parent-child bonds and helps kids feel valued for who they are rather than how well they perform at a particular activity.

Promote a team atmosphere. Initiate team-building opportunities like playing a game as team rather than as opponents, helping to prepare dinner, cleaning up after a meal or doing yard work together. And, again, reinforce positive interactions by praising your kids whenever they work or play well together.

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