Every home can tell the same story.
We may find it annoying at times, but rivalry between our children is actually normal and is a healthy part of child development.
It's good for children because:
They learn to sort out problems for themselves
They develop their own thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas
They stand up for the things they believe in
It’s great for parents if a child can sort out problems for themselves because:
Parents don’t have to step in so much
There is less tale-telling
Children learn to negotiate tricky friendships
Children are less likely to be bullied
Children are less likely to be a bully
Where do you start?
The first question to ask is, “Why are they fighting?”. This helps us start looking for a patterns.
Always remember that sibling squabbles serve a purpose. Your children are practising social skills they need in the real world. If adult see these things as opportunities to teach, that can be really positive.
Possible reasons for conflict
Creating conflict is the easiest way for a child to get attention when they are feeling bored. But children need to be bored so they can learn how not to be bored. They need to be able to self-entertain and sometimes picking a fight is a way to make something exciting happen. Finding tasks where children can feel helpful and work together are great.
Hyper / hypo dynamic
Sibling sets often come in opposites. One might be hyperactive, the other not so much. The ‘hyper’ (over active) child creates a conflict to stimulate the ‘hypo’ (under active) child to create a balance.
This may not be conflict after all as the hypo child may need the hyper child to get them to be more active. Rather than using conflict, help the hyper child develop language triggers like "Let's go / do / see ...", "I'm bored / I need something to do, shall we go / do / see ..."
Some families don’t like conflict. They try to keep the family in a “hypo state” – to “keep the lid on” emotions or challenges or conflict. Children are particularly sensitive to tension, especially between adults.
Children, naturally need to let off steam and will create a conflict to reduce the pressure build up in the house, particularly if they are anxious. A change of scenery - a walk to the shops, trips to the park, task lists may all help.
Where there is tension between adults or others in the home, a child may be copying the behaviour of an adult.
One child, usually an older child, may encourage conflict because they want their sibling to learn how to stand up for themselves. This may be positive and it could be that they trust the older child to show them the way.
Jealousy / Minimising
Children compare themselves to other children all the time. Sometimes they think “What I have isn’t enough” or “They have something I don’t have”. It is called “minimising” when a child forgets they have lots of skills, strengths and characteristics which make them who they are. Big up the child's positives.
The set up
Sometimes when a child feels that a sibling is on a “pedestal” and they are in the “pit”, the child in the “pit” can actively set up a conflict situation to make the sibling on the “pedestal” feel what it is like to be them. If a child feels they are in the "pit", then big up the child's positives.
However, if an older child is allowed to go to bed later than a younger child, you may need to explain that that is the house rule - because everyone has to live by rules.
Loss or displacement
Children can grow apart, particularly if one child moves onto a different school or key stage where they make new or different friends. One child can feel left out and may cause conflict in order to re-ignite the relationship - negative attention is better than no attention. In these circumstances, having shared games, meal times, etc. may help bring children together. Our pages on loss and grief may also be helpful to read.
What can you do?
Naughty v. Victim – Neither is good
When we see our children fight, we can fall into the trap that the louder / older / larger child is “naughty” and “picking on” a quieter / younger / smaller child who we make the “victim”.
If adults tell children they are “naughty” or “victims” this is what they will believe. They may end up playing this role through life.
Praise the positive
When they are playing well, sharing and taking turns. Stop and praise them.
- “I see you guys sharing that toy”
- “Wow, great job taking turns”
- “I love how you guys are playing together”
For every time you catch them fighting, catch them playing nicely together three to five more times.
Encourage children to tell you when siblings share a toy or demonstrate kindness, then make a big deal out of the positive actions of both children.
Teach them to tell not be a tell-tale
Children should tell you if someone is about to get hurt. If no-one is being hurt, encourage them to try and work it out by yourselves. If they have something to tell you, they should tell you calmly.
If it simply becomes a he-said-she-said situation, you can get the children to recognise that they are both upset and then apologise to each other for making each other upset.
Make a plan
Often adults get caught unawares and are not sure how to respond to conflict. A plan can help. If there are squabbles over who rides in the front seat of the car, the rules might be:
2 adults – always go in front
Child 1 – in front on even days
Child 2 – in front on odd days
If you need children to share one toy, use a timer to set limits for each. Be realistic, if a computer game takes 20 minutes to finish, don’t cut short at 15!
Each child should choose a small number of toys they do not want shared. Mark the toys with stickers or put them in a specific box which should only be accessed by the right child.
Remove the problem
If a toy cannot be shared, and the children cannot agree, take it away for a fixed period of time (say 3 minutes) then return it. This allows the children time to work out a way to negotiate. Keep removing the toy until they can sort it - this may take some time!
The following resources were used to develop this page: