Prevent Fighting: Sibling Rivalry

Laura Markham's picture

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Most parents rank kids' fighting with each other as the parenting issue that most bothers them, and that they feel least able to prevent.

Many experts advise parents to let kids work out their own battles. I agree with them to a certain point, because intervening as the judge actually causes more fighting. It's almost impossible to figure out who "started" a conflict, and which provocations led to which retaliations. If you take sides, you increase the resentments.

However, I have also seen many situations in which the kids did not work it out. Instead, one child was bullying another and was allowed to get away with it. I would not allow that kind of behavior, obviously, and would intervene as actively as necessary to prevent it. Every child has the right to be safe in his own home.

All kids fight, and all kids need to learn social skills for handling conflict, which is an important part of their EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient.

  1. Don't ever compare your kids to each other or to any other child.

  2. Do give lots of individual attention. Kids who feel loved and accepted for who they are will be less likely to fight.

  3. Do intervene to keep kids occupied before they get bored and a fight erupts. Give attention BEFORE they fight.

  4. Do make sure your kids each get enough personal space. If they share a room, see if there is a way to change that. If not, paint a line down the middle of the floor, and set the furniture up to define two separate spaces.

  5. Keep tired and hungry kids away from each other and avoid situations that create fights. For instance, separate kids in the car as much as possible. If they do have to sit in adjacent seats, give them separate tape players or IPODs and an incentive reward ("If you two can cooperate and maintain a peaceful atmosphere during our trip, we have a special treat to eat during the last half hour of the drive.")

  6. Don't give your older child responsibility for the younger one. Don't make her "watch" him or play with him. If she tries to enforce family rules say "Thanks, Sweetheart. I'm glad you know the family rules and are so good at following them, but it's the parents' job to be in charge."

  7. Teach your kids basic negotiation and problem-solving skills guided by the concept of win/win: Taking turns, Dividing a treat (one person does the dividing, the other picks the first piece), Trading, Sweetening the deal ("We play your game first and then my game for longer").

  8. Enforce standards of respect in your home: "We don't call people names or tolerate meanness in this house. We treat each other with respect." Agree as a family on specific consequences for yelling, name calling, unkind remarks, and other disrespectful behavior. I recommend the "Repair" consequence in which the "disrespector" having to do a favor for the "victim" because it makes clear that the relationship has been damaged and the "disrespector" must take action to repair it. However, this only works when a parent has observed the interaction and can mediate the consequence. It doesn't usually work for fighting, because both people were involved and it isn't clearly a case where one person disrespected the other.

  9. Make the kids partners in avoiding fights with each other by setting up a Cooperation jar and putting a coin in it every time you observe one child being nice to the other. Take a coin out whenever the kids fight. (If they express feelings in an appropriate, respectful way, they gain coins, especially since that is so hard for kids.) The kids get to decide (together) how to spend the money.

  10. Set a good example. That means treating everyone, including your kids, respectfully. No fuming because someone cuts you off in traffic, no demeaning asides about your spouse, no yelling at the kids.

  11. Never physically punish your kids. In fact, stay away from any kind of yelling, threatening or retaliatory punishment, which teaches kids that coercion is a way of getting what you want. Studies show that kids who are punished are more angry, more likely to fight with each other, and more likely to repeat misbehaviors. Instead, use positive discipline. (See my website: Positive Discipline strengthens your relationship with your kids so they want to behave, and sets a good example of how to handle anger.

  12. Empathize with your kids' feelings about each other, but set definite limits on their actions. Kids are entitled to their feelings, which have a way of just showing up in human beings, like our arms and legs. But all humans, even little ones, should be held responsible for what they do with their arms and legs and feelings. "When your brother messes with your things you get really angry. You can tell him how it makes you feel in words. We don't hit." "You wish you could stay up a half an hour later, like your sister. When you're in third grade, you'll be able to also. In the meantime, you can tell me if you're jealous of your sister, but you can't mess up her room."

  13. Our job as parents is to teach our kids healthy self-management techniques, which can be a challenge if we never learned them ourselves. Sometime when they're calm, make a game out of working with your kids on a list of healthy ways to handle anger. "Play the drums." "Write in your journal about how angry you are." "Dig a hole in the back yard and bury your angries." "Breathe and count backwards from 10." "Get a grownup." Be clear in that discussion that hitting, scratching, and pinching are never appropriate things to do to other people. Post the list on the fridge, and refer to it when you're mad, in front of them, to model using it.

  14. Labeling emotion is the first step in managing it. As you go through daily life, notice your kids' emotions and comment non-judgmentally on them. "It's so frustrating when you work hard on something it collapses like that. No wonder you're angry." "I wonder if you were jealous when you friend went off with that other child." Don't feel like you need to solve their problems or talk them out of their feelings, just acknowledge them so they will too.

  15. Teach your kids that anger is a reaction to hurt or fear. When you see this in action, point it out. Acknowledging the underlying feelings is always more effective to diffuse anger than simply labeling the anger, which just seems to reinforce it. "I hear you're very angry at Jimmy. I wonder if you're hurt that he told you your idea was stupid."

    This is even more important when kids say "I hate her!" because hate is not a feeling; it's a stance. "You feel so angry at your sister right now that you feel like you hate her. Sometimes when we are very, very angry, we feel that way, even toward people we love. Let's go tell your sister how hurt you are that she pushed you off the swing, and how angry that makes you feel."

  16. Cultivate empathy in your kids. Comment on other kids' feelings: "Look at Michael. He's crying. I think you hurt his feelings." "That little girl is sure mad. I wonder why?" "Neela hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?" Most important, offer your kids empathy for their own feelings, which is the foundation of their developing empathy for each other.

  17. Brainstorm with your kids how to diffuse anger in others to resolve conflicts peacefully: "Acknowledge their point of view." "Express your needs without attacking them." "Stay respectful." "Stay in the current issue, don't bring up past conflicts."

  18. If your older child is hurting your younger one, talk with her privately about what is making her so angry. Is she afraid that the younger sibling is loved more? Or does she just want to win, and the consequences for hitting her sibling have so far not dissuaded her? Reflect her feelings and empathize with her, but also remind her that she is older, and just as older kids get extra privileges like staying up later, they also have the extra responsibility of never, ever hitting a younger kid. Point out that she can call you if she needs your assistance, and tell her that you expect her to control her emotions, use her words, and not resort to physical violence.

  19. Model conflict resolution with your spouse and other adults, as well as your kids. Contrary to popular myth, "fighting" never works things out constructively. Instead, take a "cool-off" period and then come back determined to stay calm, acknowledge the other person's view, express your own needs, and talk things out.

  20. Work to create an atmosphere of appreciation in your house. Every night at dinner, have each person find at least one specific thing to "appreciate" about each other person: "I appreciate that Jillian helped me with my homework." "I appreciate that Mommy played my game with me." "I appreciate that Daddy made my favorite dinner." "I appreciate that Danny didn't bother us when my friends came over to play."

  21. Remember they're kids. Just because she punches her brother doesn't mean she'll be an axe-murderer. It's important not to permit bad behavior toward others, but that doesn't mean you don't offer understanding -- and the confidence that your child will learn. "All kids get mad at their siblings sometimes. It will be easier, as you get older, to remember how to control yourself when you get mad, so you can work things out." She needs to hear from you that she isn't a bad person, just young.

Intervening in Fighting

Stay Calm. Research shows that one of the most important things parents can do to help kids learn to manage their emotions is to stay calm themselves. Kids need to experience their parents as a "holding environment" -- a safe harbor in the storm of their turbulent feelings. If you can stay calm and soothe your children, they will eventually learn to stay calm themselves, which is the first step in learning to manage their feelings.

Don't take sides or worry about who started the fight. Treat them the same when you intervene.

Say "The rule in our house is that we treat each other with kindness and respect. I hear screaming and hurting. That is not respectful, and it isn't allowed. Can you two work this out now, or do you need time to cool off?"

If they beg to continue to play, warn them that if you have to intervene again, they will be separated for a "cool-off" period.

If either child is obviously upset, separate them. Some moms send them to their rooms, but many kids have a hard time with that kind of banishment. My preference is to send them to separate parts of the room you're in, with their backs to each other, with books. At the very least, they calm down and practice their reading.

If they beg to be together during this time, say: "We all need 15 minutes to calm down. When you get mad, your body gets ready to fight or run, and we need to let our bodies calm down so we're ready to work things out. After this cool off period, once we have a peaceful house again, you two will be ready to work this out respectfully."

If someone is actually hurt, attend to their wounds with empathy ("Ouch, that must hurt.") but don't pass judgment on who was wrong. Resist the impulse to angrily attack the aggressor, just ignore her. If you are in private, for instance putting on a bandaid in the bathroom, it is fine to let the wounded child blow off steam and empathize "She really hurt your feelings, and your body. You are pretty angry."

If one or both kids is too mad to sit calmly during the cool-off period, you can let him or her use an alternative method -- away from the sibling -- of working out his or her anger: "I know you're mad, but we don't hit. Use your words. You can use this marker and paper and draw me a picture of how mad you are. You can go in the bathroom and shut the door and scream about how mad you are. You can throw pillows at the couch as hard as you want. But no hitting and no hurting."

Once every one is calm, call the kids together. Tell them that they have already lost a coin from the cooperation jar by fighting, but you will need to take another coin out of the jar unless they can talk civilly and agree on how they will avoid a fight next time. Encourage them to take turns listening to each other's feelings and suggestions. Let them talk and work it out, and then come to you with a description of what happened ("We wanted to play different games") and a plan for what they will do differently next time ("We will flip a coin" or "We'll play each game for half an hour.") Teach empathy by asking each child how he thinks his sibling felt during the fight. Give them hugs if they actually work it out together. If they can't, help them get to a resolution.

Dr. Laura Markham


Wow, am I glad I found your blog. This one blog post alone is more chock full of advice than 10 other blogs combined.

I have four kids (11, 9 and 4 year old twins). Do you have any specific advice when it comes to settling battles between twins (or managing them generally). They are together virtually the entire day (and sleep in two beds pushed together), and it's difficult for us to find time to give them individual attention (i.e. time spent with only one).

Also, you mention not giving an older sibling responsibility over a younger one. I assume when the age gap is large enough (11 vs 4) this advice is relaxed? Pretty soon our oldest will be babysitting the twins, and will by definition have responsibility over them.

Thanks for the reminder in keeping emotions in check when around the kids (road rage):) It's amazing how keenly aware they are when something upsets me.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking article.

Andrew Rogers