Sibling Rivalry: When “Figure it out” just isn’t working…

By Laura Stephens, M.S.
Limited Licensed Psychologist

The kids are fighting…again.  What is this the 8th disagreement so far today?!  SIGH, let me put down my already cold cup of coffee and get up to intervene before someone gets hurt.  Why can’t they just get along?  I’m so sick of the fighting!

Sound familiar?

If you have more than one child, you’re bound to have some sibling disagreements, especially given the Governor’s COVID-19 stay at home order.   Especially with younger children, disagreements between siblings are very common and hoping that they “just figure it out on their own” is like handing your 12-year old the keys to your new convertible and telling them to “figure it out!”

Really scary, potentially dangerous and not very effective!

Let’s start with what happens before the screaming match starts.  There are a handful of things that well-meaning parents may inadvertently do that actually create more friction between siblings:

  1. Avoid pitting siblings against each other, even for “fun competition”. Games like “Let’s see who can be quiet the longest” or “Let’s see who will be the first to get themselves dressed” can provide some motivation, however the problem is, there is always a loser. The winner/loser mentality can start to cause friction between siblings.
  2. Avoid comparing your children with each other, comments like “Your sister started riding without training wheels at 5 years-old” or “Your brother really loved playing soccer, I’m sure you will too” might sound trivial, but comparison breeds competition for, you guessed it, your attention! This goes for labels as well, calling one child athletic or smart can lead the other child to interpret your comment as they must not have those same characteristics and may breed resentment.
  3. Avoid punishing or scolding one child in front of another. This type of conversation should take place between the parent and child and should be done in private to avoid the child from feeling shame or embarrassment in front of their siblings.  These feelings can lead to increased anger or resentment towards their siblings.
  4. Avoid unintentionally assigning children “victim” and “aggressor” roles. These only perpetuates the problem and causes children to fill those roles. We do this by assuming the oldest (aggressor) is always at fault and rescuing the youngest (victim). The youngest may quickly catch on to the fact that they get lots of attention by playing the victim (even if they actually started the conflict in the first place) so they continue to engage the older one just so they can get more attention.

Don’t panic here are a few things that parents can do proactively, before the screaming match even starts, that can really help!

  1. Model calm, appropriate and respectful problem-solving skills for your children.Do as I say and not as I do doesn’t work!  If you want your children to speak to you and to each other in a clam and respectful manner they need to see this behavior modeled consistently.
  2. Ensure that you have “Special Time” with each child on a regular basis. This kind of uninterrupted attention from a parent can go a long way in ensuring that siblings aren’t fighting in order to gain their parent’s attention.  Special time is:
    1. A child-directed activity of a minimum of 15-30 minutes without directions or questions from the parent. Let your child choose and lead an activity that they enjoy (within reason of course) and enjoy it with them!
    2. Something that happens consistently!  It’s so important to protect this special time with your child this teaches your child that you can be trusted to follow through with what you say.
  3. Respect alone time- Children should have a private space in the house that they can take a break from their siblings and engage in solitary play. As parents we can help siblings learn to respect their sibling’s need for some alone time.
  4. Respect special things- Learning to take turns and share is a critical social skill for children of all ages but just like adults, children have some things that are special to them and they should not be forced to share these things before they are ready to do so. Allowing children time with their special item during solitary play will reduce friction between the siblings.
  5. Catch them being good! This may sound like common sense but when you really stop and think about it when was the last time you gave your children specific praise about how they were interacting with each other?
  6. Institute “House Rules”. Have your children help you design some guidelines for how you want to live as a family, post these in a well-trafficked area of the home and most importantly discuss WHY this is important.  For example, “We are a family who takes care of each other” or “Home is our happy place”.  The specific guidelines you choose will depend on your family’s goals and the age of your children but here are some general examples that may be applicable:
  • During a disagreement when one person is talking the others listen without interrupting.
  • Any kind of physical aggression, name-calling or personal insults about someone’s physical appearance will earn X. *Be very specific about the consequence and time commitment-E.g., no screen time for the rest of the day or doing the siblings chores for the week.             
  • Institute a policy that for every negative thing said about a sibling, the person saying it will have to find 3 positive things to say.
  • If anyone is fighting over a toy, that toy goes into time-out. There will be no conversation and no questions asked. Nothing is more important than the relationship between family members!
  • Institute a borrowing protocol in which the child who borrows something from a sibling must put up collateral—a possession that will be returned only when the borrowed item is returned.

It may seem like a lot to take in so just start by choosing 1 or 2 to implement this week and see how that feels.  Are you noticing fewer disagreements?  Are you feeling calmer and more in control?  Great, that’s progress!  Keep it up!

Laura Stephens, M.S. is a staff therapist at Child and Family Solutions Center. She works with children, teens and adults. She is conducting teletherapy with her clients and is accepting new referrals. She can be reached at 248-851-5437 and