Coffee cup in hand as you watch from afar admiring your children playing a peaceful game of house. But then, all of the sudden your son turns into the incredible Hulk and smashes the tea party your daughter had set for them. Insert sibling quarrel.
Sibling rivalry is common among households with more than one child, and the news that parents everywhere who are trying to mediate the madness long to hear is finally in: the behavior is normal, healthy and useful.
Experts say that sibling rivalry can nurture emotional intelligence, boost social skills, and that children can learn complex lessons about communication, problem-solving, impulse control, and conflict resolution. Further, sibling disagreements can be constructive in preparing children for relationships and motivating them to find their own niches in which to explore.
Dr. Claire Hughes, author of Social Understanding and Social Lives, says, “The more children upset each other, the more they learn about regulating their emotions and how they can affect the emotions of others. I don’t want to be that woman who says it’s good if your children argue, but parents might take some sort of comfort in the discovery that, when their children are fighting, they will learn valuable life skills that they will take outside of the home.”
Why Do Siblings Argue?
Most siblings experience some degree of jealousy, competition, and desire for parent approval and connection, and this can flare into squabbles and bickering. But other factors also might influence how often kids argue and how severe those fights become. These include:
1. Evolving social-emotional development
Toddlers lack the words and neurological development to calmly state their wants and needs, which causes more tantruming, whining, yelling, and hitting, especially directed at the siblings closest to them. Older children are still fine-tuning regulation. They may impulsively spar off in the heat of their emotion, confuse their frustration or fear for anger, and struggle to see a perspective different from their own, inflaming sibling quarrels.
2. Birth order
Birth order affects personality, temperament, and a child’s role in their family environment. Here are a few ways birth order can affect sibling rivalry:
- Siblings closer in age may argue more often than those further apart.
- First-born children often feel a shift as a new sibling arrives and their focal position in the family changes. This can lead to feelings of inferiority, jealousy, or more.
- Middle-born children may feel that they do not get the same privileges or attention as older or younger children, and may respond in ways to feel more secure.
- Because their siblings have already learned how to walk, talk, ride a bike, or throw a ball, last-born children may develop a “nothing I do matters” mentality, fueling comparison and resentment between siblings.
Children of the same gender may share more of the same interests but they may also be more likely to compete against one another.
4. Role models
Children often copycat the behaviors they see from their parents. So, if you find that you and your spouse handle your disagreements through shutting down, calling names, or slamming doors, your children will create pathways for these behaviors during their own conflicts. If, however, you demonstrate how to respectfully disagree and come to solutions, then your children will likely adopt these tactics, too.
Parents Can Add Water Or Gasoline To Sibling Rivalry
How parents respond to their children’s disputes can either diffuse or inflame the situation, much like adding water or gasoline to a fire.
Here are some common things parents do that fan the flame:
When parents consistently interject themselves into their children’s quarrels, children focus less on problem-solving to work things out on their own and begin to rely more on being “saved” by the parent. When parents stay out of low-level fights, children are afforded the opportunity to think for themselves and build skills of conflict resolution, communication, and more.
2. Choose sides
Choosing sides ignores the simple fact that it takes two to tango … or, in this instance, argue. When we make one child “right” and another child “wrong”, we gaslight one child’s feelings and perspective. This may lead to resentment toward one another, and towards the parent. Instead, put your children in the same boat, and work towards skill-building.
3. Compare and label
When we say that one child is the “athletic one”, the “smart one”, the “wild child” or the “sweet one”, we inadvertently draw comparisons between our children. For example, if referring to one child as “the smart one”, their sibling may receive the message that they must then be the “less smart one”. This can lead to feelings of bitterness, insecurity, and not-enoughness. When we drop the labels and comparisons and praise effort and attributes such as persistence, determination, and teamwork, we give our children a chance to be authentically themselves without competing for parent’s approval.
Here are some tools parents can use to help diffuse the flame:
1. Offer individual Genuine Encounter Moments
Find small ways to connect with your children individually in ways that speak their love language and that are unique to them. This helps your children feel seen and heard - separate from their siblings - and allows you to join them in their world. As children feel safe and connected, they become more responsive and less reactive.
2. Host weekly family meetings
Use this time for family connection. Whether watching a movie, going for a hike, or cooking together, this sets the tone for a peaceful experience in which your kids can spend time together and bond. These meetings may also be helpful in setting a foundation of family agreements and boundaries and offers a safe place for all members of the family to share feelings and actively listen to one another.
3. Practice self-control
To have more power as a parent during sibling rivalry, notice your energy during your children’s quarrels. Are you calm and able to coach? Are you triggered and wanting to control the situation? Are you more invested in the outcome than your kids? Not only is it helpful to teach about the emotions via play during non-contentious times, but also to model emotional regulation during charged moments, too.
The 4 Colors Of Sibling Rivalry, And Guidelines For Parents
1. Green Light Fight (bickering or light confrontation): Remain uninvolved. Model that you are the guide by the side and not the judge and jury, so they will stop turning outward during points of contention and learn to work it out.
2. Yellow Light Fight (volume escalating, mild physical contact): Supervise, acknowledge anger, and mirror what each child is saying. “I see two kiddos who are at odds about the TV. Let me hear from both of you about what is going on.” Listen and express your faith in their ability to work out the situation.
3. Orange Light Fight (more serious): Come in with boundaries. Get clear on if their fighting is real or in play, and pause to review family agreements and help with conflict resolution.
4. Red Light Fight(escalating towards emotional and physical harm): Firmly stop and manage the situation. Describe what you see without judgment, and separate if needed. “I see two boys arguing over the remote. Let’s take a break before we go further.” If one child is hurt, tend to them first and then help both children get into their body by taking a Time-In so they can process the situation together or between themselves.
For younger children, such as toddlers, parents may intervene more quickly as they teach the skills of regulation. Because younger children have a smaller vocabulary, often fewer words are more, especially when the child is dysregulated. Regardless of age, help children feel safe and connected. This will help their brain shift. When they are in a clear frame of mind, then you can revisit what happened, how they feel, and tools for the future.
At the end of the day, sibling rivalry has real benefits and is a healthy process in teaching children foundational skills for future relationships. As parents stay neutral, calm, and supportive, their children will recognize that while emotions are fleeting, love is always there.