No matter how much effort you may put into creating a peaceful family environment, siblings argue with each other – a lot. Fortunately, these disputes are a healthy, perfectly normal part of childhood, and actually provide kids with problem-solving opportunities and life lessons. The problem isn't so much the fighting itself, but how parents choose to handle it.
Can't we all just get along?
Kids fight for a variety of reasons – frustration, jealousy, power struggles, attention – all of which are completely valid. Stephanie Lowe Sagebiel, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at CenterPoint Counseling, explains, "not only is fighting among siblings inevitable, it's an important contribution to child development in teaching children how to function in the world."
The home often becomes a hot spot for arguments because children feel safe and comfortable expressing their emotions with the people they know best. "Siblings provide the first lesson in how to behave in groups in the outside world," says Sagebiel. "Siblings teach each other how to share, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, manage intense emotions and cope with the unfairness in life."
Eileen S., a mom of three from Indianapolis, says her kids (ages 11, 8, and 20 months) typically argue over choices – whose turn it is to pick a restaurant, what Wii game to play or even who gets to sit by their baby sister. "Both the older kids have developed a very clear sense of what they believe 'fair' to mean," Eileen says. "They are extremely sensitive to how my husband and I each interact with their siblings – always on the lookout for preferential treatment."
While fighting with brothers and sisters is normal, it's important for parents to recognize when hurtful words and behaviors cross the line. Arguments that become physically or verbally violent should be immediately addressed. Parents should be on the lookout for arguments that increase in intensity or frequency as well. Families should establish a set of "fighting fair" rules. Sagebiel says, "There should be a set of common guidelines within the family to make the playing field more fair and balanced for kids."
Once an argument has escalated, Dr. Carrie Caldwell, public education coordinator at Indiana Psychological Association, says parents should take a multi-step approach for addressing the situation:
1. Keep your cool. "Children imitate how they see parents respond to situations," says Caldwell.
2. Create a pause. More effective problem solving can occur if emotions can subside and children are calm.
3. Teach children problem-solving skills. Talk about solutions, rather than assigning blame.
4. Treat siblings as a unit. "When siblings are responded to as a unit, it decreases the focus on blaming and shifts the focus to figuring out a solution together," says Caldwell.
5. Utilize a "rewind." Once everyone is calm, have kids verbalize and behaviorally rehearse a more effective resolution.
By following a set approach to handling arguments, Caldwell says parents are giving their kids the tools to successfully handle disagreements in the future.
While arguments between siblings are to be expected, there are several things parents can do to minimize occurrences.
With younger kids, parents may notice certain times of the day (naptimes, mealtimes) or specific scenarios (sharing toys, screen time) when their kids are more apt to argue. In these cases, parents can intervene by making an activity or toy "off limits" at a certain time, and ensuring that children are well rested before possible stressful situations.
Older kids often begin to develop their own definitions of what is "fair," which can create tension within the household. Sagebiel says that parents should respond to each child based upon their own needs, strengths and personalities, and avoid making comparisons between kids.
For Eileen, managing sibling feuds is a work in progress, but she tries to remember these arguments are not indicative of "bad" kids or "bad" Parenting. And from her own experience with her siblings, she says it's comforting to know that "intense rivalry as children doesn't necessarily spell doom for adult sibling relationships!"