Conflict and Competition Between Siblings

Siblings fight. They compete, they argue and they love each other too. In fact, siblings often have complicated relationships. Unfortunately, parents cannot control how siblings will feel about each other, much as they wish that they could. Just like kids hate to see their parents fighting, parents hate to see their kids fighting; everyone’s ideal is a home filled with harmony and love. Although it’s not practical to expect perfection, parents can certainly do their best to help foster a civil, respectful and even caring relationship between siblings.

To help minimize conflict and encourage a cooperative and pleasant family atmosphere, consider the following tips:

It’s Normal for Kids to Fight
Kids are not born mature. They are likely to fight over toys, clothing and other belongings, as well as property and space. Fighting involves yelling, name-calling, pushing, grabbing and other aggressive or unpleasant communication strategies. It’s up to parents to gradually teach kids to express themselves in more civilized and polite ways: speak in a normal tone of voice, use normal language, ask for what you want, negotiate respectfully. Expect kids to fight and expect to have to TEACH them how to resolve conflict respectfully.

Teach in a Teaching Moment
Provide education only when everyone is calm. Have a curriculum and present it in “teaching moments” – times when you and the kids are not upset or roused up. When the kids are fighting, your first goal is to end the fight. Break them up, send them to different rooms, ask them to calm down. When they’re feeling a bit better, help them resolve the particular issue they’ve been fighting about. Later that day or even the next day, sit them down to teach them how to resolve conflict. Choose a time when everyone is alert but calm – right after a meal for example.

Give Them a Strategy
Lay down the rules: no name-calling, no violence, no rough stuff. Yes normal tone of voice, yes listening to each other, yes asking for what you want.

Offer a strategy for stopping a fight in mid-air. For instance, if one child is yelling or name-calling, show how the other one can help turn the volume back down to normal by speaking calmly and slowly in response instead of responding in the same hostile and emotionally volatile way. Show that them that each child has the power to determine the “flavor” of the communication – each one has the power to set the tone.

When they’re calm enough, they can begin the problem-solving process. Teach the kids to take turns listening to each other’s point of view. Teach them to negotiate – work out a deal that brings some benefit to each of them (i.e yes you can use the computer now if you give me 15 extra minutes later tonight). You might look at some negotiating books yourself in order to get some good ideas for the kids. If they’re old enough, ask them to read up on negotiating skills and then discuss what they’re learning at the dinner table each night for a couple of weeks. It can be a fun discussion for everyone. You can also look at marriage books to get ideas, since you are likely to find rules for fair fighting and constructive negotiating in those books as well.

Be sure to let them know that if they get stuck in their problem-solving attempts, they can call parents for assistance.

Encourage and Carry Through
After teaching children how to negotiate and cooperate, you can reinforce positive sibling behaviors using the CLeaR Method (for details, see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). The letters C, L, and R stand for comment, label and reward. When you see the kids getting along, working out details, sharing nicely and engaging in other desirable sibling behaviors, make sure to comment on this. “You guys figured that out really nicely,” “I like the way you two are playing together,” “You spoke in a very respectful way – good for you!” Tell them what KIND of behavior they did, using a label: “That was very cooperative/respectful/patient” and so on. Once in awhile, actually reward the behavior: “I think you both deserve an extra story at bedtime for that.”

Use positive attention only for the first while after you’ve taught the kids how to get along. However, if fighting is still going on after some time, use discipline as well, in the form of the 2X-Rule (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice). Tell the kids that name-calling, hitting, yelling and other unacceptable behaviors will be penalized with a negative consequence each time they occur. You don’t care WHY they occurred – you’ll look into that AFTER the consequence is finished. Your rule will be “there is no excuse or justifiable reason for abusive behavior in this house.” After the consequence has been given, you can certainly sit down with the kids to see what went wrong with their negotiations and try to improve your protocols so that the problem can be avoided in the future. For instance, maybe you forgot to include instructions as to what to do when a sibling starts getting physical. Add in the new considerations (i.e. call Mommy or Daddy/leave the room quickly/call for help).

Be a Role Model
Show them how mature people resolve disputes! Don’t let your kids see, hear or discover that you and your spouse are fighting destructively. They are likely to copy your style. Instead, disagree respectfully and negotiate fairly. Show your kids what you want them to do in similar situations.

Celebrate Each Child
When each child in the family feels seen, loved and appreciated, there tends to be a little less sibling conflict. Highlight the special qualities of each child out loud, helping the whole family to recognize the special strengths of each member. Try calling the kids by the family last name to reinforce positive group identity (i.e. “Calling all little Goldhars for dinner!”).

Teach Your Kids to Support Each Other
When a child has succeeded in some undertaking, encourage the whole family to celebrate (“Let’s all take Ginger out for dinner for getting that great mark on her difficult science test!”). When every child benefits from the other child’s success, competition is reduced. Instead each one is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of the other. “How about making a card for your brother to tell him how proud you are of his winning team!”

In addition, when a child is in need of support, encourage the others to give it. “Cindy isn’t feeling well. Would you like to make her some cookies to cheer her up?” “Brian is feeling sad after losing the game; would you like to cheer him up with a game of chess?”

Although it’s not fully within the control of parents to determine how siblings get along, parents can encourage, teach and facilitate skills for healthy sibling relationships.

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