Behavior & Discipline

How to Know When Sibling Rivalry Goes Too Far

Source: Kindel Media / Pexels
Source: Kindel Media / Pexels

We’ve all been there. You’re finally enjoying a moment of peace when you hear it coming from the playroom: the unmistakable sound of the kids fighting again.

Mothers wear many hats, including personal chef, homework coach, therapist, chauffeur, and cheerleader. However, what many of us didn’t expect to spend so much time on is refereeing our children’s squabbles. 

I relate deeply to this. My younger son is finally at the age where he can play with his older brother, which delights my older one–except when it doesn’t. I’m lucky to have ten minutes of them playing together before a fight breaks out.

It’s natural for siblings to fight, of course. One study observed sibling conflict might happen up to eight times an hour. But while we know on a logical level that some degree of conflict is normal, how do we know when it’s too much? 


One study observed sibling conflict might happen up to eight times an hour.


My worries when my kids are fighting span from, “Can Legos be used as a weapon?” to “Are they going to hate each other when they grow up?” But my primary concern when they’re at each other’s throats is, “How am I supposed to handle this situation to ensure my kids need the least amount of therapy when they’re older?”

Luckily I’m not alone in my concerns. Early childhood specialist and parenting coach, Yasmin Dorrian, works with caregivers on a wide range of issues, including sibling rivalry. (Full disclosure: I have worked with Yasmin as a client.) So, I asked her to help me navigate the tricky waters of sibling conflict.


When to intervene in sibling conflict

Dorrian advises that when siblings begin to squabble, the answer is almost always to ignore it. “If possible, remove yourself from the immediate vicinity and find something else to do,” she said. “This way, you’re not rewarding negative behavior, and you’re giving them some time to figure things out for themselves.” 

I’m definitely guilty of intervening early and often. It’s a hard habit to break. But how do we know when we should step in? “If things take a turn and become physical or otherwise dangerous, then it is time to intervene,” said Dorrian. “However, in my experience, caregivers do this way too early in the disagreement and way too often. Really pause before entering the situation to determine if you are needed.”



How to step in if you need to

Dorrian reminds us when intervening, “Your job is to calm the chaos.” She recommends modeling a calm demeanor and separating the siblings if safety is an immediate issue. Then, when everyone is in a more stable place, you can ask them to discuss what happened. 

She cautioned that your role in the aftermath of a conflict is not to dole out justice. Placing judgment or taking sides won’t help. Instead, it can backfire and reinforce negative behavior patterns.


How to help your kids develop their own conflict resolution tools

One creative solution I loved was Dorrian’s suggestion to let kids role-play conflict resolution with their toys. “Ask them to help you find a solution when Batman and Wonder Woman both want to play with the Legos,” she said. “Can they take turns? Can they find a way to play together? Can they split up the Legos?” If they are struggling to find a solution, you can suggest some yourself and assist them in finding a working solution.


She cautioned that your role in the aftermath of a conflict is not to dole out justice. Placing judgment or taking sides won’t help. Instead, it can backfire and reinforce negative behavior patterns.


She also reminded us that kids do as they see. So, if you feel like you can’t model the calm way you want your kids to behave, it’s OK to say, “I’m really frustrated right now. I’m going to take a few deep breaths and see if I can calm down before we talk.”


What if it’s always the same child instigating the conflict?

Dorrian said if one child consistently engages in difficult social behavior, it’s usually because of some disconnection they’re experiencing. She advises caregivers in this situation to “get really curious” about the behavior. “Is there a pattern to it? Does it happen at the same time every day? Does it tend to happen when the child is hungry? Tired?”

She recommended making time to connect with the child who seems to be instigating. “Even five minutes of special time with a caregiver can make a world of difference for a child that is feeling disconnected. Make this time child-centered. Let them decide what they would like to do. Put down the phone, get on the floor and give them your undivided attention.”


siblings wrestle

Source: Cottonbro | Pexels


The importance of not labeling our kids

As parents, we have opinions on our kids’ strengths and weaknesses. But Dorrian reminds us that how we treat, describe, and even think about our kids can have an enormous impact on sibling relationships. “We tend to label our children,” she said. “He’s the sensitive one. She’s the athletic one. He’s the talker.” But labels can create division, and the identity we place on our children can become their sense of self. 

“For example,” Dorrian said, “If my sister is the smart one, I’m left to believe I’m the dumb one. If my brother is a talker, then I’m quiet. The value placed on these identifying markers can create animosity and result in some pretty intense sibling rivalry.”


When sibling rivalry becomes something more destructive

Although some sibling conflict is normal, Dorrian warned, “If difficult interactions between siblings become emotionally or physically abusive, it’s time to intervene in a larger way. Working with a parent coach or a family therapist would be a good place to start.”

She also reinforced the need for parents to give children the tools to communicate clearly and fight fairly. “Encourage and model using ‘I feel’ statements,” she advised. “Have clear family agreements around what behaviors will not be tolerated. Create plenty of space for connection and praise the behavior you’re wanting to see.”


The other night I was making dinner when I heard shouting from upstairs where the kids were playing. Instinctively, I started to race up the stairs. But then I stopped. And in a minute, the shouting did too. When I went up 15 minutes later to tell them dinner was ready, they were sitting side by side building with Magna-Tiles.

Lesson learned. Sometimes it’s worth asking an expert.

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