Why siblings fight and what you can do about it

There are many things that get us frustrated as parents but sibling rivalry has been voted the number one most annoying feature of family life. Kids seem to be able to fight over anything – who gets the front seat, who gets to go through a door first, who picks the movie to watch, who gets to hold the remote while they are watching it.

Read more

Sibling rivalry often shows up between ‘steps’ in blended families and it often brings major pressure on new relationships.

Why do siblings fight?

1. They believe they aren’t going to get their needs met

If children believe they aren’t going to get their needs met, they are going to do something about it with nagging, whining, and demanding behaviour. If they believe their siblings are rivals for the things they want, they will campaign against them. Of course you’re not going to allow any of your children to be deprived, but their immature logic might lead them to believe it is happening.

2. They’re fighting over you

Even though they may seem to be fighting over toys or treats, what they could be fighting over is you! They want you to confirm that they are significant and to intervene and prove your love for them by deciding the squabble in their favour.

Evidence? You drop your kids off at a friend’s house for a while, and when you pick them up later, your friend says, “They were little angels.” “No, they weren’t!”, you want to protest. But your friend is right – they probably were lovely and compliant – because you weren’t there.

3. It’s a stage

Children go through stages when they clash and when they get on well. Keep a firm standard of respect, kindness and learning to get on.

Things to try

No favourites

It is very natural to have preferences. You have a favourite fragrance, a favourite ice cream, a favourite car and if you have more than one child, it is very likely that one of your children is more compliant and easier to like – your favourite.

There are few things as toxic to a child’s heart, or more likely to fuel rivalry, than believing their parents favour one child over another. Let them know that just because you love another child very, very much, it in no way reduces the amount of love you have for them. You can love them differently, but you love no child more than any other.

Cope before you conquer

Long before you conquer sibling rivalry (if you ever do), you can be coping with it. One of the best techniques is simply to separate them. If kids are irritating each other, maybe everyone will enjoy some time apart.

The key to coping is having family rules in place that are real limits to aggressive, unpleasant behaviour. Boundaries won’t fix the underlying rivalry, but it does mean that they know that hitting, abuse or damaging property is absolutely unacceptable. This helps prevent the rivalry escalating. “We don’t speak like that in this home. Each of you cool off in your rooms for five minutes, and then I want to hear how you can sort this out.”

Have special times with each child

It’s not known how much time a child actually needs from a parent, but a child will probably be content if they know they will be getting some special, one-on-one, focused attention from their parent in the foreseeable future. They won’t resent you taking time to pacify their baby brother if they have been assured that tonight you are going to read them a story.

They will be satisfied with the idea that your time and attention has to be divided between other brothers and sisters (and work and chores and study and a dozen other things) if they know that their name is on the calendar for a mum or dad date – a fun time with just one child and a parent.

You don’t have to intervene every time

Remember, sometimes sibling rivalry happens because they know it draws you in and gets your attention. We don’t have to jump every time our kids snap their fingers or be at their beck and call. Our own boundaries and authority need to be respected.

If there is hitting, abuse, or bullying going on then rush to intervene, but if they are managing to express their disagreement to each other in a way which is not too unpleasant or aggressive, let it run for a while. You can even do some coaching. “Good to hear you trying to sort this out. Let your brother have his say and then you can have yours.” Instead of sorting them out, establish the ground rules – “No hitting, no insults. Stick to the issue.”

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.