Sibling conflict is as old as Cain and Abel, as legendary as Cinderella and her stepsisters and can be as deadly as the daughters of King Lear. Parents should know the battles are inevitable and must prepare their kids to defuse potentially ugly situations. And there will be times when parents must come to a child’s defense and say, “We are family, and we will not say anything that doesn’t build up one another. We will respect each other.”
Use these tips for encouraging kindness in the home:
Teach mutual respect. Do not allow your children to insult one another. Words are extremely powerful, and snide comments can damage deeply. Experts say every negative comment needs at least five positive remarks to even out. Teach your children to be kind and to appreciate each other.
Do not play favorites. In Genesis, we see the damage done by Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph. Remember that all children are created equal, but not all children are the same. Recognize and praise each child’s individual skills, strengths and accomplishments without implying that one child is somehow better.
Teach conflict-management. Do not deny your child’s feelings, but help him learn to express emotions in an appropriate way. If you see your child acting jealously, encourage him identify the emotion by saying, “I understand that you feel bad because…” or “I know you hurt because.…” Helping your children figure out the causes of their actions will help them learn how to deal with problems in the future.
Do not ignore good behavior. To attention-starved kids, negative attention is simply attention. Notice your children playing nicely together and reward them with praise. Be sure each child receives adequate parental interest and quality time.
Show appreciation for who your child is, not what he does. When a child feels valuable merely for his performance, he will feel the need to prove his worth. Instead, praise your child for his God-given traits such as compassion or a tender heart. By fostering their self-esteem, children can learn to respect themselves and others.
Most parents realize children imitate what they see, so look at the example you set. Do you compete with your siblings? Or do you consistently show kindness to your brothers and sisters? By checking your actions, you can be better prepared to show your children how to emerge the best of friends following the inevitability of a little sibling conflict.
When Siblings Engage in Combat
A number of factors may contribute to sibling combat.
In some families the nonstop bickering and pummeling that goes on between children is enough to cause mothers and fathers to want to turn in their resignation from parenthood. And it’s particularly exasperating when the parents have not modeled antagonistic or harsh behavior. Where does all this awful hostility come from? Where did we go wrong?
A number of factors may contribute to sibling combat. Recognizing them and working to reduce their impact can go a long way toward maintaining peace in your home.
Desire for parental attention
If there is more than one child in the nest there may be some serious concerns about (and competition for) a parent’s attention. Ironically, in some cases children may instigate a fight merely to get an adult involved with them — even when the consequences are unpleasant.
But even if the attention-seeking behavior is annoying, the basic questions are the same: Who cares about me? Am I significant to anyone? Does what I think or do really matter?
To avoid endless guilt, acknowledge that you can’t be all things to one child, let alone many. Nevertheless, amid all the basic responsibilities of daily living, maintaining a home, generating income, and pursuing church, educational, or community projects, some time and energy must be available for individual attention to each child on a regular basis.
If your schedule is particularly busy, set a regular “date” with each child, during which he will have your undivided attention. It doesn’t need to be elaborate; a walk in the park or an outing for an ice-cream cone can be a memorable occasion.
When two children first meet, comparisons are immediate and normal: Who is older, bigger, and faster? What toys does one have that the other doesn’t? These questions may be minor points of interest that do not affect a budding friendship, or they may prove to be a source of major conflict.
Within the close quarters of a family, comparisons between children will be daily and may become a source of ongoing friction. Parents of more than one child will regularly have to recognize and praise each child’s unique skills, strengths, and accomplishments — without implying that one sibling is somehow better than another.
Whatever you do, avoid negative comparisons such as “Why can’t you throw a ball like your brother?” or “You’ll go a lot farther in life if you buckle down to your schoolwork like your sister does!” These kinds of comments are virtually guaranteed to stir resentment.
Invasion of privacy
No child appreciates having his possessions pawed through, broken, strewn on the floor, or taken to places unknown. Help an older child safeguard his belongings when there is a toddler on the loose, perhaps by:
- providing closet or shelf space for him that is inaccessible to the younger child
- keeping the older child’s bedroom door closed
- limiting the range of the toddler’s explorations
Caution your children about becoming overly attached to and emotional about their possessions. But also instill in them a healthy respect for the possessions of others, especially within your own home.
Older children can be merciless in their physical and emotional torment of younger siblings, and parents must be prepared to intervene when this type of behavior is going on.
But sometimes younger children can harass and irritate older siblings, and they should not be given free rein to do so simply because they are smaller.
“He did it!” and “She started it!” are common “not guilty” pleas of siblings who are asked to account for a mess, a broken toy (or window), or a fight. Many times you will have to sort out who did what to whom, and at times you will need the wisdom of Solomon to dispense justice in the face of conflicting testimony or inconclusive evidence.
While children may fervently seek to escape punishment, they care desperately about fairness. Don’t play favorites. The fact that one child is normally more compliant than another doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of instigating wrongdoing.
In addition to your efforts to minimize these hot spots for sibling rivalry, here are a few more general principles to keep in mind:
- Don’t get pulled into every conflict. Sometimes children will start an uproar in a misguided attempt to gain adult attention. Ignoring their efforts will reduce the odds of a repeat performance. Even if that isn’t their motivation, in some situations it’s reasonable to give children a chance to sort out their own conflicts.
- Don’t let conflicts get out of hand. If the children are not arriving at an appropriate solution, if someone is being bullied, or if insults (or fists) are flying, call a time-out for tempers to cool down.
- Repeatedly teach the principle of mutual respect and its implications. Just as marital conflicts must be settled within a framework of mutual respect, so also must disagreements between children. This is the basis for curbing insults and not allowing arguments to escalate into physical combat.
- Administer disciplinary measures privately. The embarrassment of being disciplined in front of other people — especially other children who may secretly take pleasure in watching the punishment — is both painful and counterproductive and more likely to lead to resentment than improved behavior.
- Discourage tattling. If one child tells you about the misdeeds of another, the second child’s behavior must be dealt with, assuming that the story is true.
But if the first child seems smug or gleeful while reporting to you what his sibling did, or if he appears to gloat over the other child’s discipline, he needs to be reprimanded too. The issue isn’t that he reported the wrongdoing; at times such information may prevent an accident or injury. What you want to discourage is the attitude of tattling that derives satisfaction or pleasure from another’s “crime and punishment.”
- Remember that “this too will surely pass.” It is often difficult to believe that children who have squabbled so intensely for so many years can actually have civilized relationships later in life. Yet in the vast majority of cases, a child’s passage into adolescence and adulthood ends sibling warfare and replaces it with pleasant camaraderie, deepening friendship, and (most surprisingly) fervent loyalty.
Taming the Tattletale
Remind your children that their relationships with one another will last longer than with anyone else in the world.
“Christopher’s not letting me play with the ball!” “Sarah’s calling me names!” “Tommy won’t let me in the bathroom!” Sound familiar?
Tattling reigns as one of the most common behavior problems among siblings. Unfortunately, it is overlooked rather than dealt with properly in many homes.
Parents often pardon rather than correct the tattler simply because they do not know how to deal with the issue. While some parents are frustrated with their inability to control the problem, others try to rationalize their decision to avoid correction.
“After all,” reasons one parent, “if my child is doing something he ought not do, why does it matter how I find out?”
Another parent says, “If one of my children has been wronged by his sibling, I would rather he come tell me than to fight back.”
While these are reasonable arguments for not correcting the tattler, they overlook the damaging effects that tattling has on sibling relationships.
Tattling is typically motivated by one sibling taking pleasure in the other sibling’s suffering, which ultimately creates an atmosphere of opposition and conflict. Siblings who are committed to getting one another in trouble will wedge a thorn of distrust in their relationship, disrupting the harmony of the whole family.
Parents can tame the tattletale and cultivate peace and unity among siblings by following these four steps:
- Help the tattler understand his motivation. Parents can teach the tattler how to discern matters of his own heart by asking thought-provoking questions. Use questions that will cause the tattler to take his attention off what someone else has done wrong and instead think about his own wrong motives.
Sample Questions: “Sweetheart, could it be that you are taking pleasure in getting your brother in trouble?” “What are you hoping will happen to your brother as a result of your tattling?”
Benefit: By teaching the tattler to determine his own motives, you are teaching him how to “think through” his actions, which will enhance his ability to make good decisions.
Every so often, a child might have a good motive for tattling. A child should come directly to the parent to tell about a sibling’s wrongdoing if the offender is:not heeding encouragement, endangering himself or someone else or destroying property
- Help the tattler understand the damaging effects of tale-bearing. Remind your children that their relationships with one another will last longer than with anyone else in the world. More than likely, they will be friends long before they meet their marriage partners and long after their parents are gone.
Therefore, it is important that they nurture their friendship. Encourage them to be best friends and to seek every opportunity to develop a bond of closeness. Explain how tale-bearing divides friends.
Sample Questions: “Honey, how do you think your brother/sister feels when you tattle?” “Will tattling bring you closer to your brother/sister or tear you apart?”
Benefit: Directing attention to the importance of their friendship helps them to see past one another’s wrong doings and develops an attitude of unity.
- Help the tattler replace tattling with encouragement. It is not enough to reprimand your child for tattling. You must teach the tattler how to replace wrong behavior with right behavior.
Sample Questions: “Rather than tattling, what could you have said to encourage your brother?” “When you encourage your brother/sister rather than tattling, how do you think that makes him/her feel?”
Benefit: Teaching your child how to replace wrong behavior with right behavior helps him to grow in wisdom for daily life.
- Teach the tattler to practice what he has learned. Training is more effective when your child is required to put his knowledge into practice immediately. The training will stick better when the child uses it in a hands-on situation. Have the tattler act out the right alternative to his wrong behavior.
Role-Play: Lead both children back to the scene of the crime. Allow them to re-enact what happened. Require the tattler to encourage his or her sibling to do what is right. Require the sibling to heed the encouragement and thank his or her brother/sister.
Benefit: Role-playing causes your child to put the verbal training into practice, equipping him to respond better to similar situations in the future.
Children learn by repetition. Be willing to work with your children over and over. On those tiresome days, when you become weary from taking the time to teach them, remember Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Stop Sibling Conflict
By working with our kids, we can keep sibling conflict from escalating and keep peace on the family horizon.
We as parents can help ward off sibling conflict. Focusing on the positive in each of our kids, not comparing them, and helping them develop skills at which they can be “the best” are just three ways.
But there will still be times when our kids will decide that the smell of a good fight is just too intoxicating to pass up. It is in that arena that we must act as referees. We may have to simply separate them and send them to separate corners. But how can we keep them out of the ring?
Help Your Kids Develop Friendships With Each Other
Since it’s more satisfying to throw a punch at an enemy than a friend, try to strengthen the friendships between your kids. Sometimes at dinner, we’ll go around the table and say one positive thing about each family member-something we’ve noticed about him or her that is particularly attractive, maybe a strength or a gift. The idea is to take the time to intentionally build one another up in love.
You can also teach your kids to demonstrate their love for their siblings by praying for them. If I’m putting Clancy to bed, and Tucker’s been a real bother of a brother all day, I’ll say, “Why don’t you pray for Tucker tonight? He had a really hard day.” Prayer keeps things in perspective and fosters love for the other person.
At the same time, look for opportunities in which your children can serve each other. For example, if I’m busy and I notice one of my kids is struggling to do something or is calling for me, I may suggest, “Haven, can you go help your little sister?” Afterward I’ll affirm her, letting her know what a sweet big sister she is.
You can also encourage loving relationships between your kids by helping them to focus on the long-term. Tell your children about one of the best friends you had as a child, and describe all the fun things you did together. Then tell them how long it’s been since you’ve seen or talked to that friend. Point out to them that friends are great, but family is forever.
Ask your kids this: Would you rather invest all your energy in watering and tending a flower that, while beautiful, lasts only a season? Or would you want to spend more of your time cultivating a tree that will grow throughout your entire life, one that can bring you joy during your childhood and shade in your old age?
Strategies to Defuse Sibling Conflict
In this “Toolbox” section, I’ve come up with several strategies to foster healthy, happy sibling relationships. By working with our kids, we can help keep sibling conflict from escalating into nuclear war-and keep peace on the family horizon.
- I’ve noticed a couple of tiny “mommies” and a diminutive “daddy” running around our house. They show up long enough to reprimand the others about behavior that is not permissible. But they tend to speak in rather sharp tones. Sometimes I’ll say to a miniature parent: “Are you Haven’s mommy? You’re sounding like you are, so would you please prepare her lunch today?” (You can, of course, substitute any chore that you as the mom or dad would normally do.)
- When my children were little and Tucker would take one of Haven’s toys without asking, I would allow Haven to go into Tucker’s bedroom and pick out any toy she wanted to play with for the day.
- If one of my girls breaks the other’s toy, the other girl is allowed to choose any of her sister’s toys to replace the broken one.
- Things got so crazy one day with fighting at our house that I made the kids go a whole day without the benefit of one another’s company. The next morning, from the moment they woke up, they weren’t allowed to talk, eat, or play with each other or have school in the same room. By the next day, they were so desperate to be together that they called a truce.
- If your children get into a high-decibel argument, transfer it to the backyard. Make each child stand at opposite ends of the yard. Then have them yell, “I love you!” back and forth 20 times. This releases some of the pent-up anger, and it’s a lot better than some of the other words they maybe tempted to yell. After this, allow them to continue the argument, if they choose, but with no more yelling. Nine times out of 10, all the energy is diffused and the disagreement is forgotten.
- Isn’t it amazing how two children can tell entirely different stories about the same event? When this happens, I restrict them to the same room until they can come up with one version of the story. This forces them to think about the events that actually occurred, and each child is motivated to confess her “sin” in order to be released from the deliberation room.
- If you overhear your children arguing, step close enough to let them know you’re listening. Say that you will give them a few more minutes to work it out on their own. If they aren’t able to do this, however, you will work the problem out for them, and it probably won’t be fun for either child.
- If your kids are quarreling, say loudly enough for them to hear, “I hope I’m not hearing bickering and fussing.” This should stop them immediately, since they know your theory: Children fuss because they don’t have enough to do; fighting children should be put to work!
- I issue a $1 fine to an older sibling who is tormenting or playing too roughly with a younger one. What really makes this hurt is that I make him or her pay the fine to the younger sibling, not to me.
- It is my responsibility to create a peaceful environment for my family; I don’t like having conflict in the house. If my kids are bickering, I’ll often explain this to my children. If they are unable to cooperate with one another, they must play in the backyard, whether it’s 30 degrees or 100 degrees outside. Of course, on those kinds of days, they seem to be able to work things out more quickly.
- Do you ever feel as if you are scolding your children all day long for bickering? Wouldn’t you rather sing their praises all day? Try this. Instead of reprimanding the one who’s causing the strife, encourage the child or children who are playing without arguing. Children enjoy being noticed and singled out for good behavior. Perhaps the reward of Mother’s praise will be enough to keep the peace.
Teaching Children to Be Peacemakers
Here are 12 principles you can teach your children to help them resolve conflicts among themselves or with their friends.
You can teach your children how to resolve conflicts among themselves or with their friends and other people they know. Imagine how much better life could be for you and them.
Here are 12 key principles that young peacemakers need to learn:
1. Conflict is a slippery slope. Some children try to escape from a conflict, while others try to solve it by going on the attack. Few naturally try to work it out.
Escape Responses: These responses are used to get away from a conflict instead of trying to resolve it. They delay healing.
- Denial — Pretending that a conflict does not exist or refusing to do what we can to work it out
- Blame Game — Blaming others for the problem, pretending we did nothing wrong, covering up what we did, lying
- Run Away — Prolonging the problem by running away from the other person
Attack Responses: These are wrong attempts to win a fight rather than resolve it. They damage a relationship further rather than repairing it.
- Put Downs — Attacking others with harsh and cruel words, stirring up anger in others
- Gossip — Talking about others behind their backs
- Fight — Using physical force to get our way
Work-It-Out Responses: These are the only good ways to respond to a conflict.
- Overlook an Offense — Dealing with an offense yourself by simply deciding to forgive a wrong
- Talk-It-Out — Going directly to the other person to talk out your disagreements
- Get Help — Asking a parent or teacher to help you decide how to handle the conflict you are involved in
2. Conflict starts in the heart. The choices we make to get our own way are deliberate. We decide whether to be obedient or disobedient, wise or foolish, caring or unloving.
3. Choices have consequences. For good or bad, the choices we make will affect us and others. Conflict is often the consequence of a choice we have made.
4. Wise-way choices are better than my-way choices. Selfishness is not smart and will not lead to happiness. The wise way is to obey authority, make right choices, seek godly advice and respect others.
5. The blame game makes conflict worse. It doesn’t work to point the finger at someone else, cover up one’s own bad choices or make excuses.
6. Conflict is an opportunity. By handling it right we get a chance to glorify God, serve others and become better people.
Conflict is not necessarily bad or destructive. Even when conflict is caused by wrong-doing and causes a great deal of stress, it can lead to good. You can use conflict to:
- Glorify God (by trusting, obeying, and imitating him)
- Serve other people (by helping to bear their burdens or by confronting them in love)
- Grow to be like Christ (by confessing wrong and turning from attitudes that promote conflict)
These concepts are totally overlooked in most conflicts because people naturally focus on escaping from the situation or overcoming their opponent
Therefore, it is wise to step back from a conflict and ask yourself whether you are doing all you can to take advantage of these special opportunities.
7. The “Five A’s” can resolve conflict. These simple steps will almost always lead to peace.
Children, like adults, can learn to confess their wrongs in a way that demonstrates they are taking full responsibility for their part in a conflict.
- Admit what you did wrong. Include both wrong desires and bad choices.
- Apologize for how your choice affected the other person. Express the sorrow you feel.
- Accept the consequences for your wrongdoing without argument or excuses.
- Ask for forgiveness.
- Alter your choice in the future. Think over and plan how you are going to act differently next time.
8. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. By forgiving someone, we are making four promises.
False Ideas about Forgiveness
- You need to feel like forgiving before you can really forgive. (Wrong. It’s a choice you make, not a feeling.)
- Forgiveness means forgetting about what someone did to hurt you.
- Forgiveness excuses the other person’s sin.
- Forgiveness depends on getting a guarantee that someone won’t do the same wrong thing again.
Four Promises of Forgiveness
- I promise I will not dwell on what you did wrong. I will think good thoughts about you and do good for you.
- I promise I will not bring up this situation and use it against you.
- I promise I will not talk to others about what you did.
- I promise I will be friends with you again.
9. It is never too late to start doing what’s right. You can always stop doing wrong, then think about a better way and plan how to pursue it.
10. Think before you speak. Or before you act. Or before you confront someone.
11. Respectful communication is more likely to be heard. This includes the words we speak, our tone of voice and our body language (making eye contact and avoiding bad gestures, facial expressions or posture).
12. A respectful appeal can prevent conflict. Learn how to make one.
- Stop yourself from choosing to say or do something that will cause conflict.
- Think about why you want to appeal and about what words to use.
- Appeal (Ask): Using “I” messages and questions, communicate your appeal in a respectful way.
- Respond respectfully whether the other person answers yes or no.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources for handling sibling rivalry
Popular questions on this topic:
- My children are always fighting; how do we handle sibling rivalry?
- Our toddler is having a hard time adjusting to our new baby. How can we help ease to transition for our firstborn?
- Our older sons pick on and tease their brother.
- Does the middle child really have greater adaptive problems than his or her siblings?
- Peacemaking for Families
- Resolving Family Conflict I-II
- Creative Correction
- Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry (Paperback)