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Dear Cathi: Sibling Rivalry Blues

Dear Cathi,

Before I had children, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about sibling rivalry. I myself have an older brother and a younger sister, and I don’t remember us fighting all that much. Sure, we would argue and bicker sometimes, but I never saw it as anything besides normal. So, when I had two children, John (11) and Colleen (6), I wasn’t at all concerned about them getting along. I figured they’d fuss at each other every once in a while. I would ignore them, and we’d all go about our business as a family.

How could I be so wrong about their relationship? They are constantly fighting. From sunrise to sunset, they try to find every possible way to make each other miserable. John teases and criticizes Colleen incessantly. And Colleen vacillates between provoking and crying and screaming in response to him. I’ve tried not to let it get to me, but I find myself yelling at them both to stop continuously. The stress level in the family is getting so high that it’s almost impossible to actually enjoy any time together. What can I do? I’m really at my wit’s end.


Amy G. (A parent who’s pulling her hair out!)

Dear Amy,
You’ve heard it all from the experts. “Through sibling rivalry, children practice and hone their conflict resolution skills.”  “When kids fight, they learn necessary social skills.” “Don’t worry. They outgrow it and will become best of friends.” May be true. Doesn’t really help in the here and now though, does it?

When my kids bicker and argue, I can ignore them for a while, distracting myself with housework or cooking, even humming old show tunes. As the sibling wars continue, however, my resolve begins to melt as my tried-and-true thought-blocking skills wane. Screaming thoughts creep into my brain. “Why don’t you leave your sister alone?” “How can you be so mean?” “Both of you, go to time-out for the rest of the week!” The internal dialogue grows increasingly loud until the sounds of their cries, shrieks, and wails reach nails on a chalkboard dimension. Need I say more? I feel your pain.

Sibling rivalry is one of parenting’s toughest challenges. We all know from our own experiences that our siblings can have a profound effect on our early lives, and these feelings about ourselves can well persist into adulthood. As parents, we want the impact our children have on each other to be only positive. We hope with all our hearts that our children will become trusted, supportive, loving allies on the road of life.

Sometimes I’m successful on the sibling rivalry front; sometimes not. Here are some strategies that I use that help:

1. Stay cool (on the outside). As difficult as it may be, you must remain calm. If you begin shouting when your children are screaming at each other, the tense atmosphere at home escalates exponentially. If you feel like you might lose your cool, take a self-imposed time-out in another room until you can react to the fighting in a more pragmatic manner. (Sometimes I hide in the bathroom. The door locks.)

2. Accept your child’s feelings. Sometimes children say hurtful things in the heat of the moment: “I wish he was never born!” “I hate you!” “Why can’t we get rid of her?” It’s tempting for a parent to want to squash these unpleasantries. “That’s ridiculous!” “Oh, just ignore him.” “Don’t be silly. We can’t get rid of her!” Try instead to acknowledge your child’s feelings. When a child feels heard, he/she is more likely to calm down. “I know you get very angry with him sometimes.” “When she did that, you must have been mad!” “You must be so frustrated!”

3. Avoid comparisons and labels. Although they can be fertile ground for learning many lessons, sibling relationships can also be prime ground for hurtful comparisons. Don’t compare siblings, even if your children want to. Refrain from using the words “always” and “never.” These labels pigeonhole children into rigid unhealthy roles that are hard to escape from.

4. Treat your children as individuals. One of the hardest myths for children (and parents) to overcome is that siblings can be treated equally. Instead of falling into the trap of trying to make everything equal between your children, focus on each of your children’s unique needs. If your child says, “You bought her a coat, but you didn’t buy me one.” Try asking, “Do you need a new coat? I thought your coat still fits you.”

5. Pay attention to the injured party. Children want attention from their parents in any way they can get it. They don’t care if it’s positive or negative. When one sibling appears outright mean to another, it is tempting to reproach the offender. Try instead to focus on the child who is hurt (physically or emotionally). You will be surprised how quickly paying attention to the injured party extinguishes bad behavior on the other sibling’s part.

6. Spend more time focusing on positives than negatives. Make your disciplinary statements short and sweet. Focus on the positive interactions between siblings whenever possible. “I am so happy when I see the two of you getting along so nicely.”

7. Have confidence that your children can work it out together. Unless one of your children is in danger of getting physically hurt, allow your children to figure it out. Give yourself permission to go into another room to distance yourself from the commotion.

8. Schedule family meetings. Family meetings are a wonderful way to help your child learn conflict- resolution skills. Choose a consistent time each week to meet as a family. Have each person say something encouraging about each family member. After all the positive feelings have been shared, allow each person to gripe about one family member. Encourage positive language and tone of voice. Brainstorm solutions to each problem as a family.

Amy, I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you. Remember: There is no such thing as a “perfect” parent. We all strive to understand and care for our children in the best way that we know how.



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