Managing Fights Between Your Young Siblings

Sibling rivalry is a common phenomenon in which brothers and sisters vie for primacy in the eyes of their parents to attain security and wellbeing. Parents find their children’s fights, arguments and hostility needless and disturbing. How can parents effectively reduce the frequency of these distressing behaviors of their youngsters and use them as teaching opportunities.

In 1941 David Levy coined the term “Sibling Rivalry”. He stated, “The aggressive response to a new baby is so typical that it is safe to say that it is a common feature of family life.”

The demand for attention, priority and instant need fulfillment that youngsters exhibit is innately programmed in humans’ instincts for survival and self-preservation. In nature, the more responsive adult primates are to their young, the more likely their offspring are to survive. This biological propensity to ensure one’s advantage also propels the young ones to fight for their standing.

The oldest child often has the strongest need to preserve his/her primacy with the parents. A bright young two and a half year old I know asked her parents, ” What is wrong with me that you had to have my sister?” Though additional children are more accustomed to having brothers or sisters, they are still vigilant about receiving the benefits of equal attention from their parents. The “injustice of unfairness” is deeply rooted in siblings as they regularly seek to ascertain their equal standing in the family.

When siblings fight, most parents respond with reprimanding both children for aggressive or hurtful behavior and attempt to instruct them in the proper behavior at times of conflict. Some parents separate the feuding pair and may even highlight that there are many other toys they can share. The instruction may defuse the momentary conflict and abort further escalation of hostilities but does not prevent the next dispute.

Since most sibling fights about toys, privileges or “injustices” are not about their wish for a toy, their turn or reward, it is wise for parents to use this feud as an opportunity to deal with their children’s feelings, hurts and perceptions of injustice.

The most important message a parent should deliver to each child is that he/she is worthy, his/her need is valid and the frustration is understandable. Then teach them how to negotiate a solution that is satisfactory to both. This reduces some of each child’s need for future “tests” of the parent’s love quotient.

Manage your children’s feuds:

  • Accept that most children’s fights are about their worthiness and about testing your love, not about the toy or privilege.
  • Abstain from siding with either child’s position, even with the one who was wronged.
  • Validate each child’s good nature. Say, “I am surprised that a kind child like you would choose to hit his sister.”
  • Solicit their solution for a future conflict and have them recite what they would do differently next time.
  • Equalize the “consequences” of fighting, as you teach them to take turns and share.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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