Within families, sibling rivalry can start before the second child is born and can last a lifetime.

It is important for parents to diffuse rivalry when possible through intervention and praise.

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The cause of the conflict

The first step towards solving the issue of sibling fights is to find the cause of the fights. Younger children might fight over a certain toy that they both want to play with at the same time. Or you might find that a fight breaks out when you are preparing to visit a specific friend or relative. You may notice that your children start to argue because one is sitting “too close” to the other. There are many reasons that children might fight, but many of these may be surface-level and have deeper reasons behind them. The fights between your children may have something to do with how you react to them.

Parental intervention as cause

Parents and caregivers often end up feeling as though they do nothing but break up fights between siblings. This can often make them upset and angry, further inflaming the situation. If you find yourself acting as a referee in the same fights, then it is likely that the obvious “cause” of the fight is not the only issue. Perhaps your children seem to argue over certain toys when left alone for a long. This could mean that they are seeking attention from a parent and have subconsciously realized that fighting will mean they receive attention. If children do not receive enough positive attention, negative attention is a good stand-in. When you quickly become involved in sibling conflicts, you may build a behavior pattern that will continue to erupt.

How to step in

Learning how to prevent and handle sibling fights can be difficult in any family – and it is easy for parents to fall into a pattern of refereeing. However, this is also a natural part of children growing and discovering their place in their family and the wider world. The social and behavioral skills they learn through interacting with their siblings will help them to understand friendships and relationships.

For guardians, it is important to see this challenge as an opportunity. This is the ideal time to teach your children about conflict resolution, problem-solving, and working with others to achieve positive outcomes. To make these moments teachable, it is a good idea to step in before the fight becomes too emotional (before anyone begins crying) and to separate your children if necessary. Doing this gives them time to cool down and get into a better headspace to communicate while also giving them a moment to breathe and keep their cool. By remaining in control of your emotions, you can avoid saying things that can cause worse issues, such as comparing your children’s behavior (telling an older child they should “know better,” for example).

The importance of praise

While you will need to intervene in fights, it is also vital to build positive relationships to prevent fights from occurring. This is where praise is important. Negative behavior patterns can be mitigated by praising and recognizing when your children are playing well together. If they are cooperating and behaving well, praise them for doing so. Doing this can help them recognize that collaborating will result in positive attention, and they do not need to seek negative attention.

You can do this overtly by saying, “It’s so great how you’re taking turns,” or “Isn’t it so fun to play together?” Praise positive communication and behavior such as sharing to ingrain this further.

Disability and sibling relationships

Physical disabilities and building positive relationships.

Suppose your children constantly fight over wanting to play with the same toys. Set up a schedule they can use. This can be a physical timer and chart that you can point to, encouraging sharing and structured play. If they still cannot share, removing the toy and the cause of this particular conflict is okay. However, you should only remove the item for a short period and use this as space for them to calm down and discuss the issue more deeply.

Another common way that siblings fight is when they “tell on” each other. This is generally for negative actions – they will come to you with complaints of not sharing or being mean. While it’s not bad for children to be honest about their experiences with one another, encourage them also to share positive moments. Your children can also “tell on” their siblings for doing something nice – like sharing, complimenting them, or being kind. By strongly encouraging this positive tattling, you can build up the cycle of positive interaction and positive praise.

Keep communicating

As you build positive strategies into your parenting, you should make sure that you focus on communication. This can have two layers if you put plans to ease and work through sibling fights, ensuring that other caregivers, parents, and guardians are also aware of this. This is the best way to ensure that children are receiving consistent messages from the adults around them.

You can also improve your communication with your children. Older siblings especially can be given their coping strategies for responding in times of conflict. If a sibling hits them or behaves poorly towards them, you can help them know how to respond calmly rather than striking back. This can be as simple as them coming to talk to you or another adult, knowing that you will be able to handle the situation with them. Building this trust with your child can also be invaluable in spotting the difference between sibling fights and potentially damaging. To foster a more positive sibling relationship and build up coping strategies for fights, you need to address the root cause of these fights and work through them with your children. This can lead to a more harmonious household now and a better sibling bond for life.