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In many homes, sibling conflict tops the list of parenting challenges. It can be among the most intense, frequent, and seemingly difficult patterns to improve. As therapists, we hear moms and dads express not only frustration and helplessness but also profound sadness that their kids don’t get along. They had envisioned a different kind of family than the one emerging in their homes.
The great news is that sibling issues give your kids a chance to practice invaluable life skills. How you help your kids navigate difficult moments with each other will have an impact on their relationships for the rest of their lives.
What Causes Sibling Conflict and Rivalry?
Siblings have conflicts for many reasons — and some of these are “good” and healthy. For example:
- Siblings feel secure enough with each other to work out issues of control, leadership, identity, and communicating their needs and feelings.
- Home is a safe place to let big feelings show and to conduct experiments in social dynamics and cause and effect. (“If I say this, what will her reaction be?” “How far can I push this before she snaps?”)
- When siblings fight, they’re showing their parents that they have a need for guidance, clear rules, family meetings, and more.
- Big feelings about ownership, territory, and whose turn it is are expected among siblings.
- Children go through developmentally normal stages of a very “right or wrong,” rigid, or black-and-white understanding of rules and fairness, which causes friction.
- Conflicts arise based on misunderstandings, often due to age differences.
- Siblings get attention from their parents when they have conflicts.
- Siblings can feel they need to compete for their parents’ attention.
- One sibling, often the younger one, wants the attention and company of an older sibling but doesn’t know how to get it.
Our clients often have an aha moment or breathe a sigh of relief when we talk about this list, and most of them can add at least one or two more to it. Recently, a mom started to cry during this discussion as she talked about her two sons. Her older son had always been antagonistic toward the younger one. With his friends, he seemed to have endless patience, but with his younger brother, he had zero. Everything irritated him, and he scorned, teased, and judged every word that came out of the little one’s mouth. It was so painful for the mother to hear, and the more she tried to put a lid on it, the worse it got. One day he tripped his little brother and seemed to enjoy seeing him fall down and get hurt. In a fury, the mother took away electronics for a week. This seemed to make him even angrier at his little brother.
We asked her what she was thinking about during our discussion, and she said that she’d never really tried to look at this from her older son’s perspective. Now that she was, she had a few guesses as to what fueled his resentment toward his brother: The little brother needed more help from Mom and Dad because he was younger, he was accomplished in sports, and he often got more attention from visitors and family because he had a happy-go-lucky, easygoing nature. The mother also speculated that, among his friends, her older son was not necessarily a leader, and he might be trying to flex those dominant muscles with his younger sibling.
She didn’t have a perfect answer, but she didn’t need one. She was thinking beneath the surface, and with that mindset, slowly the tone in the house changed. She came in one day with an accomplishment. There had been a very bad blowup in which her son had slammed the door on his little brother’s arm. She would have normally yelled, interrogated, and punished her son, but she did not. After making sure her younger one’s arm was okay, she took an incredibly long breath, steadied herself, and went into the older one’s room. He was on his bed balled up in a fit of rage, so she sat down on the floor, under his level. She put a hand on his back and stroked him for a minute to let him know she was not there to yell. He started to cry.
“I hate him.”
“He made you furious,” said Mom.
He kept crying, and she gave him more time, paraphrasing what he said instead of correcting or fixing. Eventually he got to something closer to the core of the problem, “No one likes me,” he said. This made his mom’s heart sink, but she held herself back from trying to talk him out of it. “I understand that feeling,” she told him.
Over time, her son was able to talk about being different than his brother, and his mom understood he felt a little threatened by a younger, cuter, more endearing sibling. All of this made him more receptive to hearing the family’s rules about hitting and his aggression toward his brother went down.
Sibling Conflict First Step: Attune
After making sure siblings are physically safe, your first step is to attune to both children and also help them attune to each other. This is not a one-time trick in which you can expect your children to gush with understanding for each other instantly. It’s a practice and a way of being that builds their awareness of and connection to each other over time.
Attune Tool #1: Let Them Be Mad or Sad, and Love Each Other, Too
One of our best tools as parents is to let siblings have intense and complicated feelings toward each other. If you try to put a lid on these feelings, they will come out in other ways, like resentment, competition, detachment, physical behaviors, and more. Acknowledge emotions as real, and passing, like the waves in a storm:
“I hate him! He’s the meanest brother in the world. I wish he wasn’t my brother.” What could you say to a child who says this about her sibling?
(Instead of) Oh, don’t say that. You love him. He’s your brother! You’ll see.
(Say) You sound absolutely furious at him right now.
Sometimes you want him to just go away. He hurt your feelings really badly.
Parents are often hesitant to do this, but if you let the “negative” feelings be okay, they will eventually pass. Woven into those feelings of anger and fury at a sibling are also feelings of love. If you let the anger run its course, the love and enjoyment will surface again.
Attune Tool #2: Should You Intervene?
If siblings are in conflict, pause and see if this is a moment for you to intervene or not. If they are mildly bickering, let them be. If you always impose solutions, one or both kids can end up feeling resentful, and they don’t get a chance to work it out on their own. Notice the signs that you are needed: Are voices getting louder and more rigid? Is one child yelling louder because the other is not listening? Is one child (or both) tired, hungry, or overstimulated? Resolving conflicts takes a well of patience, and when kids are running low on it, they’re more likely to need us to step in.
If you hear things starting to go south, poke your head in with preemptive attunement:
(Instead of) Hey, hey, hey, settle down in here. I don’t want to hear any more of this.
(Say) Do you guys need some help figuring things out? Can you give me some information about what’s happening?
Attune Tool #3: Say What You See—The Sportscaster
The sportscaster is one of the best techniques you can use to help siblings. The sportscaster observes without judgment and says what is happening, giving the “play-by-play.” Do not take sides, find blame, or try to shut down communication. Let’s imagine you hear voices rising in the other room, and you open the door to find one daughter looking confused and guilty, while the other one is screaming, “Take my sweater off. You always do this!”
(Instead of) If I have to tell you one more time! Why did you take her clothes again?
(Say) Okay, Emma, you’re really angry. Natalie, you’re wearing Emma’s sweater, and you look like you’re not sure what to do next.
After they’ve told you what’s happened, repeat it back without solving it for them,
So, Natalie, you’re saying you really wanted to wear it, and you thought if you asked, she’d say no. It seemed better just to do it. Emma, you love that sweater and worry it will get dirty. I see. I get why this was a tough one. Am I missing anything?
If you start this way, your kids can begin to hear each other and work out a solution. Try to paraphrase for them before jumping in with your own ideas. See if they can problem solve on their own.
Attune Tool #4: Show Equal Empathy, Even to the “Perpetrator”
This may be one of the trickiest parts of helping siblings resolve conflicts: to see the “victim” and the “perpetrator” each with equal kindness and curiosity. The one who, in a traditional sense, would be labeled the perpetrator is sometimes the one who needs your empathy and guidance the most. It doesn’t mean you will excuse misbehavior or breaking rules.
“I get so mad at Aiden for provoking and teasing his sister that I yell at him and send him to time-out constantly — he’s out of control!” A mom shared this with us on the topic of siblings. As we talked, she realized, first of all, that she didn’t intervene early enough — she was hoping they would work it out and left it too long before helping. But she also realized that Aiden needed more empathy, not more punishments. Yelling at him was making it worse — giving him the reputation of the “difficult” one, making him feel resentful and more likely to act out toward his sister.
One afternoon, she heard her daughter start to whine miserably. She poked her head in to watch and saw that Aiden was having a grand old time teasing her about her braces, and he seemed to enjoy seeing her eyes well up with tears. She remembered what it was like to be teased herself. She instantly felt angry and wanted to yell, “Hey, go to your room right now. That is not okay! Time-out!” Instead, she got closer to them and said, Aiden, your sister looks pretty sad about whatever it is you’re saying to her. She squatted down between them and put a hand on both of them. Can you tell me what’s happening? Aiden seemed unremorseful, which irritated the mother. But she also knew she hadn’t seen him all day and realized this “bad behavior” was the reason for their first real conversation. We don’t name-call because that hurts people’s feelings. I know I’ve been on the computer since you guys got home from school…I’m wondering if you’re missing our time when we hang out together and have a snack?
It turned out she was right. Aiden needed a moment of downtime with his mom after not seeing her all day. The rest of the afternoon, she didn’t hear him provoke his sister at all. By intervening sooner, she helped Aiden understand himself better. He learned that he didn’t need to “act out” his feelings — he could ask for what he needed directly. Having his sister witness all of this also helped her have more empathy for what was really going on with him.
Attune Tool #5: Help Your Kids Attune to Each Other
This is a hugely valuable skill to teach your kids. Eventually, it will become their “go-to” way of dealing with difficult moments. Help each of the siblings see the issue from the other’s perspective. Ask questions that point them toward empathy for the other.
I can see she’s having some feelings about this. What do you think is going on?
Why do you think he did that?
Can you tell her what you’re thinking about right now?
He looks sad — I wonder why. Do you know?
Tell her how that made you feel.
Can you ask him to please listen to how you feel?
When you attune first before setting a limit and problem-solving, siblings begin to hear each other. You see that over time the tone becomes more open and less defensive. Now you have a better starting place for resolving conflicts and growing closer.
From Now Say This by Heather Turgeon, MFT, and Julie Wright, MFT, to be published on May 29, 2018 by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Heather Turgeon, MFT, and Julie Wright, MFT.