Stop Sibling Conflict

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Angelic images of smiling siblings make crowd-pleasing holiday cards, but the reality of life with two or more children is decidedly less picture-perfect. According to research from University of Toronto, toddler-age siblings clash more than six times per hour; sibs under 7 fight, on average, every 20 minutes. And fights that get physical can leave lasting physical and emotional scars. If sibling fighting is stealing the peace in your household, read on for relief.

Early Years

Family Court

Research shows that conflict between young siblings is statistically normal, but regular bouts of biting, hitting and kicking aren’t. Parents should intervene when clashes between toddler-age siblings becomes violent, per the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Though kids as young as 3 may be able to talk though minor disagreements that crop up during play (“I had it first!), they nearly always require guidance from a caregiver to navigate more heated exchanges and physical fights. Start by separating the scuffling sibs with a statement like “We never hit.” Once children have calmed down, ask them to explain what happened, assuring each child that they will get their turn to speak.

Statements that bridge the conflict to build connection can diffuse fights and guide kids toward resolution: “Jackson, I know Olivia is a good listener, so you can tell her why you didn’t like it when she pushed you.” Encouraging tots to use words to self-advocate (“I didn’t like it when you took all the blue Legis!”) can help prevent future fights from spiraling out of control.

Elementary Years


A study led by David Finkelhor of University of New Hampshire shows that “sibling attacks,” or acts of physical violence toward a sibling like shoving and punching, peak between ages 6 and 12. Over a one-third of children in the study experienced sibling violence in the past year, and for around 5 percent, the violence was severe enough to leave a lasting mark like a bruise, a chipped tooth or even a broken bone. Violence between siblings is often overlooked by parents as normal squabbling, Finkelhor says, when in fact, repeated sibling attacks can have serious repercussions. In the study, children under age 10 who were repeatedly attacked by a sibling in the past year experienced signs of trauma, including sleep problems, depression and fear of the dark. When siblings hit, kick or bite, they're so flooded with emotion that logic and reason falls flat. It’s better to skip the "Why would you hit her?" and the forced apologies. Instead, allow kids to cool down and role play more effective ways to handle conflict and strong emotions.

Teen Years

Property Brothers and Sisters

What’s mine is yours? Not so fast. According to Catherine Salmon of the University of Redlands, up to 95 percent of siblings say that personal property — a highly important part of children’s budding sense of identity — is a point of conflict between siblings. Though teens may be able to work through some property-related conflicts on their own, parents may not know if and when to intervene.

“It can actually be a natural and healthy developmental process for siblings to work out conflicts on their own,” says licensed psychologist Vanessa Roddenberry, founder of Praxis Psychological Services in Raleigh.

Parents who constantly step in risk invalidating teens’ emotions and communicating that fighting is an effective way to get caregivers’ attention and focus, Roddenberry says. But when sibling fighting escalates to yelling or physical fighting, parents can help by separating siblings, putting the disagreement on pause while each party takes time to cool off and process their emotions separately. Once feelings have calmed, a kitchen-table meeting moderated by parents can help get teen siblings on the same page and up the chances that next time, you won’t need to play referee.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is "Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades."


Categories: Parenting, Relationships, Solutions