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Parents who have more than one child may feel like full-time referees, with good reason. According to a systematic review of research literature conducted by the University of New Hampshire, siblings fight up to eight times every hour — that’s a fight every seven minutes or so. For years, parents were told to simply walk away and let kids work out spats on their own. This well-intentioned approach is both logical and practical; kids learn how to navigate conflict while parents get some welcome relief from the never-ending sibling drama. It’s a win-win, right?
Not so fast. While this advice lets parents off the hook as referees, research shows that it doesn’t quash conflict, and may actually hurt sibling relationships in the long term. Although kids may seem to clash less often with this approach, research suggests that fights dwindle not because siblings learn to cooperate, but because one child dominates while the other simply gives up.
But parents can’t monitor every sibling squabble. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to guiding kids through sibling conflict, says psychotherapist and parenting coach Erin Bernau, LICSW, of Northwest Family Therapy in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
“It’s fair for parents to say, ‘I trust that you guys can figure this out. I’m here if you want to work through some solutions with me,’” Bernau notes. “That said, we also need to think about limiting the harm that severe sibling conflict can have. Sustained and dramatic sibling conflict can leave everybody feeling exhausted and wary of spending time together.” When tensions between sparring siblings are high, what’s a frustrated parent to do?
Thankfully, science has answers. Research shows that teaching children prosocial behavior — those actions intended to benefit others, such as sharing, helping and comforting — is more effective than simply stepping in to stop fights. Here’s how to apply that approach to the most common sibling conflicts, from those “It’s not fair!” fights to bathroom battles.
Ages 2–6: Fair share
If your parenting experience has left you with the impression that toddlers and preschool-age children bicker constantly, you’re not wrong; young siblings do fight more frequently than their older counterparts. “Mine fight all the time,” laments Sarah Liao, a Snohomish mother of three young children. “Perceived fairness is a huge issue in our house, and my oldest just likes to antagonize our middle just to get a reaction because she likes to see him get upset.”
If each child feels appreciation and unconditional love from parents, sibling conflict is more easily navigated.
According to sibling expert Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois, focusing on shared activities and play, instead of fighting, can help foster the warm, supportive sibling relationships that parents want for their children. She created a free online program called More Fun With Sisters and Brothers to help parents of siblings ages 4–8 learn how to promote harmony and build strong lifelong bonds between sibs.
In the short term, parents can quiet the “It’s not fair!” chorus by making it clear that each child is valued and heard. “Parents can help to mitigate conflict by making clear that they are not picking sides whenever possible, and by showing kids in a deep and meaningful way that they value all of their children equally,” says Bernau. “If each child feels appreciation and unconditional love from parents, sibling conflict is more easily navigated.”
Ages 7–12: Roughing it
In “The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It,” authors Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D., and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., highlight the benefits of physical play. Roughhousing stimulates brain growth and helps kids develop emotional intelligence, behavioral regulation and physical fitness. But lots of parents struggle to tell the difference between play fighting and real physical conflict. And when roughhousing kids slip into full-on fight mode, they can wind up with battle scars, both real and relational.
Parents can promote beneficial physical play — while keeping a lid on actual fighting — by learning what constitutes horseplay. According to research published in the journal “Learning & Behavior,” healthy roughhousing includes taking turns and cooperation. It’s also supposed to be fun, so watch for smiles and laughter.
Keep physical play from getting violent by laying down ground rules in advance; kids should know that they can stop the game if it’s no longer fun and ask for help from an adult, if needed, says Bernau. “Everyone deserves to feel safe in their body. While it can be completely healthy for kids to work out some conflict physically, this is also an opportunity to teach kids about limits, safety and consent.”
As with any other game, all siblings need to be willing participants in safe physical play, says Adele Faber, coauthor (with Elaine Mazlish) of the best-selling titles “Siblings Without Rivalry” and “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” “You don’t get to have a great time at someone else’s expense. When you’re a family, you look out for one another, so you can talk about ways to have fun together that keep your family values front and center.”
Ages 13–18: Space wars
Bigger kids can mean bigger battles. Competitiveness between siblings peaks between ages 10 and 15, as they clash over everything from chores to bathroom space to who gets the prime seat on the sofa. It’s a near-constant challenge for Rachel Jenkins, a mother of three children ranging in age from 11 to 17 in Vancouver, Washington.
“Being an only child is such a disadvantage, because I don’t get it,” Jenkins says. “They fight over their bedroom spaces, sharing the bathroom, bathroom chores and sharing gaming devices. When there’s a problem, it’s always somebody else’s issue.”
Even if teens can’t navigate every sibling conflict on their own, they can help devise solutions to perpetual fights. “My basic approach to any problem between siblings is problem-solving,” says Faber. “So, when there’s a conflict about shared space or who gets to use the living room or the TV, find a calm moment when they’re not fighting and ask them, ‘How do we want to work this out?’”
Parents may unwittingly spur sibling conflict by siding with one sibling more often — a habit that teens are sure to notice. “It’s important for parents to self-reflect,” says Bernau. “Is there a child whose side we more naturally gravitate toward? What is this grounded in? Our own role in our family of origin? Some perceived vulnerability (either emotionally or physically) in the child? Is it just a reflex to see one child as the antagonist and one as the victim?”
These responses to sibling conflicts can be reflexive and rooted in our own childhoods, so it can be helpful to get feedback from a partner, a parenting coach or a therapist, she says.
Challenge feisty teens to create solutions to ongoing conflicts over space, privacy and autonomy, and you might be surprised by their creativity, says Faber. “Even teens who have to share space can come with up with strategies that work for everyone. The point is that they need to feel empowered and invested and part of the solution.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2020, and updated in January 2021.