Sibling Conflict

"Why can't our kids just get along? Why must they always fight?" Parents get tired of the ongoing bickering, teasing, competing, and provocation between their children. They can't understand why their children won't stay off each other's case, get out of each other's way, leave each other alone, and just be friends. Sibling conflict is just an additional and unnecessary source of family stress. "Who needs it?" parents ask.

The answer is "the children do." Fighting is not a sign of children not getting along. It is how they get along - using conflict to test their power, establish differences, and ventilate emotion with a familiar family adversary. Conflict from sibling rivalry is built into family life as children compete for dominance, parental attention, parental support, and household resources. Who gets what? Who does what? Who goes first? Who gets most? Who's right? Who's best? Unless your children are eight to ten years apart in age, there will be sibling rivalry between them. And even then, older child will probably resent the younger child for getting away with more, for being given more, and for being allowed to do more than older child was at the younger child's age. On the other hand, a much younger child will resent the older child for acting like another parent.

No wonder so many couples now elect to have only one child. They don't have to listen to all the sibling arguments, break up the sibling spats, or worry about dividing the parental attention and resources they have to give. Of course, the downside to being an only child is often manifested in significant adult relationships later on. By missing out on the rough and tumble of sibling warfare, the young adult who is an only child may be woefully inexperienced with the complexity of sharing and have a low tolerance and limited understanding of how to deal with conflict.

The more similarity there is between your children - same sex, close in age, similar interests - the more sibling conflict over dominance and differentiation there is likely to be. The major exception to this is identical twins for whom similarity creates an unusual intimacy. They seem to enjoy sharing a single identity between them. The more alike they are, the closer they feel. The closer they feel, the more alike they want to become. They can feel incomplete when absent from each other; they can have unspoken ways of knowing what is going on with each other; and they may even construct a secret language between them that no one else understands.

For other siblings, however, similarity only increases conflict by increasing the need to win the competition and establish individuality. To reduce some of this need for conflict from inadequate diversity (or excessive similarity), parents can encourage

  • Separate social circles for siblings,
  • Separate interests and activities for siblings,
  • Separate goals and future directions for siblings,
  • Separate times with parents,
  • Attendance at separate schools,
  • And, joint activities that both siblings enjoy doing together.

The more diversity between siblings, they less they have to fight to differentiate from one another and contest dominance between them.

The issue of parental "fairness," however, remains a divisive one. Charges the 14-year-old: "Since I'm older, you should treat me differently and give me a later bedtime. That's only fair!" Charges the 12-year-old: "Since we're both your children, you should treat us the same and give us the same bedtime. That's only fair!" And both siblings are right. Fairness is treating people differently to honor their individuality and the same to honor their commonality. Fairness is a double standard - siblings demanding to be the same and different at the same time. Parents can't win. Fair to one child often seems unfair to the other. What's a parent to do? Maybe treating them equally unfairly is the answer. That way, both children can agree: "Mom and Dad are just not fair!" To which parents can reply: "We are going to treat you each according to what we believe are your individual needs."

Older and younger child frequently engage in a positional conflict. The younger child provokes conflict to get the older child's attention, often using imitation to prove: "I am your equal!" "Stop copying me!" complains the older child. Then the older child puts the younger down to assert supremacy, teasing to show: "You are my inferior." "Stop making fun of me!" complains the younger child. Putting the older child in charge of the younger when parents are not around can often inflame positional conflict and add fuel to the competitive fire.

Just because conflict is built into sibling relationships doesn't mean that parents should passively accept that reality, play hands off, and let it go. Sometimes, because they are tired of the bickering, parents may want to separate the combatants to get a little peace and quiet. More important, however, is that the parents maintain a watchful eye on the conflict so it doesn't get out of hand and do either child emotional or physical harm. To this end, parents must act as governors of the conflict in four ways.

  • Parents must hold both children responsible for whatever conflict arises between them. It always takes a joint effort to create a conflict (conflict is cooperative), and only one to stop it (conflict stops when one refuses to play the game of opposition, to fight or argue back.) If you try to determine "who started it" you will only go back to square one. They both started it.
  • As often as you can, separate, don't mediate. Tell them you expect them to work out their difference without continuing to fight about it. Instruct them to use separation time to think about how a peaceful resolution can be accomplished. Remember: "Blessed be the mediator as he/she will he hated by both sides." Mediation can be a thankless role. If you try to mediate, each child will say that you play favorites: "You always take his/her side!"
  • Monitor the safety of the conflict. Conflict between siblings should never be used as an excuse by either sibling to do physical or emotional harm. In family conflict, the rule of safety must prevail. To let one child continue to injure the other only encourages the hitting child to think it's okay to abuse and the injured child to think that it's okay to be abused (and, frequently, the child who is being hurt will grow very angry at the parents for allowing this mistreatment go on.)
  • Let both children know that while you will hold both of the accountable for any conflict cooperatively created between them, you will hold each of them separately accountable for conduct in that conflict. Any time either child violates the rule of safety, that child will have family business to discuss with you.

About the Author

Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, is the author of numerous articles and books on parenting, including The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities During Your Child Adolescence; Keys To Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem; and The Future of Your Only Child: How to Guide Your Child to a Happy and Successful Life to be published in 2008. His books are available at amazon.com.
© Carl Pickhardt, PhD 2003.

Used with permission.

Reviewed by athealth on February 7, 2014.