Sorting out sibling squabbles

1 May 2018

Sorting out sibling squabbles

  • Siblings
by Michael Grose

If your kids constantly fight with each other, then don’t despair. All that emotional energy isn’t going to waste.

According to a recent study sibling fighting teach kids important conflict resolution skills. In fact, parents who stop their children from arguing may well be depriving them of important learning opportunities.

Researcher Laurie Kramer from the University of Illinois in the US found that kids who learned how to argue with their siblings had more advanced emotional development.

Anecdotally, it seems that sibling fighting is one of the biggest impediments to parents enjoying family life. Many parents tell me that if their children stopped bickering their lives would improve dramatically.

Many parents also worry that their children who fight with each other will not get along as adults. The evidence doesn’t support this view. The test for strong families is more about the willingness for kids to pull together when the chips are down, than the frequency of the squabbling.

Healthy families know how to fight well. When parents take an active approach to helping their children resolve their fights, they are teaching them a valuable life skill as well as reducing the incidence of fighting over the long term. Here are five practical strategies to use:

  • Model positive conflict resolution skills. Kids wear L plates when it comes to solving disputes. Some kids will yell, get abusive or even get physical when they are settling disputes.Show them better ways of sorting out problems by talking things through with your partner, other adults and with children. Let kids see you give way to others rather than continually standing your ground. Let them witness respected adults compromising and apologising when you’ve said something upsetting to your partner or your children. Modeling not only shows they way but gives permission for children and young people to do the same.
  • Focus on emotions. It’s easy to brush kids aside when they are genuinely upset by the actions or words of a sibling.When kids come to you for help, say something like:“Yep, it would make me mad too if someone said that to me.” Usually someone’s feelings get hurt when siblings argue so make sure you recognise their emotions without taking sides. This focus on feelings helps kids develop emotional literacy and promotes empathy.
  • Explain why siblings may have behaved the way they do. Kids are faulty observers and only see one side during disputes. It’s the job of parents to round out the picture, and help kids see that there are two sides to any dispute. Ask questions like, “What do you think she meant by that?”
  • Coach them on sorting out disputes. Kids need the chance to sort their conflict out themselves, but sometimes they need some coaching. Kids often invite their parents to take sides, which is usually counter-productive. Rather than trying to sort out who started an argument, focus on possible solutions. Give them suggestions such as taking turns, giving way, bargaining, swapping or even walking away.
  • Encourage them to restore their relationships. Kids often get over disputes far quicker than adults. They can be squabbling one minute and cuddling up the next, so it gets tricky intervening sometimes. However, there are times when you need to encourage a child to mend bridges with an aggrieved sibling. This can mean kids have to swallow their pride, admit that they may be wrong, make an apology or make some sort of restitution such as doing a special favour. This type of restoration means kids must take responsibility for their behaviours and is a sign of growing maturity.

Children without siblings can learn conflict resolution skills by spending time with other peers and friends, and having parents who are willing to argue with them without coming on to strong or laying down the law.

Conflict and siblings tend to go together like bread and butter. While sibling squabbles can be annoying, they also offer parents great opportunities to help kids to handle conflict effectively, which is a great life skill.


Get your blueprint for handling sibling fighting at my Sibling fighting: what to do webinar.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s an award-winning speaker and the author of 12 books for parents including Spoonfed Generation, and the bestselling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It. Michael is a former teacher with 15 years experience, and has 30 years experience in parenting education. He also holds a Master of Educational Studies from Monash University specialising in parenting education.