Sibling Rivalry

Dear Sharon,

Give me some advice please as to how to deal with brothers who are constantly fighting with each other. One is 10 and the other is 8 and they are always fighting. It makes me crazy. Help!

A worried Mom with a big headache!

Dear worried Mom,

It is not at all unusual for siblings, especially ones who are close in age, to fight.

In spite of how hard it is for a parent to listen to brothers fighting, it is important to remember that siblings usually have a close and meaningful relationship that is one of the strongest they will experience in their lifetime. When anyone (a child or an adult) has a close relationship with someone they often show them every worry, stress and tension that is in their head by “being in a bad mood around them.” When two brothers are upset about ANYTHING they can easily pick on each other and Moms and Dads just as easily can end up with headaches.

It can be difficult to control the sibling fights once they break out especially if parents end up getting as frustrated as their children when things escalate (a very common reaction). Many parents I know have separated siblings until they calm down, begun an engaging activity to lower stress or have “gotten out of the house” to change the topic. These options are excellent but are not always practical and unfortunately don’t always work.

When parents come to me for help with sibling tension, I often suggest that they direct some of their efforts into the underlying causes of sibling rivalry and try at least one of the following:

1. Spend time alone with each child. Some of the tension between siblings comes from competitive feelings about not getting enough attention from Mom or Dad. To siblings it can often seem like the other child is “hogging” all of the attention even if it isn’t true. When a child spends one on one time with a parent, they get to do things without sibling input or interference and with a greater chance of getting Mom or Dad’s undivided attention. This can free up the time and set up conditions for a young person to talk to their parent about what is on their mind. They also often get to relax and get away from the usual hubbub of family life. Such calm, quality time can be rewarding for both parent and child and usually contributes to an easier family life. Scheduling regular (even weekly) time alone with children can give them something to look forward to and can be particularly useful when sibling fighting is at a high pitch.

2. Help each of your children develop rewarding social lives and confidence building activities that are separate from their siblings at least some of the time. If a particular brother or sister has a hard time making friends, rarely gets time away from a sibling to develop relationships and/or has limited interests or hobbies to boost confidence and self esteem then sibling tension can easily increase. Fighting can escalate even more if one child is feeling frustrated or insecure while the other appears less distraught and/or more confident and capable. In such a case the “less confident little one” can easily show his competitive feelings with his sibling in a negative way. Kind and thoughtful parental guidance – such as setting up independent and successful play dates that go well, having some kind of party or social event (even a small one) that will make a worried sibling happy, or enrolling a child in a sport or after school program that could build self esteem can really help. If the “ more unhappy” sibling feels better about himself than conflicts at home can be reduced.

3. Parents can arrange for physically energizing family activities that give the siblings a chance to be on the “same team” against a common “foe”. Physical games can move everyone out of the house (usually helpful to everyone) and let off some steam and built up emotional pressure. Playing a variety of outdoor sports can give children a chance to be successful together rather than frustrated and angry at each other. One effective way to accomplish this is to set up children versus parents teams. This way the parents can help the children work together to compete and hopefully win against a different “enemy.” The experience can help reduce tension and increase bonding for everyone in a family.

Siblings who fight a lot as children often grow up to have close relationships as adults. While you are waiting for you sons to “grow up” and get along, try to remember that sibling rivalry is very common and simple, effective solutions are not readily available to many parents. Helping children fight less usually takes time, patience and a variety of parental solutions.