How Do We Handle Sibling Rivalry?


Learn what to do if your children are constantly arguing and fighting with each other.


How do I stop sibling rivalry? I love my daughters, but they seem to be engaged in a constant battle. My mother says I should intervene, but my husband thinks this is normal for kids their age. Should I be worried?


Sibling rivalry is normal and extremely common. That doesn’t mean that it has to be tolerated. If carried to extremes, it can be potentially harmful. This is especially true if the constant bickering is marked by anger, bitterness, and mutual disrespect. Intervention may be necessary, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get anywhere simply by talking to your children. What’s needed in a case like this is decisive action.

Look for a good opportunity to hold a family conference. If possible, pick a quiet evening when there’s been a lull in the fighting and everyone is in a good mood. You and your husband should sit down with the kids and tell them that you’re concerned about the disrespectful way they treat each other. Let them know that you’ve had enough of this kind of behavior. Make it clear that you’re determined to see some changes made. As part of this new program, announce that you’re going to be implementing some new household rules. Explain that there will be consequences when the girls bicker or snipe at one another.

These consequences should be immediate, consistent, and powerful. For example, if your children receive an allowance, tell them that you will be deducting a dollar a week for every violation of the new “respect policy.” You could also take away favorite toys, activities, or privileges for a period of time. Be sure to choose activities or privileges that really matter to your daughters. If they’re pre-teens or adolescents, phone or computer access is probably a high priority for them. Younger children may be more concerned about biking or dolls or time with friends.

Write out your new rules and consequences in the form of a contract. Have your children sign it and post it on the refrigerator. Since it’s important to emphasize positive as well as negative consequences, you might want to include an “earn it back” clause. This arrangement would allow the kids to regain privileges by treating each other appropriately for a predetermined period of time. Once the plan is in place, stick to your guns. Be diligent about implementing the agreed-upon consequences consistently. When arguments arise, avoid long discussions about “who started it.” Model patience, kindness, and respect in your own behavior toward your children and in your relationship with your husband.

As a footnote, it’s worth bearing in mind that sibling rivalry can sometimes be a cry for attention. If that’s the case, then your system of rules and consequences probably won’t work until you take steps to deal with the root cause of the fighting. Ask yourself if you and your husband have enough one-on-one time with each of your children. It’s important to “date” your kids at least once a week. This could involve something as simple as a trip to the store, going out for hot chocolate and a bagel on a Saturday morning, or a walk around the neighborhood in the evening. As you begin to spend more individual time with your girls, you may begin to see significant changes in the way they relate to one another.

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