Sibling Rivalry

Why do your children fight so much, even when you’re doing all the right things? You’ve tried 

  • giving them equal time with you

  • setting a timer for turn-taking 

  • talking to them about their feelings

  • teaching them alternative ways to express their frustration

  • giving them time alone

  • pleading with them to just get along!

  • sending them both to their rooms


All to no avail!! What to do, besides tear your hair?!?


You might gain insight into the problem if you know when and where it occurs, and what was happening just before that. Keep a log for a few days, recording the details: 


  • When does it happen? 

    • Is it when you're occupied with something else? If it does, you can teach them other ways to get your attention. 

    • Is it around times of transition?

    • At the end of the day?

    • First thing in the morning? 

    • At completely random times?

    • Are both parents around? Just one of you?


  • What was happening just before the conflict? Often, children may be playing peacefully, and we don’t see it! We tend to see only the negative behaviors, and then give lots of attention when those happen, rather than giving attention when there is peace. Or maybe one of them entered out of nowhere and disrupted the other. Or? Or? Or?


  • What is their condition when it happens?

    • Are they hungry? 

    • Tired? 

    • Bored?

    • Frustrated by their day thus far?

    • Starting to get sick?


  • How far apart are they developmentally? Is the young one driving the older one crazy with his lack of social skills? (see below!). Is the young one frustrated because she can’t do as much as the older one?


How Do Preschool Teachers Do it? What Can I Do At Home?


In Preschool, teachers mitigate conflicts in these ways:


  • The main role for adults is to listen to each child, in order to understand what happened (even if you think you know; you might be missing something), and to find out what each of them wants. Underlying this is a true desire to understand children’s perspective. What is this like for them?

  • We help them talk to each other. We actually tell them what to say, as when they're upset, they probably can't come up with the words they need, especially if they’re less verbal. Part of the effect of this is that it takes you out of the role of referee, and empowers them to solve their own problems, with your support. 

  • We give them more control of the outcome. There is probably a desire for control underlying most conflicts, so we try to find ways to give each of them control over the process (being in charge of the length of one's own turn and getting to decide if/when to give up a toy give kids a great deal of control).

  • Throughout this process, keep yourself out of the role of judge! Don't let them make you the one who hands out a settlement!

  • We generally do not use a timer to limit turns. Instead, we establish that everyone gets a turn, and each child gets to decide when they're finished. We help the one who is waiting find something to do while he’s waiting, and coach the other to let the waiting child know when she’s finished. Sometimes a child enjoys her power a little too long, in which case we might intervene to make sure others also get a turn. You can just tell if this is the case!

     Over time, they come to trust that we will protect their nice, long turn, and that they will have a turn, and be able to wait for their turn. This takes a while, so you have to be even more patient than you already are! 

  • We watch and wait to see if they will work it out on their own. Standing by offers a surprising level of support, which in and of itself sometimes helps. 

  • We enlist the (usually) older child to teach the (usually) younger one. This gives the “teacher” a new way to look at the situation, and empowers her to rise to higher ground. For the younger, it might shift the dynamic enough to diffuse the fight.


What You Might Try At Home


Inevitably, siblings will argue and fight. One tactic is to give them each their own space when they're arguing. That way the one with the coveted toy can finish his turn in peace, and the other one can do something else, without the trauma of not having the thing! Maybe while waiting they're with you. That might make waiting more appealing!


You might be able to prevent conflict by setting them up to play in separate spaces. This is especially important for the oldest child, who may feel that they never get a break from their pesky, younger sibling. Four- and five-year olds’ social skills are challenged by toddler behaviors, such as grabbing what they want, or striking out physically to get what they want. It is very challenging for preschoolers to hang onto their social skills when they're assaulted by a toddler with nearly zero social skills!


On the other hand, back in the day, no one had separate places to play, and each of us had very few personal toys. There is great value in struggling: this is how people learn to negotiate, to wait (delaying gratification is a very, very important skill to have in life), to recognize that other people have needs and desires (empathy!), to get creative when they can’t get what they want, to be patient, and best of all, to cooperate! I could go on and on! As hard as it is on you, one option is to let them work it out on their own. 


Luckily, you can more easily ignore them at home than we can at school. This might be a time for you to take care of yourself by leaving the room, so you don't have to hear it. They can probably take more from each other physically than you realize. As awful as that sounds, my siblings and I used to really go at it physically, and nobody ever really got hurt. And we are very close as adults! When you ignore their fighting, they'll learn that they will not get your attention that way. If they're fighting, you will leave the room.


Sometimes kids don't know how to initiate play, so they provoke instead. You might say, "Do you want to play? Tell her you want to play with him. Say, 'Maria, let's play,' " or whatever you think your child can actually say to get the message across. Or say it for her/him.


So many times I've coached a child to invite another to play, or to ask for whatever it is that they want, and the other one, lo and behold, accepts the invitation or generously gives something up. Being asked gives a person a chance to be kind, and also gives them a sense of control. Remember, a desire to be in control (in charge of oneself) underlies many conflicts. If they say no, then you have to respect that (keep in mind that this is how they learn to set boundaries, very important for later in life). At that point you can coach the other to ask how long it will be until she's finished, or to let him know when he's finished. Over time, you are empowering your child by giving her/him opportunities to practice being in control. This is a life skill, so don’t worry that you’re just giving them what they want.


Other Strategies to Foster Cooperation (and other positive traits!)


All of the adults can loudly tell each other all about it whenever one of the children is generous, cooperative, friendly to the other, patient, etc. Using these kinds of words helps them see themselves as people with those traits. You can even write a little story about it, and read it to them. A little collection of such stories is very powerful for reinforcing good behavior and children’s image of themselves as good people with valuable traits.


Do you have some open-ended activities for them to do, so there are other options besides specific toys? Things like a dish tub with sudsy water and a few plastic bottles with a scoop and a funnel; or a bin with dirt or sand or flax seeds; or a bin with ice cubes and a pipette? Or plain old blocks? Or empty appliance boxes? (If they each had their own big box to get into they'd have a private place to play with whatever is the coveted thing). Like the Cozy Cupboards we have in the preschool rooms, where children can go when they need some space or quiet time alone.


They do not always have to have equal time, equal access, equal toys. Sometimes one needs more than the other, and they likely often have very different needs. So don't worry about treating them equally! Preschoolers are used to the fact that different children have different needs. Sometimes we talk about tools that people use to help them calm down, work out their wiggles or frustrations, etc., like a busy box, cozy spot, or fidget. 


There's a book called Siblings Without Rivalry, which might be very helpful. I haven't read it but have read others by the same authors, and I like them. Here's a blurb about it from Amazon: 


"Already best-selling authors with How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish turned their minds to the battle of the siblings. Parents themselves, they were determined to figure out how to help their children get along. The result was Siblings Without Rivalry. This wise, groundbreaking book gives parents the practical tools they need to cope with conflict, encourage cooperation, reduce competition, and make it possible for children to experience the joys of their special relationship. With humor and understanding―much gained from raising their own children―Faber and Mazlish explain how and when to intervene in fights, provide suggestions on how to help children channel their hostility into creative outlets, and demonstrate how to treat children unequally and still be fair. Updated to incorporate fresh thoughts after years of conducting workshops for parents and professionals, this edition also includes a new afterword."


I poked around on the internet for helpful articles, and I found a few that I liked:

Google Jane Nelson sibling rivalry and you'll get more either by her or based on her work. 


I didn't read all of these, but I generally like Aha Parenting's advice and perspective:


I hope this helps; it was actually fun and interesting for me to think about what I believe about sibling rivalry, and to find a few helpful resources. 


Let me know how it's going, and what you find most helpful! And hang in there!