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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Sibling Squabbles? Turn the Tussles into Giggles!

My kids were wild the other night. Just wild. All the hoopla ended with the calm, easy-going middle child in tears. Her brothers had gotten out of control with some “fun” they were having while she was studying for finals.

When I heard the fuss and tears, I headed up to her room to see the mess (it involved a lot of newly brushed dog fur and her bed…I’ll let your imagination take it from there). More impressive than the disarray was the look of remorse and concern on the boys’ faces. They saw their fun had crossed a line.

This level of sibling conflict is rare around here. Somehow, I’ve raised 3 kids who like each other. Most of the time.

Here’s some ideas for how to keep the peace around your house:

  • Don’t always get involved. It can be tempting to jump in and problem solve when we hear our kids fussing. Next time, wait to see if they resolve their differences on their own. If you do get involved, start by saying you hear their fussing but they can come up with a solution to their problems without your help. Then step back and listen. If they succeed be sure to praise them!
  • Step in when needed. You may need to step in to prevent physical harm. Let your kids know you won’t tolerate physical aggression or violence. You may need to separate the siblings and have them play alone for a bit or have them take time-outs. Also, listen to be sure one sibling doesn’t repeatedly “win” the argument or get their way. If this happens, ask the kids if they think what they’ve heard is fair. If not, what ideas do they have?
  • Don’t take sides. It’s important for parents to be neutral. We don’t always see what led up to the battle and should try to avoid placing blame. Remember, the child who looks most upset may not be fully innocent! Ultimately, we want our children to feel both trusted and protected by us. Jumping to judgment can hurt that trust. Instead, we can make observations: “I see that Isabella is crying.” Or “Mateo looks angry.”
  • Help them problem solve. If they aren’t getting anywhere without your involvement, start by asking what’s happening. Listen to both sides. Then try to see yourself as a mediator – a person who takes the middle ground to help both parties come to an agreement. Ask them how they think the problem can be solved.

Sibling rivalry

About 80% of children have siblings. While having a sibling is in many ways a lifelong gift, the arrival of a new brother or sister can be upsetting. Sibling rivalry can be prevented or lessened by parents. Here’s how:

  • Avoid expressing favoritism. It can be challenging as a parent to appreciate each child as an individual with different temperaments and personalities. We often verbalize these differences in ways that can worsen sibling relationships. Avoid labels like “my smart girl,” “my best helper,” “my super athlete.”
  • Respect their need for privacy. Each child should be given a space within your home where they can be alone. And their belongings shouldn’t be used by siblings without permission.
  • Have family meetings. These can be a great time to discuss problems and set family ground rules. Talk about sibling issues, chores, allowances, meals – everything you want to have “run” smoothly in your home!
  • Start early. When my first child was 3 and about to have a sister, I panicked thinking that life might never be the same again, that the new baby would be an intruder into her brother’s world. He would feel cheated, lonely without my undivided attention. About that time, I heard some advice for how to avoid sibling rivalry that seems to have worked:

Brainwash ’em. Tell them from day one how lucky they are to have each other. Tell the big sib that his sister is so lucky to have him in her world. Tell her the flip side. Remind them often, that they will be in each other’s lives forever – through everything life throws at them.

Even dog fur.