Dealing With Sibling Squabbles

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If you grew up with a brother or sister like I did, I’m sure you have your share of war stories that left both sides bleeding, with one sibling running to mom or dad to tattle on the other. My sister was four years younger than me, so I was usually the one that was getting in trouble. And once my mother had found out how I had mercilessly tortured her poor baby girl…well, let’s not get into that one. I do however remember her telling me that one day my little sister would be my best friend and I needed to be nice to her. Needless to say, I seriously doubted my mother’s benevolent prophecy at the time.

Now that I have three kids of my own, I get to see sibling squabbles from a parent’s point of view. The intensity of the skirmishes I have seen between my kids over the last few months have no doubt been amplified by spending a lot more time in close proximity with each other due to COVID-19!

So, what’s a parent to do? Are sibling squabbles an inevitable part of growing up? And if they are, what can parents do to limit their frequency and fervor, especially during our current times of increased stress and uncertainty?

There are a number of reasons that children squabble, but I’ll focus on the most frequent. Attention. Most of the time when young children misbehave it is in an effort to gain attention, in whatever form they can receive it. Sometimes a child feeling left out or desiring attention will go so far as to hit a sibling to get it. If this is the case with your children, it is important to teach them that there are many positive ways to get your attention, and that fighting with a sibling is not the best way to get noticed.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister) points out that attention is a genuine, human need. “Parents need to be alert to when our children are asking for attention and they need to teach children positive ways to ask for it.”

The best way to go about this is to teach children peaceful ways to ask for attention. Try ignoring minor issues and encouraging kids to resolve problems themselves before they escalate, and squabbles can often be derailed. Children will respond positively if they receive praise for the nice things they do and will gradually learn that being kind to others is a more effective way to gain parental attention than fighting.

Another tried and true technique (and one of the most difficult) that a parent can do for their children is to ignore a minor spat and let the siblings work it out on their own. Start by giving the kids at least five minutes before you allow yourself to intervene. When you do make an appearance, state your expectations by saying something along the lines of, “I’m sure you can work out something that’s fair for both of you” and then walk away. This method will allow children a chance to solve their problems in a mature fashion and they will likely be eager to come to a diplomatic conclusion knowing that their parents have placed their faith in them.

In the event your children come to you with a problem they cannot generate a solution for themselves, be sure to serve as a mediator rather than an arbitrator. If they come to you with complaints about the other, give each child a chance to describe the situation without interruption. Summarize what each has said and empathize with both of them. You can say things like, “That does sound very upsetting” or “I can see that you’re frustrated.” These comments indicate you’re listening and you care, but they still leave the responsibility for solving the problem on the children. Conclude by encouraging each child to suggest solutions to the problem and allow them to select one that they both consider fair.

And finally, it’s important to remember that squabbles are always going to occur between siblings, it’s just a matter of doing your best as a parent to minimize their frequency and intensity. By resolving differences in a civil manner, children will learn many useful life skills including reasoning, empathy, self-expression, and humility.

Resources used for this article include “Responding to Sibling Squabbles” by Shari Steelsmith from in parentingpress.com and Eileen Kennedy-Moore’s book “12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister).”

Bill Stone is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.