Siblings are a bittersweet experience of family life. If we are lucky, they are the people who know us the best, providing friendship and companionship through each life stage and accomplishment. If we are unlucky, they can be a major cause of stress and unhappiness, and sibling fights can make the family home an unpleasant space for all involved. There are numerous sources of sibling conflict; rivalry, unmet needs, or personality clashes, and each cause requires a different intervention. Although sibling fights are an unavoidable part of family life, when they remain constructive, they teach us important lessons on how to deal with the world and relationships, tolerate people with different interests, temperaments, and personalities, share space and resources, build social skills, and manage conflict.
- Build a family culture that emphasizes cooperation, cohesiveness, and mutuality
Emphasize how a family is a team, and every member of the family has a role to play in maintaining a safe and loving home. Celebrate differences between family members and highlight the ways they contribute and augment the uniqueness and health of the family. Praise any efforts towards cooperation, appreciation, and positive interactions. Ensure that you are modeling the behaviors you want to see as a parent and make each child feel seen, appreciated, and valued.
- Teach Conflict Management skills
Sibling disagreements provide essential opportunities to learn how to fight in a constructive manner, address concerns and needs, and strengthen sibling bonds. Holding a frame in which fights are seen as opportunities to clear the air, learn and improve relationships is important in helping to develop these skills. To ensure that conflict remains generative, it’s important to mare respect non-negotiable. This is done by normalizing the experience of anger, frustration, and disagreements and making it clear that verbal and physical violence is unacceptable, as are put-downs and shaming. Additionally, when siblings fight, encourage each party to identify and share their specific concerns, how it impacts them, and possible solutions.
- Build Communication skills
Violence between siblings is often a result of extreme frustration and feeling misunderstood. Assist children to use their words when they feel upset, teach them feelings vocabulary, and how to verbalize their feelings or share the way they are impacted by various family interactions. Support siblings in setting aside time for addressing concerns and finding productive ways to speak to the parties involved directly. Like all skills, this grows with practice, and they may initially need more adult assistance to help with active listening, using I statements, validating the other, making sure they understood what was shared before responding, and managing feelings or defensiveness as they arise.
- Develop Problem Solving skills
As important as affect management and expression are, they lose their impact if concerns or problematic family interactions cannot be addressed. Support siblings in being able to share their concerns, frame the issue and work collaboratively in developing a solution. Supporting each party to identify their contribution to the problem and take ownership in developing a positive outcome minimizes the use of blaming, shaming, and defensiveness. This allows will ensure that conflict remains constructive and children build a sense of competence and self-confidence.
- Interrupt unproductive conflict
As important as it is to help children develop a sense of mastery and competence, it’s also important that children feel safe and protected in their home and family system. That means that if interactions involve violence, humiliation, and denigration it’s important to interrupt immediately and communicate that this is not how we fight or manage conflict in this family. Highlight that mutual respect is a nonnegotiable rule and review the above steps.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, sibling conflict is a part of family life. As such, it has an important role in helping each child develop essential intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Thus, as irritating as these experiences are, it’s important to frame them as developmental opportunities and support your children in improving their conflict management skills while ensuring that each child experiences the family home as a place where they feel safe, loved, and supported.