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My children (7&9) always seem to be trying to get each other into trouble. The frequent sniping, digs, put-downs, and exclusion cause me concern. Many times the fighting comes down to a control issue: who is allowed in whose bedroom, authority over toys ("that's mine and I didn't say you can play with it"). Sometimes the argument starts to get physical, at which time I intervene.

I want them to be friends. Do I let them sort things out for themselves? How can I get the competitiveness and fighting to stop? How do I foster their friendship rather than rivalry?

I am looking for advice on how to proactively avoid sibling rivalry because not everyone grows out of it.

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Please include more details to get better answers. How old are they? That would cause suggestions that are more suitable to you. Is the "trouble" you mention serious/dangerous, or just annoying? That would relate to how tough the parent reaction should be. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 30 '11 at 8:55
    
There have been alot of thoughtful and thought provoking answers to this question. However, though some squabbling is normal in any relationship, not everyone "just grows out" of fighting with their siblings. I am looking for some advice on how to proactively avoid sibling rivalry. –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 15:32
    
Thanks for the edit, Jay! –  nGinius Apr 8 '11 at 12:28

10 Answers 10

up vote 20 down vote accepted

If things are escalating to the point of physical altercation, you've already waited too long to intervene.

  • Model good behavior. Avoid using harsh words with your family, even in jest.
  • Make house rules explicit. Write them down and post them where all can see. Include not just the "big" stuff, but also the precursors (which shouldn't be happening anyway), share/take turns, no yelling, no name-calling, etc.
  • Don't "wait until it gets bad enough" -- that's how kids come to think the rules don't really matter. When you see an infraction, give a calm but stern warning.

    1. If a child persists in a bad behavior after the warning, then that child goes in time-out (1-1.5 minutes per year of age is the usual guideline). Don't give the child any attention in time-out, discuss or debate. If/when the child tries to leave time out, put them back in without a word, and reset the timer.
    2. When time-out is over, ask the child to explain why he/she was in time-out. If he/she won't/can't, then explain it clearly.
    3. Ask the child to apologize (a good apology is sincere and specific). If he/she won't give a proper apology, he/she remains in time out, and after a few minutes go back to #2 above.
    4. Give a hug and move on, it's over now.
  • Take the time to teach your kids better conflict resolution skills (can't decide what to watch on TV? flip a coin or watch his show, then hers; both of you want the same toy? play together or take turns).
  • Do challenging things as a family -- take a multi-day backpacking trip, design and build a tree house, take martial arts classes. The more your children rely on one another as teammates, the less they will see one another as adversaries.

Finally, all siblings bicker to some degree. To be close as adults, they don't need to be conflict-free now. Focus on ending the behavior that is disruptive (preferably before it becomes violent) and teaching your kids better way to resolve the conflicts that will eventually crop up.

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Your time-out advise is atrocious and dehumanising. Children don’t deserve to be treated like animals! –  Timwi Apr 5 '11 at 21:45
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@Timwi Having a tantrum is not constructive. If you believe that my advice is in error, please explain your reasoning and offer an alternative. –  HedgeMage Apr 5 '11 at 21:54
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Just speaking from experience (I have 4 siblings) making kids hug after they fight if they have an ongoing rivalry doesn't really help at all. But your other advice I would agree with. :) –  MasterZ Apr 6 '11 at 0:01
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@Timwi Though unpalatable, I've heard that if you treat your children like your dogs they'll turn out fine. In my experience, ALL of the good dog owners I know are good parents, no exceptions; same thing for horse owners. Maybe it's because you can't make an animal do what they don't want to do; you have to communicate effectively, build trust, respect, and cooperate. Really, we are animals. Just a thought. –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 2:43
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@Timwi: By that logic, no parent could ever punish their child in any way without causing irreparable psychological damage. This is demonstrably untrue. Countless children disciplined in this way have loving, trusting relationships with their parents. Sadly, some parents are so fearful of displeasing their children that they fail to discipline at all. Such permissive parents are leaving their children to learn the hard way that there are boundaries they cannot cross, and that actions have consequences. –  HedgeMage Apr 7 '11 at 23:52

No, I think you need to intervene to show them that their behavior is unacceptable. I would suggest equal "punishments" as well so they don't think you are playing favorites. Have them apologize to each other and hug after serving their "time".

They will eventually be friends, it's just a phase they go through having to share their space while trying to figure their identities out.

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I would suggest assigning them to work together on a chore that takes a significant amount of time to complete and (ideally), requires them to work together. They should not be allowed to do anything else (except reasonable things such as meals or bathroom breaks) until the chore is done and they are on better terms. After you've gotten them going on the chore, give them a little space--but do check up on them occasionally. If they are still having problems (fighting or bickering), then add more work to the chore. Of course they won't like this, but eventually they will get the idea that if they ever want to have their life back, they're going to have to work together and get the chore done.

I even know of someone that went as far as to bind their children together by a wrist or an ankle while they completed the chore. Don't worry, it wasn't a painful or harmful binding, and the children could have gotten out if they wanted to (although they would have gotten in big trouble if they didn't have a very good reason). It was simply a physical reminder that they had to work together to get the chore done. Yes, it made things more difficult, but that's what they get for their behavior! I don't necessarily suggest this approach, and since your children are having problems with physical violence, it's probably not a good idea in this case.

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Right now, assigning joint tasks is a recipe for disaster. However, when they get older, this might be step 3 after alesplin and MasterZ's suggestions. –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 2:39
    
@nGinius Fair enough, and yes, this approach isn't the best solution to every rivalry spat that comes up, just something you can add to your toolkit and use when you feel it is appropriate. –  Daniel Standage Apr 6 '11 at 10:54
    
Giving them a difficult task that cannot be completed alone makes a lot of sense. I can never think of anything like this that's actually possible for them to finish. Any good examples of team tasks? My kids like hiking...Maybe I'll treat them to a 15 pound weight to share on the next hike. –  Corey Alix Oct 11 at 1:59

Summary: explain to each the situation separately, then create an environment where they have to work together.

  1. Take the older child aside and explain that he/she is older and therefor has more responsibility to show the younger one (by action, not words) how to behave. Also explain that he/she is better at things because of his/her age and that can make the other one more competitive which has partly lead to a rivalry. (put this in words that makes sense in your exact situation.)

  2. Take the younger child aside and explain that he/she is younger and that it's OK if he/she can't do everything the older sibling can do. That will come soon enough. Explain that the older one naturally feels more responsible, and this extra burden has caused some of this rivalry. (put this in words that makes sense in your exact situation.)

  3. Talk to them both that they're in it together, that sibling rivalry is a fact of life, but that it's gone too far. Create a policy that when one sibling gets in trouble, they are both in trouble. Make them share punishments for everything. This approach works particularly well if there's a lot of tattling going on.

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-1: Collective punishment is the antithesis of teaching personal responsibility. How can one teach a child to behave properly when they get punished the same if someone they cannot control plays up? –  HedgeMage Apr 5 '11 at 20:05
    
Shared punishment works very well in some circumstances, but you're right, it doesn't help learn personal responsibility. However, it does help learn shared responsibility which gets to the heart of rivalries. –  Jeffrey Faust Apr 5 '11 at 20:17
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There is such a thing as collective responsibility. It's called society. –  Jeffrey Faust Apr 5 '11 at 20:55
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Collective responsibility is also a law - Parent Liability Law –  Rhea Apr 6 '11 at 0:23
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I just want to point out that the "if you tattle on one another you both get in trouble" worked very well when Jeffrey and I were on vacation with our same aged children. The boys still told us when something was dangerous, but they stopped coming to us with all the really minor stuff like "He's on my bed" "He has my toy" etc. and instead worked it out amongst themselves. –  Justin Standard Apr 6 '11 at 22:29

On some level, there will always be a rivalry between children that are relatively close (< 3 or 4 years) in age, and it will take a while for your children to get old enough to get some perspective on their relationship.

If the rivalry is clearly one-sided, as in one sibling is usually the instigator of any kind of altercation, you can work on improving the self-image if the instigator. His/her need for competition or conflict with the other sibling may stem from the (hopefully untrue) idea that the other sibling is somehow "better" than they are.

But when it's all said and done, you can set the rules and make sure they are very clear. You can also ensure that there is immediate consequences to behavior that goes beyond the rules. But after this, the only thing you can do is encourage them to get along, and prevent them from doing anything too terrible to each other.

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+1 for identifying self-image as a possible cause. I didn't consider that. The older one is bossy and the younger likes to get him going, though it goes both ways. Hmmm. You gave me food for thought. –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 2:33

My sister and I used to have a big rivalry going on, but once we got old enough she quit annoying me so bad and I enjoyed having her around a lot more. The rivalry is likely to work itself out, which is best, but that doesn't mean you just sit back and watch.

Like others said, harmful behavior should be stopped immediately, and things such as name calling should be called out. Remind the kids that they need to treat each other with respect, even if they do not like each other.

Also you can give gentle nudges to each child to do something nice for their sibling. Sometimes doing something nice for someone else is a great way to change ones attitude towards that person, but if they are fighting a lot they are likely to not notice things they can do for each other, so giving a suggestion to one sibling or the other could help that process.

A bit of psychology that I heard helps to develop close friendships (although I'm not sure how reliable it is) is for one sibling to ask a favor of the other sibling. This seems to help start workplace friendships and might work in the home as well. Going out of your way to help someone with something they asked for help on can cause you to want to try harder at the relationship.

Anyway, I hope some of this info was helpful.

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+1 for suggesting ways to build bridges. We already get them to do nice things for each other, but asking for help from the other wasn't considered. Great idea to build interdependence and opportunities for earning respect. –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 2:36

Sibling rivalry is one of those things (like gas in newborns) that's going to happen anyway, and the only way to really "cure" it is to let the time pass for them to grow out of it. It also varies with the gender of the children. Per this question, it sounds like two boys.

Some basics for handling the inevitable rivalry:

  • No fighting. If they fight, they both get punished. It takes two to tango. If only one raises a hand, and the other doesn't respond violently, that one gets punished and the other gets an encouraging word.
  • Language. If they're rude to each other, remind them of their manners quietly and sternly. They will always try to show that they are "better" than their sibling, and it won't really stop. In my opinion, the best thing is not to dignify it with a response, or to shrug it off. For example:

"Dad, Billy says that he's much better at football, and I'll never be good at it"

"So, Billy said something, don't let it bug you."

  • No attention. Sometimes, these things are just a way of getting your attention. Give them enough attention otherwise, and show them (actions, not words) that fighting will not get them any extra attention from you.
  • Try to make sure there is less to bicker about. They will always fight about who is "better", that's unavoidable. They will also fight about sharing, TV channels, use of the treehouse or whatever, and that is avoidable. No-one really needs a TV, for example. For sharing, my dad had the greatest method. If we had to share a candy bar, one of us would cut it in half, and the other would get to choose which half they want. That way fairness is preserved, and there's nothing to fight about.

As ever, there is no single right answer.

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  • Don't pick sides, but don't deny when one of them is picking on the other in order to appear impartial.
  • Accept that some of the time, you'll just have to accept that they're not talking to each other.
  • Watch out for goading. Note that while physical violence is obviously wrong, if you make a stand on that, then the game will become to make the other sibling furious enough to resort to it.
  • Accept that siblings sometimes will just never be strong friends, especially if they have different priorities. After all, family is one of the few groups of people you never CHOSE to be associated with. You get to choose your job, your friends and your societies/parties. Me and my sister are so different in our interests and attitudes that we annoy each other pretty much every Christmas. It doesn't mean we don't love each other, but we only get along well by phone, when one of us is on the opposite side of the country to the other.
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I really like the way you pointed out the importance of impartiality and being aware of goading in your answer. You dealt with the parental behaviour rather than just disciplining the children for being bad (fighting isn't bad, it's ineffective and can be counter-productive). –  nGinius Apr 9 '11 at 3:27

From what you've said, it looks like they're simply struggling with sharing and co-operating. Sometimes it really is is simple as making sure they both get equal time and equal stuff.

If one child's constantly getting hand-me-downs, they'll inevitably become bitter and have little or no respect for the other's belongings, because they know they'll get them eventually, after they're not as good. So the idea of his and mine breaks down, except that the stuff that's nominally his is always better.

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Do you think it is important for children to have things that are theirs and theirs alone? Things that won't be shared if they don't want? –  nGinius Apr 6 '11 at 16:53
    
Depends on the child. But there's a BIG difference between stuff that's shared and stuff that used to be someone else's. A bus is not a second-hand car. –  deworde Jun 16 '11 at 22:19

If it's on both sides I would suggest leaving them to it unless injuries are occurring or give them something more fun to do - I spent 4 years fighting with my closest sibling then we realised we had more fun as a team.

You could encourage them to be a team - although you then risk them ganging up on others :-)

My eldest 2 fought for a while, then I enrolled them in Tae Kwon Do, and now they get to fight each other in controlled bouts and they get on a lot better.

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