Experiencing conflict and learning to work through it is an essential skill for children to learn. Sibling relationships offer a safe, reliably available, and developmentally appropriate option for children to experience conflict within a social interaction and context. Conflict among siblings often helps children learn important skills including emotion management, compromise, perspective taking, and theory of mind (i.e., knowing others have different thoughts and feelings that differ from oneself). Despite these benefits, if anyone has been around siblings in conflict, you know it doesn’t always feel this constructive!
Below are some helpful tools and strategies for addressing sibling conflict:
Know the why:
It is always helpful to understand the root cause of sibling conflict because it can help parents more appropriately manage the conflict.
Two common sources of sibling conflict are to gain attention (i.e., attention from parents) and access to tangible items (e.g., the iPad, the video game, the specific toy).
When the Why is Attention
Schedule One-on-One Time:
Schedule regular one-on-one time with each of your children as a proactive strategy to prevent future attention seeking behaviors (e.g., siblings fighting for your attention). Offering each child, a consistent and predictable time in which they receive your undivided attention not only enhances your already warm and supportive relationship, but also builds your child’s self-esteem and reduces your child’s need to engage in attention-seeking behaviors.
Recommended Length of one-on-one Time:
- 5 minutes for children ages 7 and younger
- 10 minutes for children ages 8 to 12
- 15 minutes for teenagers
Provide Positive Attention for Appropriate Sibling Interactions:
Look for opportunities to “catch” when siblings are engaging in positive interactions and provide praise! Providing specific praise for things like playing nicely or working well together helps to reinforce those behaviors (i.e., those behaviors are more likely to occur again). Siblings will start to notice which of their behaviors solicit positive reactions from their parents/caregivers and do it more often.
Examples of Specific Praise:
- “Great job taking turns.”
- “Awesome job sharing that toy!”
- “I love when you both are able to play so nicely together.”
It’s also important to remember the power of our attention because we want to use it strategically. Try removing your attention for minor misbehaviors between the siblings (e.g., whining, arguing, bickering) and come back with a big praise when the siblings have resolved the issue or are working towards the resolution— “great job working together to solve that problem!” In doing this, parents reinforce positive sibling interactions versus the behaviors that result from sibling conflict.
There will be times where parents/caregivers must intervene, (e.g., safety concerns) however, parents should focus on “catching” the siblings playing nicely 3-5 times more often than the attention they give for the conflict behavior(s).
Model Appropriate Conflict Resolution Skills:
Children are like sponges; they soak up everything around them and learn how to navigate complex situations by watching the adults in their lives. It is important to model how to work through conflict in a healthy, respectful, and productive way (e.g., it is okay to disagree while also remaining calm and using an indoor voice). The more we model these types of appropriate conflict resolution skills, the more likely our children are to use them. Of course, you may not be perfect every time and it’s equally important to model the art of the apology!
When the Why is Tangible Items
Set Up Clear Expectations:
Setting up concrete, explicit, and clear expectations ahead of time can save you a lot of time on the back end. Let your children know exactly what is expected of them and/or the rules in the home.
- Visual schedules are extremely helpful for younger children because it helps them to know what to expect and what comes next (e.g., know exactly when they can have the preferred item).
- Consider creating a schedule together so children feel some ownership over the schedule and post it in a place where everyone can see it.
Timers and Transition Warnings:
- Timers can be a helpful tool in letting children know exactly how much time is remaining with a preferred item, so it is not a surprise when it’s time to share with the sibling.
- This is especially beneficial for children who are not yet able to tell time!
- Transition warnings can help prepare your child for upcoming transitions (e.g., “3 more minutes and then it’s your brothers turn, 2 more minutes, 1 more minute.”). Transition warnings help reduce the shock when the time comes to, for example, share the preferred item.
Offer Choices (when applicable):
- If one sibling cannot have the item that they are wanting, give them other options which they can have. For example, if your child wants the ball his sibling is playing with, you can respond with, “you can play with this train or this puzzle.”
- Next, let the child know when they can have the preferred item (e.g., it’s your sister’s turn now and then you can have it next).
- Written contracts are very helpful for older children. Written contracts outline the specific expectations for sibling behavior (e.g., “I agree to share the iPad after 20 minutes of independent play.”) and the specific consequences if the expectations are not met.
- Have the siblings sign the contract and post in a place where everyone can see it.
Lastly, Teach and Encourage Positive Sibling Dynamics:
- Consider ways in which you can promote shared sibling experiences whenever possible to create stronger bonds and positive feelings towards one another.
- One idea might be to have the siblings be in charge of a project together to build teamwork. For example, be in charge of planning a fun family outing, decorations for the holidays, etc.