3 Things That Make Sibling Conflict Worse (and what to do instead)

MarcilieCooperation, Empathy, Encouragement, Kind and Firm Parenting, Parenting w/Positive Discipline, Positive Parenting, Problem Solving, Sibling Fighting, Sibling RivalryLeave a Comment

sibling rivalry

After 9 months of everyone being home nearly all the time, opportunities for sibling conflict rise and parents’ energy for creative and compassionate intervention declines. 2020 will break all sorts of records; the frequency and magnitude of sibling fights may be one of them!

If you’re seeing more sibling (or friend) squabbles than usual, know that you’re not alone. Take a breath. Acknowledge that we’re all going through an unprecedented experience; there’s no playbook for parenting in an extended pandemic. 

It’s only natural that parents and kids alike will “lose it” more often these days, and especially in the place we feel safest: our own homes. (Read more about what to do when you “lose it” with your kids here.)

That said, a little more peace at home would feel pretty good about now; so let’s take a look at how parents commonly and unknowingly make sibling rivalry worse.

Here are three things parents typically do that fuel the fire of sibling conflict (and what to do instead):

1. Make comparisons or give children labels, especially while the other sibling is around. 

Examples:

  • You’re a big girl. You don’t leave your things lying around like your little sister.
  • That’s disgusting. Even your little sister doesn’t spill all over herself.
  • Why can’t you be on-time like your brother?
  • Look at you, Maria, our little brainiac!

Parents use comparisons and labels to motivate children to do better or keep doing what we want. But if you are the child hearing these comments day after day, do you feel motivated to do better? Or do you feel like getting revenge or even giving up?

Unfavorable comparisons usually backfire because they are a form of shaming. We hope that by making the child feel bad about themselves, they’ll be motivated to work harder. 

But research shows that “self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed…They also have lower self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., self-confidence in their abilities), which undermines their potential for success.” (The Motivational Power of Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.)

The downside exists for the favorably compared child, too. Excellent research from Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates that praising results and giving labels (instead of praising or noticing the process or effort) invites a “fixed mindset” — a belief that who or what they are (even if it’s positive) can’t grow, change or be developed with time and practice. 

Constantly labeled the brainiac, the artistic one, or the super athlete, a child may decide that it’s too much pressure to keep up the label and then give up or underperform to reduce expectations. 

Or they might push themselves toward perfection at all costs (and there are a lot, especially mental health costs) and become “approval junkies,” crumbling when the accolades are not loud or frequent enough. 

Alternatively, an overly-praised child might choose only challenges they know they can master or even cheat to maintain the positive label.

What to do instead of making comparisons or giving labels?

  • Describe what you see or feel without judgment
  • Describe what needs to be done
  • Show faith through encouragement
Instead of using comparisons and labels…Describe what you see or feel, or what needs to be done. Show faith through encouragement.
“You’re a big girl. You don’t leave your things lying around like your little sister.”“I see you picked up your blocks, your truck, and you even put away your puzzle pieces.”
“That’s disgusting. Even your little sister doesn’t spill all over herself.”“There’s a little milk dripping down the front of your shirt. Here’s a napkin.”
“Look at you, Maria, our little brainiac!”“It seems like you love to read!”
“Why can’t you be on-time like your brother?”“I have faith that you can get ready on-time this morning.”

The second thing parents commonly do that makes sibling rivalry worse…

2. Deny/negate or “fix” the child’s feelings about their sibling.

Examples:

  • You don’t hate your brother, you love him!
  • You’re fine; just ignore your sister when she talks like that. 
  • You shouldn’t be so upset with your brother; he’s only 3 after all.

It’s only natural to want to change a child’s negative feelings toward their sibling. After all, aren’t the bad feelings just a precursor to bad actions? Actually, no.

“I know how upsetting it can be,” say Mazlish and Faber in Siblings Without Rivalry, “to hear one child rage against another. But if we forbid the expression of that rage, the danger is that it will go underground and reappear in other forms, either as physical symptoms or emotional problems.”

Feelings are always OK. What we do with those feelings (behavior) is not. Dr. Laura Markham of AhaParenting sums it up this way: “Allow feelings. Limit behavior.”

How many of you were explicitly taught during childhood how to name your emotions, communicate your feelings constructively, and ask for what you needed in a particular moment? It’s no wonder that so many of us have a hard time teaching it to our children. 

What to do instead of denying or fixing your child’s feelings about their sibling (or really, anything)?

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings
  • Help your child put their feelings into words
Instead of denying, negating, or “fixing” a child’s feelings…Acknowledge their feelings; help your child put their feelings into words
“You don’t hate your brother, you love him!”“You sound very angry with your brother.”
“You’re fine; just ignore your sister when she talks like that.”“A comment like that could make you mad!”
“You shouldn’t be so upset with your brother; he’s only 3 after all.”“It’s frustrating when your little brother grabs your toys without asking first.”

A third common way parents make sibling conflict worse is…

3. Taking sides.

Examples:

  • Yanira, how can you be so mean to your sister?! Go to your room and don’t come out until you’re ready to apologize to her!
  • Can’t you keep your hands to yourself? Stop bugging her!
  • You’re always in the beanbag chair. Don’t be such a hog and give your brother a turn.

When the same sibling seems to be the aggressor time after time, we perpetuate labels of “bully” and “victim” by taking sides. No one benefits from having either of these labels. (Read more about how taking sides can backfire here. Read about the Karpman (victim, bully, hero) Drama Triangle here.)

Parents often think it’s their job to decide who’s right, who’s wrong, who needs to be protected, who needs to pay, and how. 

But when we play judge, jury, and executioner, we rob our children of the opportunity to develop important long-term life skills like self-awareness, communication, and empathy, and to practice conflict resolution and problem-solving on their own.

What’s more, we never really know what led up to that moment of conflict. Even if you literally watch one child hit another, what you don’t see is the history or other factors that led up to that moment. There’s always more to the story. Always.

What to do instead of taking sides?

  • “Put them in the same boat,” says Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline. In other words, stay neutral. Let the problem be the enemy and invite your children to work together to solve it. 
  • Show faith in your children to solve their problems.
Instead of taking sides…“Put them in the same boat”; show faith
“Yanira, how can you be so mean to your sister?! Go to your room and don’t come out until you’re ready to apologize to her!”“Teasing is hurtful. Let’s huddle here and figure out what we CAN do when we’re angry.”
“Can’t you keep your hands to yourself? Stop bugging her!”“I see two children who are not getting along. I have faith that you can figure out a solution that works for both of you.”
“You’re always in the beanbag chair. Don’t be such a hog and give your brother a turn.”“I see two children and one bean bag chair. How can you solve this problem?”

That’s it. Three things parents commonly do that make sibling conflict worse and what to do instead.

Download a one-page Tip Sheet: 3 Ways Parents Fuel the Fire of Sibling Rivalry (and what to do instead) here.

If you’d like to see your children managing their emotions, resolving conflict on their own, and enjoying each other more, join me for a 2-week mini-series in a virtual classroom, Building Strong Sibling Relationships. 

During two, 1.5-hour sessions, you will:

  • Experience the difference between traditional methods of discipline and Positive Discipline when it comes to managing sibling conflict
  • Learn what you can do to prevent rivalry in the first place and foster a culture of kindness in your home
  • Gain practical tools you can teach your kids so they can manage conflict on their own
  • Learn when to ignore, coach from the sidelines, or step in firmly during sibling fights
  • Get help solving real-life sibling challenges

Learn more about Building Strong Sibling Relationships here.

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Sources for this article:

Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings by Laura Markham
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Various articles about self-compassion by Kristin Neff
Concepts from “The Drama Triangle” by Stephen Karpman

More WorkingParenting articles on sibling conflict:

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