Strategies and Tactics for Managing Sibling Rivalry

Dealing with Siblings Who Fight? Discover Effective Strategies to Navigate Sibling Rivalry.

“I want to press the button!” my daughter shouts as we enter the elevator. “No!” my son shouts back, “Ella pressed the button last time! It’s my turn!” But it’s too late, Ella’s little thumb has already lit up the 46th floor. She has a knowing smirk on her cherubic face. Chase starts to cry. My blood pressure rises as the lift ascends. The silver lining? There’s no one else in the elevator to witness my fighting siblings.

Sibling rivalry is a rite of passage for any parent who opts to bring more than one child into the world. Take comfort in knowing that sibling rivalry happens in all families. Yes, even your friends who humbly brag about how their kids are BFFs. Their kids fight too, believe me.

Understanding the root causes of sibling rivalry and adopting strategies to manage it are important as we turn kids into adults. Fighting siblings is a normal part of family life. But, there are ways for parents to stay sane when conflicts arise. Siblings who fight will inevitably learn how to better cope with conflict as grown-ups. Maybe sibling rivalry isn’t such a bad thing, after all? 

What Causes Sibling Rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is competition or conflict that occurs between kids who are raised in the same family. It’s most commonly experienced with same-sex siblings who are less than two years apart. But, as we all know, brothers and sisters of all ages argue—well beyond high school, college, and even marriage.

There are countless reasons why young siblings fight. The number one cause of sibling rivalry will come as a surprise to no parent—jealousy. More times than not, kids argue over the attention of their parents. This competition can start long before the second sibling is born. 

It’s important to recognize how to accommodate a jealous child before the next bundle of joy arrives. This could be as simple as establishing a 5-10 minute bedtime routine that begins before the new baby is born and continues afterward.

Of course, other factors cause siblings to bicker. Some of them are out of our control as parents: birth order, gender, temperament, and age difference, for example. Sometimes kids fight out of sheer boredom, an area in which parents can be prepared. Having strategies in place for plane rides and road trips can help minimize conflict.

Strategic Approaches for Parents

Ella and Chase aren’t fighting over the elevator button, they’re fighting over my attention. And although they don’t know it, the kind of attention they’re getting from me isn’t the kind they want. I’m annoyed, frustrated, and exhausted. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Ella tells Chase he’s a baby. Chase stomps on her foot. I dream of teleporting myself to a spa in Costa Rica.

What I know now about sibling rivalry would’ve been infinitely helpful back then. Having strategies in place won’t eliminate fighting, but it will help everyone involved cope better when conflict occurs.

These five strategies may seem like common sense on paper. Yet, when we’re in the eye of a storm, common sense all but disappears and emotions take over. The calmer we are as parents, the more effective these strategies will be. 

  1. Don’t place blame: Oftentimes, arguments between siblings are caused by both kids’ behaviors. Unless a parent sees the situation with their own eyes, it can be difficult to know who is at fault. And even then, there are jabs or under-the-breath mutterings we are bound to miss. Placing blame is sure to ignite an already fiery situation. Listen instead. Encourage kids to explain how they feel one at a time. They’ll be more likely to cooperate when they feel they are being heard. Give each child a chance to speak without interruption. Exercise patience.
  2. Avoid comparison: It’s all too easy to compare kids to one another. “Watch how well Ella tidies up her room.” “Chase loves asparagus, Ella! Why don’t you?” Comparison can drive kids into fierce competition. Despite the temptation, it should be avoided at all costs.
  3. Let them sort it out (sometimes): Carefully pick and choose when it’s necessary to step in when siblings fight. If given the chance, sometimes kids can sort it out themselves. This is especially true when no one is watching. Nothing fuels ongoing disagreement between competing kids like an audience.
  4. Timely intervention: Naturally, there will be times when kids aren’t capable of brokering a peace treaty. If siblings resort to physical violence or name-calling, a parent will need to intervene. Knowing when to step in before things go off the charts is a lesson learned over time. Look for cues that trigger fights.
  5. Lead by example: Kids are like little shiny mirrors. They mimic what they see at home. Over time, kids will notice how their parents or caregivers handle conflict and be more inclined to model the behavior. It won’t happen overnight. Nothing about raising kids does—but it will influence future behavior. 

Tactical Tools for (Peaceful) Resolutions

Now that we’ve identified strategies to help us cope with siblings who fight, let’s dive into a few tactics. Tactics I wish I’d known about in that never-ending elevator ride to the 46th floor. Remembering even a few of these tools when an argument percolates will help.

  1. Separation for calm: There’s no better way to diffuse a fight than physical space. Calmly separate kids and put them in safe areas. If not at home, find a place to sit between them. Ask for silence until everyone cools down.
  2. Parental time-out: Kids aren’t the only ones who need time-outs. Taking emotion out of the situation is more easily accomplished when we are calm. Take deep breaths. Spend five minutes in the bedroom. Count to 100. When we’re relaxed, we make better decisions. 
  3. Individual attention: As we’ve established, siblings argue to get our attention. Parents who are proactive in giving each of their children one-on-one time will help mitigate the circumstances that lead to sibling rivalry. As important as it is to do things together as a family, consider spending 15-20 minutes with each child individually. Dive into their interests. If your daughter loves baseball, spend time playing catch. If your son is a birder, grab a pair of binoculars and head to the park.
  4. Anticipate boredom: Nothing invites kids to bicker more than a road trip or long flight. Be prepared. Pack books, bingo, iPads, and snacks. The more occupied kids are in transit, the more peaceful the trip will be.
  5. Praise positive behavior: Reinforce positive behavior by praising kids when they handle sibling disagreements well. Consider small rewards, like a sweet treat or staying up 15 minutes later at bedtime to encourage positive interactions in the future.

Remember that sibling rivalry, though challenging and frustrating, offers an opportunity for kids to develop essential conflict-resolution skills. By navigating these moments with patience, parents contribute to shaping their future behavior.

Peace Restored

By the time we get to our floor, my kids have forgotten all about the elevator button. Ella is hyperfocused on a piece of lint and Chase has stopped crying. Peace has once again been restored. Before I have time to enjoy the moment, I realize we’ll eventually need to head down to the lobby. 

Maybe we’ll take the stairs.


Written by Jamie Edwards

Jamie is an avid traveler, travel writer, and photographer. She launched I am Lost and Found, her adventure/luxury travel website after 25 years of living and traveling around the globe. She has lived in both NYC and Tokyo. Today she resides in Washington DC with her husband, two kids, and two black labs. Jamie’s goal is simple: to inspire travel.

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