Why Siblings Fight

Sibling squabbles aren't always about jealousy. Here's what you can do to diffuse family tensions.
Understanding why your kids argue can help you help them get along.

Twelve-year-old Jake and his 7-year-old sister Emily were fighting so much that their parents sought the help of a child psychologist. The frustrated father is a minister who counsels adults for a living. The mother was totally confused: "How could a 12-year-old possibly be jealous of a 7-year-old?" she wondered aloud during one session.

After several sessions with Dr. Peter Goldenthal, a Pennsylvania family psychologist and author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry (Owl Books, 2000), Jake and Emily's family made a profound discovery. Jake wasn't jealous of his sister -- he was craving the physical affection and attention that Emily gets from Mom and Dad.

Jake wanted a hug -- a hug his dad was unwilling to give to a boy who was rapidly becoming a young adult. A hug was, well, uncomfortable. "My family was never big on that sort of thing," the dad said in a later session.

"Emily was receiving lots of physical affection, while the dad was unable to even put his hand on Jake's shoulder," says Goldenthal. "Jake was hurt by a relationship imbalance. He was doing his best to achieve, wanting to please his father. But his father wasn't doing an equal amount to build Jake up."

Believing that the source of sibling rivalry problems doesn't rest solely with the child, Goldenthal says you have to look at the entire family. Often something is out of balance in other parts of the family, usually with the relationship of the child and one or both parents.

Unfair treatment from parents, or at least the perception of it, is one of the triggers of one sibling's anger toward another. Goldenthal recommends parents pay particularly close attention to the fairness issue. "The more tuned in you are to the balance of fairness in your children's lives, the more you can do to reduce anger and family conflict, and the more you can do to prevent its occurrence in the first place," he writes.

To head off sibling friction, Goldenthal has these suggestions for parents:

  • Look for each child's unique abilities.
  • Acknowledge children's talents.
  • Celebrate the differences in each of your kids.
  • Be enthusiastic about the activities kids are enthusiastic about.
  • Acknowledge your children's accomplishments without comparing kids to each other.
  • Try to look at situations from your child's point of view.

Severity Scale

The following list can help you determine whether a child is being harmed by sibling quarrels, or even whether the cause might have nothing to do with the family.

  • When your children complain that something isn't fair, listen to determine if they have a legitimate complaint.
  • Unprovoked aggression, especially if it occurs shortly after the end of the school day, often reflects frustration about what happened in school.
  • You should be concerned if a child avoids activities that involve competition or if she suddenly drops an activity in which she previously had a lot of interest.
  • If your child has very little energy, loses interest in doing things that he previously enjoyed, or is often tearful and sad, be sure to take these signs seriously. They often mean that your child is feeling he can't do anything you value or appreciate.
Personality differences can cause clashes.

If the perception of unfairness is not the issue in sibling conflict, the source of friction could be as simple as understanding different personality types, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents and Power Struggles (Quill, 2001). Specifically, are your kids introverts, extroverts, or do they have some of each? The two categories don't always get along.

"Extroverts think out loud. They seek activity. They get bored unless they're seeking interaction," says Kurcinka, a Twin Cities educator and mother of two. "Introverts can be very social, but they need quiet, space, and down time.

"An introvert complains that somebody is standing too close. He's the one in the car who yells, 'Everybody be quiet!' Let him sit in the car where he has as much space as possible. To promote harmony, it's important to recognize those differences."

She advises that parents identify which kids are the introverts and extroverts, and educate them both about the other's characteristics. "It's as simple as saying you need to leave your (introverted) brother alone right now. He needs his quiet and his space," said Kurcinka. "When you plan vacations, you plan two things: Going out and doing to satisfy your extroverts. Also, plan more quiet, relaxing activity for your introverts. You balance that out."

Kurcinka advises the parents of extroverts to get them in play groups so these kids can feed off each other's need for interaction. Give introverts their time and space. If you have both in your family, Kurcinka says to make it clear that you'll meet each of their needs, but you won't do it in the same way.

Even kids the same age won't always get along.

No matter how much a parent is tuned into issues of fairness and personality differences, children are bound to fight. And the good news is, "It's normal," says Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It! Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline (Avon, 1995).

Furthermore, Coloroso says that a little sibling rivalry has benefits. "Teaching kids to relate with brothers and sisters is the practice ring for getting along with others when they are adults." For example, she says she'd tell kids it's all right to get angry if you want a toy and your brother won't give it to you, "but it's not all right to hit him."

First the kids need to calm down. Then, says Coloroso, it's time for the three Rs: Restitution, Reconciliation, and Resolution.

"The child who hit has to undo what he did as best he can with some restitution by, say, giving the toy back or by doing something nice for the victim. He has to talk it over with the victim and reconcile," says Coloroso. "Finally, he has to resolve to not do it again."

But Coloroso says she doesn't only want to hear what the child won't do. "I want to hear what he will do when he wants his brother's toy the next time and he won't give it to him. Kids need to learn how to negotiate. They have to learn that they only control 50 percent of a relationship -- that'll come in handy when they get older."


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