Sibling Relationships and

How to Avoid Sibling Rivalry

Question: I know it’s normal for kids to fight, but their fighting drives me crazy! It seems that it’s become a habit to get a rise out of each other. I’m tired of reprimanding them, separating them and even taking away toys. This seems to work temporarily, but the behavior persists. How can I respond more effectively so I can live in peace again?

Response: I’m sure many parents can relate to your situation. The only thing more uncomfortable than being in a conflict is being around one!

Some parents “let kids work it out” by doing nothing, but if the children use insults, humiliation, or physically duke it out, then it will only make matters worse!

Some parents will dive into the action and solve problems for their children. While this may bring peace and order quickly, it robs children of an opportunity to learn and practice resolving conflicts.

The healthiest approach is to teach children how to work out conflicts with each other, then allow them time to use the skills. If they don’t, then you intervene in a way that helps them solve the problem themselves, but with your guidance.¬† Read Chapters 7 & 8 in The Parent’s Toolshop: The Universal Blueprint for Building a Healthy Family for a comprehensive training on dealing with sibling issues, including step-by-step solutions and dialogues for the Top Ten Sibling issues.

Here are some practical tools from these chapters to use.

A Helpful Way to Look at Sibling Relationships

Any two people in a relationship will likely experience conflict at some point.

How children handle these conflicts and relationships determines whether they will lead to sibling rivalry, which is when the sibling relationship becomes competitive and their treatment of teach other becomes destructive.

Our goal is not to insist that our children love or even like each other, but that they treat each other with respect, even when working out their conflicts.

Six Strategies for Preventing Sibling Rivalry

Many sibling conflicts are preventable if parents can address the causes of sibling rivalry.

  1. When a new child joins the family, involve the older child from pregnancy and thereafter, instead of pushing away the child out of fear he or she might hurt the baby. Too often, this reject only fuels the child’s resentment and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!
  2. Avoid the Fair & Equal Trap. Instead, give according to individual needs. For example:
    • Instead of “I love you both the same,” describe the special qualities that a child has.
    • Instead of buying “equal” gifts, give according to need/desire
    • Instead of spending “equal” time, give according to needs, and make it quality time.
  3. Avoid Comparisons. Instead, simply say what you need to say to one child without any reference to the other.
  4. Avoid putting children in roles and using labels — even good ones. They foster resentment and jealousy.
  5. Avoid Unhealthy Competition. In unhealthy competition, the pressure to win is more important than the fun of playing or the value of the skills we learn in the process. When parents encourage their children to race, to motivate them into action, there will always be a loser — usually the youngest or weakest child. Losing only discourages children more — and the more discouraged the child becomes the more likely the child will resent the winner and retaliate later. Instead, make an activity fun by singing a song or setting a timer to see how quickly the task can be done, with no winners or losers.
  6. When disagreements escalate into fights, it is a symptom of the feelings the children have but have difficulty expressing. So allow children to have and express negative feelings about their siblings — as long as they express them respectfully.

Two Quick Responses that Can Stop Conflicts or Fights

  1. Problem-Solving “On The Run”:
    • Sentence 1: acknowledge feelings and what the problem seems to be.
    • Sentence 2: Ask what the child(ren) can do to solve the problem.

    2. ¬†¬† Tell them they need to solve the problem on their own, respectfully. If they can’t/won’t, tell them if you need to solve it for them, they might not like your solution AND they will have to do problem-solving with you later to come up with a longer-term solution.

If They Can’t Work it Out on Their Own

Use a 3-step process I call F-A-X Listening:

  1. (F)Focus on Feelings:
    • Call a meeting and explain the purpose
    • Explain the ground rules
    • Write down each child’s feelings and concerns.
    • Read them aloud.
    • Allow each child time for rebuttal
  2. (A)Ask helpful questions
    • See if you can help them identify what the real issue is. For example, if they are arguing over the remote but when you listen to their feelings you hear the issue is really personal space, that’s the problem you want them to solve.
  3. (X)Examine possible solutions
    • Invite everyone to suggest as many solutions as possible.
    • Write down all the ideas.
    • Have them decide on the solutions they can both/all agree to.
    • Follow-up to see how things are working.
  • All it takes is doing this F-A-X problem-solving process a few times with verbal children and they will start using the process when you tell them to “work things out respectfully.”¬† Get the “Solving Sibling Strife” teleseminar resource package which delves deep into the actual language of mediation and exactly what to say/do at each step and avoid common pitfalls.

For more information, tools and tips on solving sibling strife:


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent‚Äôs Toolshop¬ģ Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop¬ģ trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens of thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops¬†and hundreds of interviews with the¬†media¬†worldwide, including Parents¬†and¬†Working Mother¬†magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent‚Äôs Toolshop¬ģ, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website,

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