Ask The Psychiatrist: What Can I Do About Sibling Fighting?

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Siblings. We love them, we hate them, we love to hate them. It’s hard to imagine not fighting with someone we live with day in and day out. It’s only natural. But I get many questions about how to prevent teasing and put an end to the constant arguing. Here are some suggestions to help your kids learn to spend more time getting along.

Start them young, aka babies can give gifts

If your kids are still little, aka infant and toddler size, one suggestion is to have the baby “gift” toys, games or books to the older sibling(s). Being a toddler is hard enough, and the introduction of a new baby can be very disruptive for them. This may sound a bit like bribery, and maybe it is, but it can help paint the new intruder in a more positive light. For us this started literally in the hospital, where the newborn baby “gave” our toddler a LEGO set and a book, as well as birthday and holiday gifts all year long.

Consequences are for all

One common issue I see a lot is where one child (usually younger) tends to silently and repeatedly instigate the other (usually older) sibling, and when the older one finally explodes and fights back, they are the only one who gets caught and in trouble. This sets up a sneaky power dynamic for the instigator and can create a lot of hostility from the one who tends to get caught. So my recommendation is – unless you see the ENTIRE drama play out in front of you from start to finish – every child involved in a fight gets the same consequence. This way it’s equal treatment for all and will discourage the instigator from starting anything because they know they will also have consequences.

Have serious conversations in private

Siblings love to learn each other’s weaknesses because it helps them identify triggering topics. If you have to have a serious conversation with one about behavior or problems, do it privately so no one else can hear. Avoid yelling or scolding the kids in front of their siblings as this can be very embarrassing and encourages the “bad kid in the family” dynamic. Having these conversations privately will create trust between you and your kids and prevent the others from learning information they could later use to poke and provoke.

Encourage common interests

Some siblings have few mutual interests which can make finding common ground really challenging. Make an effort to find things they enjoy doing together, even if it’s not convenient for you. When you do find something, soak them in lots of positive praise and try to make the bonding time as fun as possible.

Preventative measures

Some families struggle with the older sibling no longer having interest in the younger one, which leads the younger one to repeatedly bother them because any attention is better than no attention. This really annoys the older sibling and makes them even less interested in playing together. In these scenarios, I encourage the older sibling to spend 10-20 minutes up front with the younger sibling doing something the younger one enjoys. This is often enough to appease the younger one’s need for attention and guarantees the older one some alone time interruption-free.

Incentives for getting along

I am not shy about reinforcing positive behaviors, I just try to set expectations at the beginning. For instance, if we are driving to Tahoe, I’ll tell my kids, if you can get along this entire car ride without any fighting or screaming, there will be a reward. I will also enforce negative consequences, too. Sometimes if our kids are fighting in the car we will revoke tablet time and continue to take away minutes for every minute they continue to fight. These types of incentives can be particularly helpful during events or times where you really need them to get along, such as being in small spaces, traveling, or public/family events. Aka ‘you can each buy a new book tomorrow if you don’t fight during Uncle Sam’s wedding!’ You get the idea.

Minimize competition by recognizing each child’s individual strengths

Your children are naturally going to have various strengths and weaknesses, and they will be constantly comparing themselves to each other. Try your hardest to acknowledge each of their strengths every day, and if discussing weaknesses, do it privately. It’s ok to celebrate one child’s successes, like winning the tournament or getting an A on a project, just make sure the other one(s) are also getting similar celebrations for their successes. And yes, for some kids it may be harder to identify their strengths, but this is SO important. I also encourage the kids to acknowledge each other’s strengths, too. At dinner time you could encourage a weekly “positive feedback” roundtable, where each person acknowledges something they love or appreciate about the others. Sometimes hearing it from a sibling means more than a parent.

Spend individual time with each child every day

Yes I know, that sounds crazy hard. Impossible even. But I promise you it makes a big difference. At the end of the day, siblings are fighting over you and your attention and time. So try really hard to spend a little bit of time alone with each of them. For me, this looks like 10-20 minutes of snuggles every night with each child separately, talking about their day. If a daily commitment is too hard, this could also be each child gets to pick a special mommy/daddy only trip each week – shopping, nails, going for a walk/bike ride, etc. It doesn’t have to be a full day event, but it does need to be one on one time with just the two of you. Yes this is hard and demanding, but if your kids are fighting a lot, this one change can make a HUGE difference. The most important thing here is to make sure you are drawing your child’s attention to this special time. Make several comments throughout about how much you enjoy this “daddy daughter” or “mommy son” time so it’s really registering in their brain that it’s happening.

My final piece of advice – model whatever behavior you want your children to have. If you want them to treat each other with more kindness and respect, make sure you are demonstrating that for them too. And also, pat yourself on the back. Raising siblings is really hard work, and we are all doing the best we can. Good luck!


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Meredith is a transplant to the Bay Area and has fallen in love with the weather, gorgeous scenery, and plethora of local wineries. A wife and mother of two, she works part-time as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. She hails from Texas, where she attended the University of Texas and will always bleed orange. She then moved to Washington DC to attend Georgetown's School of Medicine, where she fell in love with her future husband, a fellow student, and has been happily married for almost a decade. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for several years for their medical training and found it the perfect place to start a family. She relocated to the Bay Area a few years ago and has quickly adapted to West Coast living. Meredith enjoys the balance of part-time working and full-time parenting and loves to write about this ongoing struggle. In her persistent drive to find more "me time", she actively pursues her interests in reading, running, soccer, baking, and wine tasting.

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