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Tips for Responding to Sibling Conflict

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How To Properly Respond to Sibling Conflict

Conflict between siblings is inevitable.  In fact, all of life is full of dealings with others who have different priorities, styles, values and methods. So really, conflict is a natural part of life.  Conflict is something to learn to manage well rather than something to feel badly about or avoid.

Don’t measure your parenting competency by how much your children fight, but rather by how you respond to their fighting.  The first step always in my parenting approach is to help parents understand the dynamics that are sustaining a behavior.   Here are some facts about sibs:

1) Fighting is Cooperative.  It takes two to fight.  Both play a role in the conflict.  Both have the ability to chose behaviors that will either escalate or de-escalate conflict.  If they choose escalation, it’s because they agreed to go that direction.  (See? And just when you didn’t they agree on anything!)

2) Behavior is Goal-Oriented.  Behavior is movement away from a perceived position of inferiority to a position of security or “felt plus.”  The usefulness of fighting is usually found in the parent’s response:

  • Fighting results in parental attention.  Albeit negative, negative attention is still better than no attention at all.  Let’s face it, children who behave well get ignored and those who act up get parents engaged.  It’s a no-brainer, really.
  • One child acts in the role of the “victim” and finds a benefit in acting weak and incapable, so that they learn by being helpless, a parent will step in and fight their battles and punish their siblings–making them feel they are favored over their sibling.
  • One child acts in the role of the “aggressor” and may already feel they are treated unfairly in the family.  They arrange life to prove their belief that they are treated unfairly.  Two kids kerfuffle and yet they are the only one to be sent to their room?  “SO UNFAIR!  SEE, I TOLD YOU…. YOU HATE ME AND LOVE HER!”


1) Ignore – When your sibs are fighting, don’t referee.  No matter how “fair and objective” you think you are, someone is going to think you are taking sides.  Trust me, you can’t win this one.  Instead, honor that they are the caretakers of their own relationship with each other and leave them to deal with one another. “I don’t enjoy being with you two when you are choosing not to get along.  Call me when you feel like getting along.” Then LEAVE….  (Notice in the language I am explaining to them that its their CHOICE to get along or not? That is not conscious to them so it’s good to spell it out.)

2) Put Them in the Same Boat – Just like the expression goes: imagine your two siblings in a canoe both trying to paddle to different shores. Eventually, left on their own with the reality of the situation, they will discover that if they cooperate they can paddle to both shores, and without cooperation, they can get nowhere!  If you feel ignoring the fighting is not an option, put them in the same boat such that, whatever consequence befalls one, befalls the other. For example:

“Seems the computer is causing conflict.  I’m going to turn it off until you two have a plan worked out for sharing it cooperatively.”


“It seems you two are having a hard time playing together without hurting each other–you both need to take five minutes in our rooms to chill out.  Let see if you can play safely again after that.”

3) Family Meeting – If one child always acquiesces to another, and it seems unfair to you, don’t get sucked into fighting for one child’s rights.  Instead, put the issue you feel is unfair on the family meeting agend and discuss it outside the time of conflict.

You’ll be very surprised how cooperative your child become when you step out of your traditional role!

I know it’s hard to believe this will work, so here is a testimonial:

I have to say Alyson’s advice to do with siblings and fostering sibling harmony have been some of the best tools we have put into practice in our home. And funny enough at first it felt the most un-intuitive to NOT micromanage how our kids were getting along! Our kids are now 5 and 3 and yes of course, they have the odd squabble, but we do our best to stay out~ And they have an amazing ability to reconcile, compromise, share and most of all, are empathetic to each other, all on their own. We see this positive behaviour reflected in how they treat their friends too. It’s incredibly rewarding. Thanks Alyson, for all your encouragement along the way and for your very sage advice. We are expecting the arrival of our third child so I am off to re-read the sibling chapters for a refresher!”  – Mya Kraft  ( Alyson’s Parenting Bootcamp alumni from Winnipeg)


About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

5 Responses to “Tips for Responding to Sibling Conflict”

  1. Denise Dillon

    Hi Alyson, I love this article and would love to reprint this in the winter newsletter for Durham Parents of Multiples. I’m wondering if you would give me permission to reprint this “Tips for Responding to Sibling Conflict”. Thanks, Denise Dillon, Newsletter Editor, Durham Parents of Multiples.

  2. Kristin

    I’m so grateful to have found your book “Honey, I Wrecked the Kids”! Thank you!
    We have already made some huge strides with our headstrong 4.5yr old. She is an amazing kid and we are really enjoying each other so much more. One problem that has stuck around is the 4.5 yr old carrying around, pulling on, pinching, flat out kicking/pushing down, etc. her younger sister (16months). It makes my blood boil and I know this is why she does it but I am at a loss as to what to do about it. The little one can not communicate what she needs yet (I have said “She is telling you she doesn’t like that when she yells and cries” which works sometimes.) and surely can not defend herself (I don’t want her to feel like she has to learn to defend herself against her sister anyway!) Wondering if there is anything specific I am not thinking of when it comes to diffusing this situation. I feel like I have to be involved because of the ages. Maybe talking with the 4.5yr old at a calm time about it? Is that just bringing up something that doesn’t need to be brought up outside of the situation? Any thoughts would be great!! Thanks so much.

  3. Jennifer

    Hi there Alyson

    Firstly, thank you for your wonderful books and seminars, which I have been lucky enough to have access to. My husband and I subscribe to your advice and theories and follow them as best we can. We have three kids, 2-1/2 yrs apart’ ages 4, 6 and 9. The relationship between our 9 yr old daughter and 6 yr old son is great. They’re each other’s best friend. The dynamic between our son and his 4 yr old sister is entirely a different story. He’s normally a nice, somewhat quiet kid with friends, adults and family, but he’s really cruel to his sister, saying things, when he thinks no one is listening, like “I hate you, I wish you weren’t my sister, you smell, I wish you didn’t exist”. I’ve discovered this from listening in at home, and I asked their daycare teachers about it, whereupon they listened in and discovered the same. All of this ‘listening in’ is within the context of me trying to assess what’s been going on with my 4 yr old daughter, who has begun wetting her pants, hitting and bullying other kids, and generally becoming very challenging lately.

    I have done everything you suggest, ignoring it, putting them in the same boat by saying we can’t go to fun activities unless we demonstrate nice words to each other, or saying that everyone has to play by themselves until they can demonstrate that they can play nicely together, family meetings, but nothing seems to be working. The daycare has given us a warning that if our daughter keeps up with the peeing her pants and bullying, they may need to ask her to leave the daycare.

    So, here we are, two working parents who will do anything to help our children be happy and whole and successful, and we’re at our wits end.

    Any further suggestions?

  4. Alyson Schafer

    Hello Jennifer, You’re 4 year old daughter is showing signs of discouragement. Why might she be discouraged? Let me share some of my thinking with you, while fully disclosing that I only have your note to go on. I have not met your children and its disrespectful to conclude things so quickly and without sufficient information. But, still – I will just “think out loud” of what went through my mind as I read your note.

    First off, She is the baby of the family so her size and development would naturally put her “behind” her brothers. The two older children are also tight, so she may feel marginalized and unable to get into their sibling circle. It also sounds like her 6 yo brother is using some power / bullying tactics to belitter her further. However, the behaviour issues you share are from school. To understand behaviour, we have to see it in the context of the social field in which it occurs. By pushing others around in her class she is trying to finding her status through being tough and rough and superior. I suspect she is not yet socially intergrated into her class. I suspect she also is using her peeing in her pants as a way of defeating and retaliating against her teachers. Does she feel she is liked be her teachers? Or is she being constantly corrected for her behaviours in the classroom such that she feels their stigma against her?

    My best advice for the short term is to ask the teachers to help improve the relationships they have with her by showing her signs of genuine caring, kindness and affection. Befriend her! The teachers can also work to help her find a place of belonging in the classroom through useful contributions. What could she do to help the class? A job she could do? A responsibility to have? A talent or strength that could be utilized or demonstrated?

    I hope some of this helps!

  5. K. LeGallais

    Suggesting they go to their rooms…..that would NEVER happen! Especially my daughter, she’d just say no.


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