Parenting Guild

Dealing With Sibling Rivalry

Parents of teenagers or preteens may be troubled by the amount of fighting, both verbal and physical, that goes on between their children. This is a common problem in homes with adolescents and one many parents find particularly difficult and upsetting. One father said, "They are constantly bickering and yelling. There's no peace in the house anymore. They won't listen to me, and nothing I do seems to have any effect on them. Why do they hate each other so?"

If parents experience these kinds of problems and concerns, it may help if they try to gain a better understanding of sibling battles and then develop a plan for dealing with them in their home.

Why Do They Hate Each Other?

In this society, people have the expectation that they will love and get along well with everyone in their family. They always expect to feel positive toward their parents, brothers, sisters, spouse and children. Most people, however, have at least some times when they don't feel very loving toward each other.

Relationships within a family are close, both emotionally and physically, and very intense. When the television show parents have been looking forward to is being drowned out by the cheerleading practice in the basement, or when the turkey leg they were saving for a snack is missing from the refrigerator, or when their spouse is gleefully telling a crowd of friends how they dented the car fender, they are not likely to feel loving. Because they are so close, family members have a greater power than anyone else to make other members feel angry, sad, confused -- and loving. This is as true for children and adolescents as it is for adults.

Most siblings have probably been good friends and good enemies as they have grown. Having a sibling provides an opportunity to learn to get along with others. Especially when siblings are younger, they may fight bitterly, but they will probably be playing together again an hour later.

For example, a child will say something hateful to a sibling, knowing full well they will still be siblings and friends when the fight is over. If the same thing was said to a playmate outside the family, that playmate might take his or her marbles and go home for good. Thus, children learn from relationships with siblings just how certain words or actions will affect another person without the fear of losing the person's friendship.

Why Do They Fight?

Siblings fight for a number of reasons.
  • They fight because they want a parent's attention, and the parent has only so much time, attention and patience to give.
  • They fight because they are jealous: "He got a new bike. I didn't. They must love him more than they love me."
  • They fight over ordinary teasing which is a way of testing the effects of behavior and words on another person: "He called me..." "But she called me...first."
  • They fight because they are growing up in a competitive society that teaches them that to win is to be better: "I saw it first." "I beat you to the water."
Children need not weeks or months but years to learn some of the socially approved ways to behave in relationships. Lessons about jealousy, competition, sharing and kindness are difficult to learn, and, indeed, some adults still haven't learned them.

Adolescents fight for the same reasons younger children fight. But adolescents are bigger, louder and better equipped physically and intellectually to hurt and be hurt by words and actions.

From a parent's point of view, they "ought" to be old enough to stop that kind of behavior. What parents may forget is that adolescents are under pressure from many different directions. Physical and emotional changes and changes in thinking cause pressures, as do changing relationships with parents and friends.

Teens may be concerned about real or imagined problems between their parents. They feel pressure about the future as adults and about learning to be an adult.

In many ways, teens are in greater need than ever for parental love, attention and concern and for a belief that they are as good as their siblings. The adolescent may not recognize these needs or may be too embarrassed to express them verbally, so fighting with siblings as a way to get parental attention may actually increase in adolescence.

In truth, children don't really hate each other, at least not all the time. As children mature and learn to control their energies and anxieties, chances are they will be good friends.

What Can Parents Do To Make The Fighting Stop?

Parents can recognize the reasons for the fighting and make up their minds that they will not tolerate it. It's not easy to stick to that resolution! However, many parents have found that sticking to that resolution is the most important factor in bringing peace to their home.

Parents should tell adolescents that while it's normal to have disagreements, the constant fighting upsets them and they value peace at home. They can say they will no longer be the judge and jury over the siblings' disputes and they will not stand for it! Then, they must stand by the resolution.

One father reported that every time a fight started, he would say to his adolescents, "You're fighting. I'm leaving." And then he would go out to work in the yard or take a drive or run an errand -- but he simply walked away from the fighting. A mother used a similar tactic. When the fighting began, she said, "Call me when it's over." Then she went to her bedroom, slamming the door to emphasize her point. Another parent made his adolescents leave the house when they began fighting.

In each of these cases, the parents demonstrated that fighting would not get their attention and they would not get involved in the fight. Other parents have had success in imposing penalties for fighting, such as fines deducted from allowances or a certain amount of grounding for each fighter. These parents are showing adolescents the cost of fighting is higher than the reward. Whatever tactic parents use, if they are consistent and stick to their guns, they will almost certainly be successful in reducing the amount of fighting between their children.

Living with fighting adolescent siblings is not pleasant. If parents can remain calm in the face of battling teens, if they can retain their sense of humor and if they put up a determined and united front, they will find the war in their living room will end before long.

A Parent's Checklist

As a parent, do you:
  • Set aside some time to be alone with each child?
  • Recognize that each child is different?
  • Make sure your adolescents realize they are each unique and have a special set of strengths?
  • Praise adolescents for being who they are not just for what they can do?
  • Avoid initiating competition among children?
  • Realize adolescents and younger children need to be given the right to decide not to share at least some of the time?
  • Be sure older children are not usually forced to give in to younger ones because "he's little" or "she doesn't know better?"
  • Talk to the adolescents about their fighting?
  • Believe there can be something good in sibling fighting?

To discuss any concerns you have about your teen, call the Parent Line at 1-800-258-0808 (231-7923 in Fargo).

Adapted for use in North Dakota by DonnaRae Jacobson, family science specialist, NDSU Extension Service, from a publication written by Judith O. Hooper, assistant professor of family studies, University of Wisconsin-Extension. Re-printed from Parenting Pipeline. Used with permission.
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