When Siblings Fight: Should You Step In?

It's tempting to think that our children will be best friends, naturally and without conflict. But while we can encourage our kids to treat each other with kindness and respect, we can't force them to get along.
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At 10 and 12, Kari and Alison were two years apart -- but in two different worlds. Kari was quiet and reserved, and loved to read and paint by herself. Alison was outgoing and drawn to team sports; she had lots of friends and a constant desire to be around people. Neither one entirely understood, nor, it seemed to their mom, Jamie, especially liked the other. They'd fight incessantly: about what the other girl was wearing, about whose turn it was to choose the night's TV show, about whom the dog liked better, and, practically, whether or not the sky was blue. Sometimes Jamie had to laugh: How had she created two so very different girls?

And then sometimes she had to cry. There were days when Jamie found the fighting unbearable. Increasingly, the girls could hardly be in the same room without starting with each other, and had begun to talk back to their parents, too. What's more, Jamie worried that her kids' fighting might be a sign of things to come. Jamie and her own brother, Art, were extremely close, and always had been. Jamie relied heavily on Art for advice concerning work, love, and their parents especially. He had been a solid, consistent friend throughout their various life stages. She felt sad to think that her own kids might miss out on the sort of connection like the one she shared with her brother. After all, it was one of the reasons she and her husband -- who had grown up without siblings and hated it -- had chosen to have more than one child.

It's tempting to think that our children will be best friends, naturally and without conflict. But while we can encourage our kids to treat each other with kindness and respect, we can't force them to get along. They're different people; as such, they have a right to not enjoy one another's company. And though it may be annoying for you as parents, it's important to realize that sibling rivalry is completely normal. And more often than not has little to no bearing on the relationship they'll have later in life.

That is, if you handle it correctly. Most sibling relationships are at least a little complicated, and most quibbles among child siblings are harmless. They're also healthy. Surprised? Don't be. Arguing is how kids learn to articulate their feelings, compromise and problem-solve, and relate to others. It's part of how parents can prepare them for life in the real world, where not everyone gets along. In fact, fighting between siblings can be just as developmentally important as sibling camaraderie.

Just keep a few things in mind. For one, your job as a parent isn't to referee, nor is it to judge who's right and who's wrong in any given situation (which can be tough to do, especially when one child is more clearly "right"). Instead, your role is to make sure that everyone feels equally loved, nurtured, and supported, while setting limits on the disruption that constant fighting can cause. You can also help kids manage the feelings that come up -- be they anger, frustration, or hurt -- and teach them how to use those feelings to stick up, and speak up, for themselves. You can, and should, talk to them individually and together about what it means to be a good friend and family member, and then be sure to act the same way with the other adults in your life. Teach them that we might not always like other people's differences, but we can appreciate them and learn to live with them -- and that know these differences do not diminish the love we have for others, or they for us. Instill in them a sense of the importance of family, and what it means to love unconditionally.

One caveat: It's essential to intervene in cases where one child is the bully, and the other the victim. Admittedly, it can often be hard to tell the difference. Often, the roles of picker and picked-on are fluid, like in the case of Gina and Stephanie -- rival sisters as children but each other's best friend as adults. Back then, Gina would purposefully exclude Stephanie, her youngest sister, from games and make fun of her wild, curly hair; Stephanie would routinely rip holes in Gina's favorite shirts as they hung in her closet. In most cases, their squabbling was equally matched, but on occasion, their mother, Dorothy, would notice the older girl being troublingly aggressive. And that's when she'd step in.

But she'd do so in a very careful way. While it's your job to establish consequences, it's not your job to acknowledge which child is acting as the antagonist. Instead, teach your kids how to walk away. By guiding them to resolve conflict on their own, you can never be accused of taking sides -- of rewarding either the bully or the victim. Meanwhile, both parties learn about the responsibility they have to their own destiny.

And most of all, keep talking to your children about matters like jealousy, envy, and competitiveness. Remind them that all three are normal human emotions. Point out each child's positive qualities, and often. Tell them why you love them. And have faith that one day they will do the same for each other.

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