Sibling conflict is parents’ number one frustration about family life, according to new research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. And there’s good reason to be concerned about the yelling you hear during playtime: Problematic sibling relationships are strongly linked to aggressive and antisocial behavior later in life, research shows.
The good news is that inter-sibling bickering itself isn’t necessarily harmful; in fact, it can be an important part of kids’ social development. “Conflict is simply how we broker disagreements and differences, so handling conflict is a critical skill,” says Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist in Austin, Texas, and the author of Stop the Screaming. If kids can learn how to handle conflict “in constructive ways, that’s a tremendous education,” Pickhardt says. Research also shows that warm sibling bonds are linked with academic success, better peer and romantic relationships, and improved mental health. We tapped top child psychologists for tips on creating a positive sibling relationship in your family.
The Challenge: Bossy big brother
Most kids torment their brother or sister at one time or another, and often they’re just fooling around, but it’s important to break the pattern, says Mark Feinberg, a research professor at Penn State University. “Kids learn that if they act in a certain way—if they’re louder and more aggressive than anybody else—they get what they want,” he says. “Then they develop a style of relating to people that’s aggressive, pushy, and domineering, and it causes problems down the line.”
To stop a fight, separate your kids and give them a few minutes to settle down. Then speak to them calmly. “You need to model the kind of emotional control you want them to have,” Pickhardt says. Ask what feelings made your child behave that way and talk about better ways to handle that emotion, Pickhardt suggests.
The Challenge: Treating them differently
“Why does she get to go to bed at 8:30 when I have to go to bed at 7:30?” your younger daughter laments. “Unfairness is a double standard that you just can’t win,” Pickhardt says. The job is not for parents to be fair, but to treat each child according to her individual needs.
“You don’t need to over explain yourself,” says Sybil Hart, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Human Develop-ment & Family Studies at Texas Tech University. “You could say, ‘Everybody gets what somebody their age needs,’ and then change the subject.” Trying to defend your decisions to a worked-up 8-year-old isn’t the answer. Keep it simple and factual and then move on.
The Challenge: They’re always competitive
How did your two little girls wind up competing on the soccer field, in ballet, and on their report cards? In particular, siblings who are the same gender and around the same age often share interests, and conflict can arise when both seem bent on outshining the other. “In many sibling relationships, at the heart of the issue is competition over being respected and recognized by their parents,” Feinberg says. “There’s a need for parents to spend time with each child one-on-one as best they can, as this helps the child feel recognized as an individual and not just part of a sibling group.” When your schedule allows, plan face-to-face time with each kid, ideally in a way that nods to his or her unique interests—the dog park for the animal lover, going to a local concert for the budding musician.
How do you deal with sibling conflict? Tell us in the comments!