Say So Long to Sibling Rivalry!

Ok, maybe not.  But it’s a catchy title, and honestly, there really is a way to ratchet sibling rivalry down more to a nuisance rather than a crisis in your family.  As a parent, you’ve seen how repeated requests to “Stop fighting!” or, “Knock it off!” or, “Be nice to your brother/sister!” simply does not produce the desired results.

Commands to “cease fire” might work for the first 30 seconds and then, because the issue(s) is unresolved, fighting erupts once again.  And all too often while you’re driving, pushing the grocery cart, or eating dinner at a friend’s house.  Why don’t orders to behave bring about what we want?  In a few words, there is a marked difference between telling them what to do vs. teaching them what to do.

Commands like this don’t work because they do not provide what kids actually need to learn, and the habit of cooperation with each other is a set of skills that are developmental and must be modeled and taught.  Teaching our children how to manage their emotions, communicate, or negotiate with their siblings through modeling and guidance imparts the idea to them that rather than control them, we want to coach them.  A coach sees in others their inner strengths and work to draw them out.  Who better to do this for them than us?

Now, if your children are fighting a lot, you’re probably feeling very discouraged. So I want to encourage you that no matter how you parent, all children fuss with each other sometimes—just as all couples fuss (or yell, bite, slug) sometimes, no matter how solid a relationship they have. Fighting doesn’t mean anyone is a bad person—not you, and not your children.

Maybe your children just can’t get through a day without some unpleasantness toward each other, but it does not follow from this that you’re doing something wrong.  Kids are naturally visceral; that is, they tend to operate in the moment and primarily act on whatever is happening inside them.  However, it is our job to help them learn the skills they need to demonstrate a graceful character rather than a self-absorbed one.  You can do it, and it’s never to late to start.

Let me begin by saying that kids are motivated to learn the skills we teach them primarily in the context of being connected with us, their parents.  No matter how well intentioned, skilled, or compassionate we may be, parenting is not something we can engage in outside of the context of connection.1  

There are many different reasons for sibling rivalry, and not all of them are based in not wanting to share, being tired or hungry, or roughhousing gone south.  Sometimes kids who are not getting their emotional needs met compensate by acting aggressively being overly sensitive, crying or becoming frustrated easily.

If kids aren’t getting the connection they need with their parents, it simply doesn’t leave them with much emotional bandwidth to relate to others. However, some research suggests that when parents focus on and strengthen the parent-child relationship as primary and address behavior as secondary, kids feel connected and have more tolerance for their interpersonal relationships.2  This is primarily because, as their parents, we were meant to be their safe place. We are their people.  We are on their team, and they must know that.  We are the people they can count on to guide them without judgment or conditional acceptance. 

When children have a safe and connected relationship with their parents, they learn that other people can be safe also, and this motivates them to want to stay in and work out their communal relationships (family, school, etc.)  (Its also important to remember that the way we parent directly affects their brain development (neurogenesis)). 

We were designed to develop emotional intelligence, and teaching our kids empathy, self-expression and negotiating skills transforms their relationships with each other. Who cares if you don’t serve a 3 course dinner to your children?  What matters most for who they become and the relationships they develop in their daily life as children.

So I’m giving you explicit permission to prioritize your children, and their relationship with each other. There will be some days when you simply can’t get to the dishes, the laundry, the emails. The only way to keep your children from bashing each other will be to sit on the floor with them to prevent the fights, to coach them to express their needs without attacking, and to find ways to transform tension into closeness with laughter or with tears. This is heroic work, especially because it’s so private—no one is there to see what it costs you but you.

As we model and teach using a positive approach rather than a punitive one, we become the change we want to see in our kids. When we are respectful when dealing with our children, they learn to model respect with each other. When we show kindness instead of anger toward rivalry, this models self-regulation for our kids so they know what it looks like when we begin to teach them to do it. 

Parenting this way generates more ability for kids to regulate their own emotions than children who have been raised with conventional discipline.3 Your patience is making a difference, even if you can’t see it yet.

Click here for part two, “Things to say when your children are fighting”




  1. Neufeld, Gordon. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers (Kindle Locations 200-201). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Brody, G. H. (1998). “Sibling Relationship Quality: Its Causes and Consequences.” Annual Review Psychology, vol. 49: 1–24.
  3. Kohn, Alfie (2006). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York: Atria Books


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