Helping siblings get along

A certain amount of arguing and fighting between siblings is normal; however, there are things caregivers can do to help children learn to get along.

Three happy children making food at a kitchen table.
Photo: Pexels.

Sibling rivalry can be a major source of stress for families. As parents and caregivers, we want our children to be good friends and look out for each other. One expert, Dr. Carolyn Webster-Stratton, states in her book “The Incredible Years: A Trouble Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Ages 2-8,” that a certain amount of arguing and fighting between brothers and sisters is normal. However, there are things caregivers can do to help children learn to get along.

One source of sibling rivalry is resentment, especially when children feel their parents prefer one child over another. Remind both yourself and your children that “fair” does not always mean “equal.” Every child needs to feel special and honored for their uniqueness. Intentionally spend one-on-one time with each child, at least once a week, doing something that they love. It doesn’t need to be an elaborate event. It can be a trip to the grocery store, the library or a walk around the neighborhood. The quality of the connection is what counts, not the quantity. You may find that children are more enjoyable during those times they are not competing for your attention and affection.

Everyone needs their own space, even children. Older children need space to hang out with friends, while younger children need space to spread out and play with toys. Children need to learn personal boundaries, which is an important life skill. You can help by teaching children to learn to respect each other’s space. Guide them by encouraging permission seeking, negotiating and accepting that sometimes the answer is “no.” Also, remind children that they have the right to say “no” as well. It’s okay to have things that are special only to us, so teach children not to touch things that do not belong to them, even their sibling's stuff.

Family is like training camp for learning to get along with others, a critical skill for life success. You can help by teaching problem solving skills as a part of your parenting. Try holding weekly family meetings to discuss any problems before they erupt to more serious conflicts. Give each child time to express any grievances without interruptions. Then work together as a family to think about solutions that work for everyone. Each week during family meetings, check back in to see how the solutions are working or not, and make any adjustments needed.

When siblings fight, try ignoring minor arguments and instead encourage them to work things out on their own. Offer suggestions if needed. Remember to notice and make positive comments when they do find equitable solutions. If sibling fights turn physical, it is important to impose consequences for both children. Don’t get hooked into the details of the drama as to who started or escalated the conflict. Step back and be impartial. By doing this, you are helping both children take responsibility for their own behavior, a valuable life lesson about self-control.

One resource you may find helpful is “Siblings: You’re Stuck With Each Other, So Stick Together, by James J Crist, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Verdick. It is an easy-to-read guide for kids ages 8-13 on how to handle everyday sibling problems like jealousy, conflict, and tattling. It also has a section with topics such as siblings with special needs, step siblings, and adoptive siblings. The overall message of the book is that siblings can be our best friends. It can be a fun way for the whole family to participate in building better relationships.

Even though it can be a source of stress, sibling rivalry is a perfect time to practice getting along with others in life and learning how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Parents and caregivers can help by accepting that children are not always going to get along and instead focus on teaching valuable life skills. To learn more, visit MSU Extension's Healthy Relationships website.

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