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Sometimes teenagers seem to fight all the time. If you approach these battles in a constructive way, you can help your child learn important skills for adult life.

Three teens sulking
 

Sibling fights: what you need to know

‘Who said you could wear my clothes?’ ‘Get out of my room!’ ‘You’ve been on the computer for hours!’

It’s normal for teenage siblings to fight over all sorts of things. Teenage siblings argue just as much as younger children, but they tend to fight about different things. They might also use different and more grown-up language.

Sibling fighting can be stressful for parents, but it has a useful purpose. When children interact with parents, they learn about authority. Interactions between brothers and sisters help them learn about relating to peers.

Also, if it’s handled the right way, sibling conflict can help children learn important life skills, such as how to:

  • solve problems and resolve conflicts
  • treat others with empathy
  • deal with different opinions
  • compromise and negotiate.
Listening to children’s fights can be infuriating and stressful, but this stage will pass. They might be fighting today, but siblings can offer each other support and protection at other times. Sibling squabbles can also help your children learn to be better friends, partners and workmates later in life.

Resolving sibling fights

Here are some suggestions for handling fights between teenage siblings.

Resolving arguments teaches children essential life skills, so avoid always stepping in to solve the problem for them – even though it might be faster and less stressful to fix the issue yourself. Try asking your children to listen to each other’s perspective. Then guide them towards a compromise, possibly using steps for problem-solving.

If your children need some help with conflict, coach them through it. Clarify what they’re arguing about, ask them what they each want, and prompt them to come up with solutions together.

Motivate your children to resolve the fight themselves. For example, if they’re fighting over the computer, take away their access to it until they can work out a solution together.

Keeping track of how the fights get resolved will help you make sure one child isn’t dominating the other. Make sure that compromise does happen, and that they’re each getting something. If they can’t compromise, create a consequence for both of them.

If they’re fighting, they’re both responsible. So look at what the conflict is about rather than focusing on who started it.

If you take sides, one child might feel unfairly treated and feel you’re showing favouritism. It’s better to get both teenagers to state their problems, and then brainstorm possible solutions.

Note: violent fights can damage the long-term relationship between siblings. You need to step in if your children are being violent.

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Our Talking to Teens interactive guide explores some tricky parent and teenager situations. For example, you can see how to use different approaches to sorting out fights between teenage siblings and get different results.

Reducing future fighting

You might be able to prevent or avoid fights between teenage siblings with a little bit of groundwork:

  • Give each child a personal domain. This could be a room (that other children can enter only when invited), belongings (some that they don’t have to share), or time with friends.
  • Try to be evenhanded. Teenagers are very quick to pick up on differential treatment.
  • Avoid getting into debates about what’s fair and equal. Explain to your children that their age difference might mean a difference in what they are allowed to do, and what responsibilities they have. Try to make sure that they get similar treatment at similar ages.
  • Encourage joint interests or family activities like exercising, going shopping or watching movies together. You could even set the children a goal to work on together (like cooking a special meal for the family).
  • Try not to compare siblings. Instead try to focus on each child’s strengths. It’s tempting to say things like ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother’, or ‘Your sister never did that’. But these messages can lead to bad feelings between siblings.
  • Show affection to all your children. Try to spend quality time regularly with each of them.
  • Establish clear family rules. For instance, physical aggression should never be acceptable. You might also want to make clear what kind of language is OK (for example, speaking to each other politely, and no swearing or making threats).
  • Give your children a chance to voice their concerns in an appropriate way. You could have family meetings to talk about problems and suggest solutions.
  • Try not to label your children. For example, talking about one child as the ‘difficult’ child can cause conflict or lead to challenging behaviour from that child.
  • Try to stay connected to your children. Keep the lines of communication open. Make sure your children know they can talk with you about any problem, and that you will try to help them find a solution.
  • You can also be a positive role model when it comes to handling fights. Children of all ages can learn how to negotiate and deal with differences by watching and listening to their parents.

Getting support

If your children are regularly fighting in physical, menacing or aggressive ways, you might need to do something about it. It’s important to seek help if the fighting is having a negative or distressing effect on others.

The best place to start is by talking to your GP, who can give you advice and refer you to a psychologist who specialises in children or teenagers if necessary.

More facts about sibling fights

Sibling fights peak in early adolescence, particularly when the youngest sibling hits this age. If a younger teenager sees an older sibling as another authority figure, fighting can increase as the younger child tries to gain independence from both parents and siblings.

Butting up against siblings is one way teenagers establish themselves as separate people with distinct likes and dislikes. This is part of their developmental journey towards autonomy and independence.

Teenagers choose their friends based on similar likes and interests – but they can’t choose their siblings. They might even feel they don’t have much in common with them (apart from the same gene pool).

The most common areas of conflict between teenage siblings are equality and fairness, personal space, possessions and friends.

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  • Last Updated 06-09-2010
  • Last Reviewed 22-05-2012
  • Campione-Barr, N., & Smetana, J. G. (2010). ‘Who said you could wear my sweater?’ Adolescent siblings’ conflicts and associations with relationship quality. Child Development, 81, 464–471.

    Raffaelli, M. (1992). Sibling conflict in early adolescence. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 652–663.

    Raffaelli, M. (1997). Young adolescents' conflicts with siblings and friends. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26, 539–558.

    Rinaldi, C., & Howe, N. (1998). Siblings’ reports of conflict and the quality of their relationships. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 44, 404-442.