Sibling fighting: what you need to know
It’s natural for pre-teen and 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 also has a useful purpose. When children interact with parents, they learn about authority. But interactions with their siblings help them learn about and practise skills for relating to peers. If sibling fighting is handled the right way, these skills include:
- solving problems and resolving conflicts
- treating others with empathy
- dealing with different opinions
- compromising and negotiating.
How to resolve sibling fights
Here are some suggestions for handling fights among pre-teen and teenage siblings.
Encourage siblings to resolve fights themselves
Resolving arguments by themselves teaches children essential life skills, so avoid always stepping in to solve problems for them – although this might be faster and less stressful. Try asking your children to listen to each other’s perspective. Then encourage them to find a compromise, possibly using steps for problem-solving.
You can also motivate your children to resolve fights themselves. For example, if they’re fighting over the games console, take away their access to it until they can work out a solution together.
Help with problem-solving
If your children need some help, you can model problem-solving for them by helping them work out what they’re arguing about, asking them what they each want, and prompting them to come up with solutions together. Writing things down can be a good idea, because it helps them get all their ideas on paper.
Focus on what the fight is about
If they’re fighting, both children are responsible, so it’s best to focus on what the fight is about rather than 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 children to state their problems, and then brainstorm possible solutions.
Help siblings calm down
Fights among siblings can bring up strong emotions. As your children work on resolving arguments and conflict, it’s good – although not always easy – for them to stay calm. They might need time or help to calm down.
Keeping track of how fights get resolved
This 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.
How to reduce sibling fighting in the future
You might be able to reduce or avoid fights between teenage siblings with a little bit of groundwork.
Treating children equally
- Try to be even handed. This might include scheduling equal access to the games console, or ensuring each child has a turn at getting what they want. Teenagers are very quick to pick up on different treatment.
- 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. Children are never too old for some individual quality time.
- 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.
- 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’re allowed to do and what responsibilities they have. Try to make sure that they get similar treatment at similar ages.
Building positive family relationships
- Give children personal space. This could be a room that other children can enter only when invited, belongings that they don’t have to share, or time with friends without needing to include their siblings.
- 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 – for example, cooking a special meal for the family.
- 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’ll try to help them find a solution.
- Establish clear family rules. For instance, physical aggression is never OK. You might also want to make clear what kind of language is OK. For example, your family rules might include ‘We speak to each other politely’ or ‘We don’t tolerate swearing’.
- 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.
- 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.
When and where to get support for sibling fighting
It’s important to seek help if there’s sibling conflict that:
- won’t stop
- is upsetting others or hurting their feelings
- is regularly physical, menacing or aggressive.
The best place to start is by talking to your GP, who can give you advice. If necessary, the GP can also refer you to a psychologist who specialises in children’s or teenagers’ behaviour issues. It’s best to involve both children, because taking only one child for help with sibling fighting might make that child feel solely responsible.
More facts about sibling fighting
Sibling fights peak in early adolescence, particularly when the youngest sibling hits this age.
If a younger teenage child sees an older sibling as another authority figure, fighting can increase as the younger child tries to gain independence from both parents and siblings. When siblings are closer to each other in age – for example, by 1-2 years – they tend to fight more as the youngest reaches early adolescence.
Conflict with 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. How siblings work through their conflicts shapes the way they feel about and relate to each other.
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 genes).
The most common areas of conflict between teenage siblings are equality and fairness, personal space, possessions and friends.