Siblings are bound to squabble. What’s a parent to do? What is considered normal sibling rivalry and what is considered problematic behavior? As a therapist for young children and families, I am asked these questions all time. Let’s sort it out!
During toddlerhood, a child begins to realize she is an individual entity and learns the power of two particular words: “No!” and “Mine!” It is not uncommon for a brawl to break out when a toddler’s beloved doll or truck is picked up by her sister or brother. If this is the root of your children’s conflict, it is unrealistic to expect your 2-year-old to be able to reason in this situation. Your job is to stand back, monitor and ensure safety.
I recommend allowing toddler siblings to have the experience of working through a conflict on their own. I know this can be difficult, so here is some parenting advice:
- Understand that children aged 2-3 are in a stage of child growth and development in which they are realizing their separateness from parents and others, and they are busy establishing their own territory. It’s important to allow them to experience these developmentally-appropriate feelings and work through them individually.
- Allow toddler siblings to work through conflict without intervention unless it looks like someone may get hurt. Experiencing conflict is a typical part of development and will often naturally lead to resolution. Jumping in to intervene at the first squawk is only going to deny your young children the chance to grow through this normal stage. You will need to begin building a tolerance for conflict between siblings.
- If it looks like someone might get hurt, step in with swift, gentle action and only use a few words. Keep your tone soft but firm and do not give a lecture (i.e., “The truck rolls on the ground. The truck is not for hitting your brother. Time to put the truck away so no one gets hurt.”)
- Soothe your toddler, who is upset that his territory has been invaded, with cuddling and reflective, empathetic statements like, “I understand you feel sad and mad that Amy took your doll.”
Preschoolers: Age of Reasoning
By the time your children have reached the ages of 4 and 5, their brains begin to be able to reason (as long as they are not tired or hungry!). At this stage of development, children start to realize who they are in relation to others. Their play moves from parallel to interactive and cooperative. Siblings may argue over which game to play, or who will be the superhero and who will be the bad guy.
Since this stage of development is such an important time for learning how to relate to others, it’s essential you allow siblings the opportunity to work through their conflicts, barring any risk of physical injury. Here are some tips for how to practice positive parenting in these situations:
- Avoid being the appointed referee or judge as much as possible. Encourage your children to find a way to work through the conflicts themselves. (i.e., “I know you are feeling frustrated. I bet that you and Susie can work together and find a solution.”)
- If you observe their attempts have failed and the situation is quickly beginning to heat up, you can step in as a sideline coach to nudge the conflict in a new direction without becoming overly involved. (i.e., “I wonder if you two could find a way to each have a turn?”) Then walk away. The seed has been planted! Let them work with that.
- If conflict escalates to the point of physical fighting, swiftly intervene without raising your voice or using angry expressions. If they are fighting over who gets to have the TV remote and it has come to physical action, remove the remote to a high place and affirm, “We don’t hurt each other when we feel frustrated. TV time will wait until you feel calm and can cooperate with each other.”
- After the storm passes, you can step into the shoes of the benevolent teacher and reflect on the emotions felt and the choices made. For example, once your children have calmed down, you can invite them to sit together with a snack and talk about the conflict in retrospect. For example, “Jenny, I noticed when you were feeling angry with your sister, you called her some names. Julie, I wonder how you felt when Jenny called you names?” The goal of this conversation is not to lecture, but rather to provide gentle guidance on recognizing emotions and developing empathy.
Survival Tips for Parents
The key to navigating sibling rivalry is allowing children to experience conflict and all the emotions that go along with it, understanding that this is a typical and important part of early childhood development. At the same time, it is important to hone the skill of intervention without anger (when physical injury is a risk).
This is obviously easier said than done, and dealing with quarreling siblings can feel very stressful for parents, so be sure to engage in a little self-soothing of your own. Deep, slow breaths, counting slowly to 20 and reminding yourself that this is all part of your children’s development can go a long way!
For more parenting tips on how to build strong sibling bonds among your children, check out this blog post.