An age-by-age guide for helping children get along
Published: May 26, 2021
By: Malia Jacobson
Parents of siblings may feel like full-time referees, with good reason. According to University of Toronto research, siblings fight up to eight times every hour — that’s a fight every seven minutes or so.
For years, parents were told to simply walk away and let kids work out fights on their own. This well-intentioned approach is both logical and practical; kids learn how to navigate conflict while parents get some welcome relief from the never-ending sibling drama. A win-win, right?
Not so fast. While this advice lets parents out of the referee role, research shows that it doesn’t squash conflict, and may hurt sibling relationships long-term. Although kids may seem to clash less often with this approach, research suggests that fights dwindle not because siblings learn to cooperate, but because one child dominates while the other simply gives up.
But parents can’t monitor every sibling squabble. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to guiding kids through sibling conflict, says psychotherapist and parenting coach Erin Bernau.
“It’s fair for parents to say, ‘I trust that you guys can figure this out. I’m here if you want to work through some solutions with me,’” Bernau notes. “That said, we also need to think about limiting the harm that severe sibling conflict can have. Sustained and dramatic sibling conflict can leave everybody feeling exhausted and wary of spending time together.” When tensions between sparring siblings are high, what’s a frustrated parent to do?
Thankfully, science has answers. Research shows that teaching children pro-social behavior — acts intended to benefit others like sharing, helping and comforting — is more effective than simply stepping in to stop fights. Here’s how to apply that approach to the most common sibling conflicts, from “it’s not fair!” fights to physical scuffles to bathroom battles.
Ages 2-6: Fair Share
If you feel like your toddler and preschool-age children bicker constantly, you’re not wrong; young siblings do fight more frequently than their older counterparts. “Mine fight all the time,” says Sarah Liao, mother to three young children. “Perceived fairness is a huge issue in our house, and my oldest just likes to antagonize our middle just to get a reaction because she likes to see him get upset.”
According to sibling expert Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., focusing on shared activities and play, instead of fighting, can help foster the warm, supportive sibling relationships that parents want for their children. She created a free online program called More Fun with Sisters & Brothers to help parents of siblings ages 4 through 8 learn how to promote sibling harmony and build strong lifelong bonds.
In the short term, parents can quiet the “it’s not fair!” chorus by making it clear that each child is valued and heard. “Parents can help to mitigate conflict by making clear that they are not picking sides whenever possible, and by showing kids in a deep and meaningful way that they value all of their children equally,” says Bernau. “If each child feels appreciation and unconditional love from parents, sibling conflict is more easily navigated.”
Ages 7-12: Roughing It
In The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, authors Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD, and Lawrence J. Cohen highlight the benefits of physical play. Roughhousing stimulates brain growth and helps kids develop emotional intelligence, behavioral regulation, and physical fitness. But lots of parents struggle to tell the difference between play fighting and real physical conflict. And when roughhousing kids slip into fight mode, they can wind up with battle scars both real and relational.
Parents can promote beneficial physical play — while keeping a lid on actual fighting — by learning what constitutes horseplay. Per research published in the journal Learning & Behavior, healthy roughhousing includes turn-taking and cooperation. It’s also supposed to be fun, so watch for smiles and laughter.
Ground rules help keep physical play safe and fun; kids should know that they can stop the game if it’s no longer fun and ask for adult help if needed, says Bernau. “Everyone deserves to feel safe in their body. While it can be completely healthy for kids to work out some conflict physically, this is also an opportunity to teach kids about limits, safety and consent.”
As with any other game, both siblings need to be willing participants in safe physical play, says Adele Faber, bestselling coauthor of Siblings Without Rivalry and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. “You don’t get to have a great time at someone else’s expense. When you’re a family, you look out for one another, so you can talk about ways to have fun together that keep your family values front and center.”
Ages 13-18: Space Wars
Bigger kids can mean bigger battles. Competitiveness between siblings peaks between ages 10 and 15 as they clash over everything from chores to bathroom space to who gets the prime seat on the sofa. It’s a near-constant challenge for Rachel Jenkins, mother of three children ages 11 through 17.
“Being an only child is such a disadvantage because I don’t get it,” Jenkins says. “They fight over their bedroom spaces, sharing the bathroom, bathroom chores and sharing gaming devices. When there’s a problem, it’s always somebody else’s issue.”
Parents may unwittingly spur sibling conflict by siding with one sibling more often — a habit teens are sure to notice. “It’s important for parents to self-reflect,” says Bernau. “Is there a child whose side we more naturally gravitate toward? What is this grounded in? Our own role in our family of origin? Some perceived vulnerability (either emotionally or physically) in the child? Is it just a reflex to see one child as the antagonist and one as the victim?”
These responses to sibling conflicts can be reflexive and rooted in our own childhoods, so it can be helpful to get feedback from a partner, a parenting coach, or a therapist, she says.
Challenge feisty teens to create solutions to ongoing conflicts over space, privacy and autonomy, and you might be surprised with their creativity, says Faber. “Teens who share space can come with up with strategies that work for everyone. The point is that they need to feel empowered and invested and part of the solution.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published journalist and parent of three.