Managing Sibling Bickering: Strategies For Helping Everyone Adapt

On their way to adulthood, many children go through phases during which they argue with their siblings. Whether they fight over who can play with the beloved stuffed bear or, as teenagers, who raided whose closet to borrow a much-loved t-shirt, siblings quarrel and even shout at each other occasionally. These episodes often result in an emotionally-strained environment that puts everyone in the family a little on edge.

Understanding what’s behind these arguments is a vital part of keeping parents and other caregivers calm; after all, knowing what causes a problem is the first step in solving it.  Sibling bickering is no different; as parents, you need to know the real cause of the disputes before you can come up with ways to keep them from escalating into serious, hurtful scenes.

In this post, we examine why siblings fight, and offer strategies for you when dealing with their conflict. We can’t promise these ideas will stop every future spat between your children, but they go a long way toward keeping the peace at home and helping you, the “referee,” stay on an even keel.

Why They Bicker:

Conflict between siblings is usually prompted by two things: birth order and family dynamics. There is nothing parents can do about the former, but you can certainly change the latter. For example: is your youngest envious because their older siblings get to stay up late? Conversely, does the eldest child feel put upon because they often have to babysit their younger sibling? Factors like these make their relationship ripe for arguments, as they take their frustrations out on each other rather than expressing what is troubling them. Try to identify the true source of the conflict, rather than just halting the superficial bickering. Once you understand what’s truly at the root of it, you can employ strategies to alter or end the reason for the fighting.  

So, once you understand the root causes of sibling disagreement, how do you manage it?

Here are some suggestions for handling it so that you – and the entire household – feel calmer, more peaceful and more harmonious.

1. Never take sides.

Even if the fight seems to clearly be one sibling’s fault, there is always more to the story and you must get to the heart of it. As the parent, you have to maintain objectivity and impartiality, as much as you possibly can. Encourage them to resolve the conflict they’re having, and don’t favor one child’s actions over the other’s.

2. Listen to all they have to say, then ask them to work it out.

Teaching children conflict resolution skills from an early age helps prepare them for the real world, so encourage them to settle their differences without you. You should intervene, of course, if things spiral out of control, with voices rising and tempers flaring. Otherwise, help them devise ways to work through their problems together, and offer positive feedback once they’ve reached a solution that is agreeable to all.

3. Don’t reward them for reporting arguments to you.

Children sometimes think that telling parents about a fight that occurred in their absence will be rewarded. However, that kind of “tattle tale” behavior has a negative impact on the trust between siblings, and lack of trust leads to more conflict. Encouraging them to handle their disagreements without you, and without filling you in on every minor spat, fosters maturity and independence.

4. Lay out the rules for arguments. 

It sounds counterintuitive to suggest that quarreling, which is so emotionally charged, should have rules. However, explaining guidelines for disputes when everyone is calm is constructive. Tell your children that while sometimes voices rise during a dispute, at no time will you allow uncontrolled yelling. And of course hitting is never permissible – no matter how volatile the situation is, physical violence is wrong and children must be taught that. Articulate any other rule you feel is necessary, and when bickering begins, your children will know there are certain behaviors that you, as their parent, simply will not tolerate.

5. Spend time together as a family.

Schedule a day during which everyone participates in a favorite activity, such as pizza at a local eatery and a movie afterwards. Doing something together creates everlasting memories and strengthens bonds, and it is particularly important during the turbulent teen years. Taking time for a family vacation is another wonderful way to create opportunities for new, shared experiences, which are the very foundation of loving sibling relationships.

6. Let some fighting go, if it isn’t serious.

Children often bicker about minor issues, like which movie to watch or what takeout to order for dinner. Recognize that some arguments are inevitable and not worth worrying about; they are simply the outcome of family members living under the same roof. That’s been particularly true during COVID-19, when everyone has been compelled to spend so much time indoors together. Let some arguments go, and only focus on the ones that cause genuinely hurt feelings or lasting trust issues.

Bickering among siblings is a part of a child’s maturation process, and virtually no family gets through these years without squabbles and disagreements of some kind, and of some frequency. For parents, these fusses can be difficult to handle, particularly if other stressors are impinging on the family dynamic.

Right now, as parents are heading back to the office and children are going back to in-person learning at school, families are under even more enormous strain than they were prior to the pandemic.

However, recognizing that these disputes are normal, and that siblings have a fundamental and lasting love for one another, helps you, their parents, cope with these problems. Sooner or later siblings mature, and their love for each other shines through and the bickering fades. Until then, keep the fights in perspective, stay calm, and help your children recognize their love for each other – spats, and all.