One of the more overlooked family relationships in our lives is that of siblings. As adults, we may have varying degrees of closeness with our siblings, but from a life-course perspective, siblings are likely the most enduring family relationship many of us will have. They are often the family members that we will know the longest and with whom we will have the most history, and sometimes, the most conflict.
If you have more than one child, dealing with sibling conflict is probably a big part of your parenting role. Siblings can be great companions for one another, but conflict is also part of the equation in many families. In fact, some researchers have estimated that sibling conflict occurs as frequently as 8 times per hour! That makes it worth our time to understand why sibling conflict occurs and how we can perhaps limit its frequency. One of the biggest lasting gifts we can give children is to help them develop strong sibling relationships.
The Psychology Behind Sibling Conflict
When many of us think about sibling conflict, the concept of sibling rivalry probably pops up immediately. Scholars agree that the source of much sibling conflict is rooted in comparison. Experts like professor Shawn D. Whitehead suggest that we, as humans, are wired for social comparison. Since siblings are often the most relevant and available source of comparison, it happens frequently. This comparison can, of course, feed rivalry. The topic of the rivalry can be about almost anything⏤who is more skilled at certain sports or academic subjects, who has more time with each parent, or competition over toys or gadgets.
Researchers also believe that sibling conflict may actually serve a developmental purpose. The conflict or rivalry may encourage siblings to differentiate⏤that is, to uncover what aspects of their personality make them different or unique from their siblings. This differentiation process can be an important part of the maturation process as children come to understand where their unique talents and skills lie.
Lastly, in some cases, parents modeling conflictual or combative interactions may spill over into their children’s sibling relationships. For example, one study found a more authoritarian, power-assertive parenting style was linked to children having more conflict with their siblings. Similarly, more sibling conflict is also present in families where there is a higher degree of coparental undermining, that is, when one parent undermines the other’s authority or decisions. This type of coparenting relationship seems to model a negative pattern of social interaction for children, which they then express in their sibling relationships.
Strategies to Ease Sibling Conflict
Although sibling conflict is common and even expected, it can make daily family life challenging for both children and parents. Thus, it’s in the family’s best interest to try to find ways to help there be a bit more sibling peace. This is one area where research can really help us. Surprisingly, there have been several intervention studies addressing the issue of sibling conflict. From these studies, we’ve learned that the main approaches that work well to help ease sibling conflict involve social skills and mediation training. These types of approaches yielded not only reduced conflict among siblings but increased social skills for children as well. The types of skills emphasized in this training can be applied to daily family life as well. Skills such as perspective-taking, problem-solving, and conflict management are the focus of this training. At home, parents can help children develop these same skills. Here are a few ideas that can help foster these skills:
- Discuss Emotions: Some parents shy away from discussions of emotions with children, but they can help foster their social-emotional development. Encourage children to discuss their own feelings and help them try to understand how others (especially their siblings) are feeling.
- Empower Problem-solving: Children, especially older children and adolescents, are often capable of resolving their own sibling conflicts or problems if offered a little modeling and opportunities to try. Help siblings seek out win-win solutions to their disagreements or challenges.
- Model Conflict Management: In our own relationships with our children as well as with spouses/partners, we can be effective models of how to manage conflict. Discuss with children different approaches that can be used to resolve conflict, such as compromise, taking turns, walking away, or seeking out help from others. Seeing these strategies in real life may help children use them with their own sibling conflicts.
In terms of our interaction with our children, one common practice that many experts say to avoid is comparing siblings. It’s so easy to try to compare one sibling to another on any feature⏤personality, skills, or even eating habits. Instead, focus on helping each child see and value their own unique skills and traits, not just in comparison to their siblings.
Unique Children, Unique Parenting
When discussing sibling conflict, we often hear the concept of “differential treatment” brought up. The notion that much of sibling conflict can be traced back to parent’s differential treatment of siblings is not new. Overall, research backs up the idea that differential treatment may not serve children well. However, when we dig deeper into the research, we find that the result of differential treatment may depend largely on how children understand the reasons for it. When siblings are treated differently due to real differences in temperament, it seems that this approach actually benefits children. One study found that when siblings were temperamentally different, parents’ differential treatment of them was associated with more positive parent–child relationships. Overall, then, we see that parenting each child in such a way as to meet their unique needs is a positive way to support family harmony.
The Complexity of Sibling Relationships
Siblings can be a wonderful source of companionship and support for one another throughout life. In fact, even the experience of facing and resolving sibling conflict can teach valuable social-emotional lessons. Even with a little conflict, siblings learn a variety of social-emotional lessons from each other through these conversations. If we can support our children in gaining the skills necessary to manage sibling conflict, these skills can benefit their social interactions for a lifetime.
Preview Blurb: How many times a day do you break up a sibling squabble? Sibling conflict can be distressing for parents and children alike. For many of us, it feels as though we are referees more than parents. The news about sibling conflict, however, isn’t all bad. Even with some conflict, siblings can learn valuable social-emotional lessons from one another. Read on to learn actionable tips for handling sibling conflict and helping keep the peace in the family.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.