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Kids, Stop Fighting: Taking On Sibling Rivalry

By David Paltin, PhD
Child Psychologist

sibling rivalry All the signs of extended time away from school are here: You’ve knocked out loads of activities and educational viewing and NOT educational viewing. You’ve almost fulfilled your promise to limit non-educational screen time. Still, the fireflies light the evening sky and the sound of siblings bickering and arguing rises over everything else.

Are they doing it because they’re bored? Are they dehydrated? A more likely explanation is that the arguing and bickering in your home has multiple causes and triggers. Certainly there is more face-to-face time when school is out, but more likely, the underlying tension that starts the flare-ups has been present all year.

Maybe instead of looking at the situation as a recipe for premature hair loss, we can seize the opportunity with the extra summer hours available to actually do something more substantial about kids’ fighting at home.

First, a couple of stories that might sound familiar:

Samantha describes her two kids, ages 7 and 9, as “oil and vinegar” when they are home together. “It wouldn’t be as hard if they each did their own things, but they both want to do what the other one is doing. Even my oldest will come and demand time on the computer if my youngest has been on it for more than five minutes.”

The kids argue at the table as well, starting up sibling rivalry-fueled spats by telling on each other when table manners are violated. Ignoring the problem doesn’t help, and the tension grows so high that Samantha spends all of her energy and attention on keeping the two apart. “I didn’t want to believe he was capable of it, but my youngest actually set my oldest up to get in trouble just to get back at him. I’m exhausted by the middle of the day.”

Carmen’s battleground with the kids was the car. “I have three,” she describes, “and it doesn’t matter if I assign seats, bring car games, or what, they are still miserable as soon as they have to sit next to each other.” Carmen’s situation was so extreme, she recently cancelled a family summer trip because of the problem. “We started packing the car and everything, but I just gave up. I just couldn’t see us being miserable like that every day of the trip.”

On the surface, these situations look like they have everything in common: old-fashioned sibling rivalry driving the children to pick at each other until they have an explosion. A closer look reveals there are actually different sources of tension that set the spark for those explosions.

In Samantha’s situation, she has without realizing it fell into the “fairness trap” that causes her kids to measure every privilege and activity for fairness. The kids have learned to “quantify and measure” their time spent together in terms of rewards and losses.

In Carmen’s dilemma, the tension comes from two sources, the kids recognizing that Carmen can’t pay attention to both the road and the kids, and their feelings about being restrained to the confined space.