Keeping the peace between sibling rivals

I like summer. It’s the kids being at home and their squabbling I can’t stand. Last week we took a vacation and I thought I’d do them both in. Help!

  • Jul. 21, 2011 8:00 a.m.

Dear Paul

I like summer. It’s the kids being at home and their squabbling I can’t stand. Last week we took a vacation and  I thought I’d do them both in. Help!


Sharon, I understand. At times the fusses between our kids can be very tiring.

I remember those long vacation rides to the summer lake with our children seat-belted in the back of the car.

“Cut it out! Mom, she pushed me! Hey. Get off of my side. Leave my pillow alone. That’s mine!”

Childcare professionals call this “sibling rivalry.” Whatever it is called, it can sure disrupt a peaceful home or well-deserved vacation.

What stirs this volatile pot?

Experts in the field agree that at the root of this competition is each child’s deep desire for the exclusive love and attention of his parents. This can express itself as jealousy, resentments, competition or intolerance. There is quite enough fuel here to set off a multiple round of daily skirmishes.

However, let’s remember that though these squabbles and hostilities may feel like real disaster — nothing is necessarily wrong.

To put it bluntly, no one is growing up to be a sociopath. Sibling conflict is totally normal and the ground for significant life-long learning.

What is our role as parents? Most importantly, our own strong, patient and respectful attitude is primary and can set the conditions for learning in the midst of it all.

It may be helpful here to remember a few basic principles for responding to conflict between siblings.

Principle one: Generally, require your children to work the difficulty out between themselves. Refrain from constantly solving their conflicts.

Remember when you solve their problems, your children become less responsible and they continue to need you.

Conflicts escalate and can be designed to capture you. Require they come up with solutions together. Ask that of them.

When you set up the conditions for your children to do the work of solving conflict together and acknowledge them each time they solve a problem, you support them to see themselves as “problem solvers.”

When children know that you as a parent are not going to take sides, and you require a solution and agreement from them, it puts their attention on solving conflict, not just creating it.

Principle two: Remember your home (or car) is your space. This implies there are times when we simply request our kids to take their quibbling somewhere else.

Example: “Hey guys, this isn’t fun for me. If you want to stay here in the living room with me, you’ll have to solve the problem quickly. Or go outside. What’ll it be? ”

Principle three: From time to time, give your children the room to express their troubled feelings about the other to you — without trying to teach them something.

When children complain about their trials with their siblings, listen and reflect what you hear, acknowledge their frustrations. Refrain from advising, solving, dismissing or minimizing their feelings.

Your listening and understanding validates their feelings and frustrations and models for them more about the ways of putting their feelings into words.

Sharon, as parents we may simply want the sibling squabbles over and ended, yet we can’t ignore the powerful learning they offer everyone.

—Paul Beckow is an individual, marriage and family therapist on the West Shore. See