Conflict between siblings is actually a good thing ― children learn an important life skill when they settle disputes.

“Stop touching my stuff — I didn’t say you could touch my things!”

“Why do I get blamed for everything?”

“Just leave me alone — I wish you’d never been born!”

Sound familiar? Siblings fighting is the bane of many parents’ existence. When your offspring bicker, argue, have screaming fights, even come to fisticuffs, you’ll wonder what happened to that vision of loving siblings you’ve cherished. You may even start to question your own parenting skills.

So, why do your kids fight so much? (Many reasons, including establishing a pecking order in the family.)

Do all siblings fight so much? (Yes, actually. Some more visibly than others.)

Will they hurt each other physically or emotionally? (That’s where you come in.)

Will this damage your children’s self-esteem and future? (Again, that’s where you come in.)

“Often, fights escalate from simple disagreements and name-calling, with the siblings refusing to give in to each other.”

Why siblings fight

As long as there is more than a single child in the home, sibling rivalry is bound to exist. While all that fighting seems to be unnecessary to you, it actually does serve a purpose: From the perspective of your children, they’re vying for the same “resources”, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, from the Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness. These can include anything from material resources like TV, books, or games, to emotional resources like your or your husband's attention.

“Often, fights escalate from simple disagreements and name-calling, with the siblings refusing to give in to each other,” Dr Lim explains.

For older kids like tweens and teens, the disagreements may shift to things like the borrowing of clothes, belongings, or who has more privileges or chores, says Jolene Hwee, director and counselling psychologist at Womancare Psychological Services. She recently supervised two pairs of siblings in the Prudential Relationship Reconnect social experiment.

As adolescence is a challenging developmental stage where the children go through physical, emotional, neurological and hormonal upheavals, you can expect them to be “irritable on some days, cheerful on other days, perplexed and withdrawn on others”, notes Hwee.

At this age, siblings often fight because of reasons like personality clashes, different communication styles, or are taking their stress out on one another, she says. Also, one sibling may feel like she is living in the shadow of another, or she may feel that she is getting less privileges or more responsibility than the other.


Disputes are normal and necessary

By accepting that siblings will fight, you’ll be able to come to terms with the fact that you are not actually doing anything wrong, and put yourself in a better position to manage the fighting.

By the way, if ensuring “peace at home” means your child is going to have to bite his tongue and “swallow” his needs on a regular basis just to keep the peace, it’s not going to be healthy for his development.

Both Hwee and Dr Lim agree that parents should not intervene too quickly. “Often, the children would have stopped and settled things on their own,” Dr Lim notes. Hwee adds that getting in the middle of every argument and playing referee all the time isn’t helpful. “Interactions between siblings are essential in helping them learn about relating to their peers,” she says.

Fighting with siblings can help your child learn respectful conflict resolution through compromise and negotiation.

Handled the right way, fighting with siblings can help your child learn respectful conflict resolution through compromise and negotiation. Your child can also pick up empathy for others, as well as learn to manage and accept different opinions, Hwee points out. Siblings will learn to develop their own voice, express their individual needs, be assertive and stand up for their position – important building blocks for one’s confidence and self-esteem.

What you can do

As long as it’s not an outright bullying situation, “where physical aggression or abusive language is used”, and certain family rules and boundaries aren’t breached, you probably wouldn’t have to step in, Hwee says.

“What you can do is remain calm and provide a loving and nurturing environment at home, where the children feel safe to express their feelings and concerns,” she adds.

But if the fights get too frequent or escalate to a “dangerous level”, Dr Lim recommends separating the children, or “calling a time out” without judging who is right or wrong. It is then best to talk through the events leading to the fight with each child individually when he or she has calmed down. “Sit down with them and strategise a better way to handle the situation without it ending in a fight.”

If it can be determined that one of the siblings is indeed in the wrong, an apology can be made, and he or she should express how they would behave the next time. The parent can guide the other sibling in accepting the apology and providing a gesture of forgiveness, such as hugging, suggests Dr Lim.


Introduce a family code of conduct

You may also want to put in place family rules that are useful to bring up when squabbles arise. These can include: No hitting, treating each other with respect, not taking someone’s belongings without asking, and no tattling on each other. Usually, just the existence of these rules may already settle the squabbles.

As a parent, you should also realise that each child may be expressing a particular need in such situations. Does he want your attention or respect? Does he need help empathising? Is a time-out from the heat of the moment needed? Or perhaps he just needs help with making amends.

Siblings are the people we learn the first life skills from ― they’re the ones who will give us the much needed practice on kindness, caring, fairness and cooperation, that are needed later on in life. So, don’t always feel like you need to resolve problems between your children — how they handle the situation on their own might just surprise you.

Photos: iStock

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