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June 01, 2015

It’s an undeniable fact of family life: siblings bicker. Some studies suggest that young sibling conflict occurs an average of eight times per hour1. It can drive a parent crazy!

But their fighting has an upside: it’s how they learn the consequences of playing unfairly (your playmate might up and leave), or the consequences of provoking someone bigger and stronger (you might get punched in the arm). Sibling relationships are a training ground for life.

Too often, parents step in when conflict erupts. We referee and look for fault, we admonish or preach, we dictate what should happen next — in so many ways we usurp our kids’ ability to discover they can work it out themselves.

And worse, we unwittingly tilt the scales, admonishing one sib more than another, fomenting jealousy and resentment. Studies reveal our lack of neutrality, how frequently parental differential treatment (PDT) occurs. Our sympathies — consciously or unconsciously — go to the child who reminds us of ourselves, or the smaller child who seems more vulnerable, or the child whose temperament is easier to live with. Rarely are we neutral referees. It’s no surprise then that PDT — what kids perceive as favoritism — is associated with less positive relationships among brothers and sisters.2

If your bickering kids rush over to you, acknowledge everyone’s emotions (I hear how upset you both are). Say: I have confidence you can work it out yourselves. Then walk away, or usher them out of your airspace. I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing with all the noise, so please take your bickering elsewhere.

In the annals of sibling conflict, broken bones or emergency room visits are virtually unheard of; your fears are likely overblown. Only when there’s physical or emotional violence on a regular basis (and weeks of staying out of it have brought about no improvement) should you step in, interrupt the fight without taking sides, and engage the services of a family counselor.

References & Citations
  1. Berndt T.J. and T.N. Bulleit. Effects of sibling relationships on preschoolers’ behavior at home and at school. Developmental Psychology. 1985; 21(5): 761-767. Also Dunn, J. and P. Munn. Sibling quarrels and maternal intervention: Individual differences in understanding and aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 1986; 27:583-595.
  2. Brody, G.H., Stoneman, Z., and Burke, M. Child temperaments, maternal differential behavior, and sibling relationships. Developmental Psychology. 1987; 23(3): 354-362. Also Stocker, C., Dunn, J. and Plomin, R. Sibling relationships: Links with child temperament, maternal behavior, and family structure. Child Development. 1989: 60(3): 715-727.