How To Sort Out Sibling Rivalry Without Going Completely Insane

Sibling rivalry is torture isn’t it?

If you have more than one child in your house you know the emotional exhaustion that comes with children who fight.

They can get on so beautifully sometimes, but at others, it’s like World War Three.

And worse, you’re expected to sort it out.

Which is more complicated that trying to unravel a tangled knot of toddler hair.

What usually happens is that one child ends up getting ‘in trouble’ for being the cause of the problem, while the others gloat.

The ‘winners’ bask in the glory of being in favour, and the ‘losers’ feel resentful – towards their siblings and towards you.

Plus, you feel awful about the whole thing. Never sure if you’ve got the right ‘offender’ or delivered an appropriate consequence.

So, no real winners here. Only losers all around.

It’s just horrible. You wish it would go away, but you know it won’t.

What you need is what anyone needs in a messy, awkward, thorny situation.

A simple solution. A roadmap to help you navigate the quagmire of complexity.

A series of steps that helps you work through the mess, and come out feeling squeaky clean.

Something reliable that really works.

So here it is. How to sort out sibling rivalry without going completely insane. ;-)


1. Listen In

Step one is to listen in to the conflict. If it’s low-level bickering, ignore it.

Don’t be too quick to jump in and ‘save’ your kids. Given them the opportunity to sort it out.

I know it can result in the youngest always giving in to the eldest (at least in my house it usually does), but they’ve worked it out.

I might not like the fact that my youngest gives in, but I have to respect that she’s happy with her choice. It’s a technique that works for her.

And I have to remember that she is more than capable of putting her foot down extremely firmly and becoming a completely immovable object.

She might not do it often, but she can do it (as you can see from her face in the photo!) 

2. Understand Ownership

Always remember that sibling rivalry and bickering is not your problem. It’s theirs.

When you get the inevitable, “Mum, she took my toy!” rapidly followed by, “But I had it first. I just put it down for a minute!” there’s one critical thing to understand.

Do. Not. Take. Sides.

The first thing out of your mouth should be something like, “It sounds like you two have a problem.” This gives both you and your kids the message that it’s their problem – not yours.

This first time I used this my daughter looked completely stunned. Then she turned around and sorted out the problem herself.

If your kids don’t have this response, you can ask, “How are you going to fix it?” or, “What are you going to do?”

Now, if your household is like mine your kids may have come to expect that you’ll sort out their problems. If so, they may come back with, “Make her give it back to me!”

Then you’ll be left thinking, “Arrgh! Now what?”

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. What you do next is covered in step three!

3. Become A Mediator

Now, you’re smart so you probably already know that a mediator is someone who helps people involved in a conflict come to an agreement.

Sounds easy, until you go to do it yourself. Here’s how it works.

First, you have to understand the difference between a mediator and a referee. As Amy McCready says, you need to help your kids negotiate a solution that they can both live with.

Basically, you re-phrase what they say (in more palatable terms) to help them understand how negotiation works. The easiest way to understand this is to give you an example.

David: “He took my truck! He should give it back now!”

James: “But I was playing with it first! I only put it down while I got the fireman!”

David: “But you put it down. You weren’t using it, and I want to play with it”

Parent: “So David, you picked up the truck because you thought James had finished, but he hadn’t. And now you both want the truck. What do you think we should do to fix this?”

James, “I had it first, so I should play with it!”

Parent: “David, James is saying he should play with the truck. What do you think of that solution?”

David: “But he put it down. It’s my turn now!”

Parent: “James, David is suggesting that it’s his turn with the truck. What do you think of that solution?”

James: “No! I want to use it with the fireman! I’m nearly done. He can play after.”

Parent: “David, James would like to finish his game before you have a turn. How does that sound?”

David: “OK. I’ll finish what I was playing, and wait till he’s finished.”

Parent: “Thank you, David. You boys did a good job of negotiating a solution!”

I know it's likely to take a few more rounds of back and forth before a solution is agreed, but you get the idea.

This technique takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth trying, and it gets easier.

The key is to keep the kids focused on finding a solution, and remember not to expect miracles – from yourself or your children.

This is what I call a ‘big picture’ strategy because you’re teaching your kids skills they can use for life.

4. Implement A Hands-Off Policy

Unless your kids are far more angelic than mine, they often resort to physical violence.

OK, maybe not violence, but they certainly get physical. They can slap or hit or ‘accidentally’ kick. They can snatch or pinch.

Don’t try to get to the bottom of it. Seriously. It will just end in tears.

Instead, implement what parenting expert, Michael Grose calls a family hands-off policy.

Now, this is not a magic wand solution and we both know that having a hands-off policy doesn’t mean kids will stick to it. But we need to make it clear that hitting and hurting are not appropriate ways to solve problems.

Having a hands-off policy gives you something to refer to when kids respond physically to conflict.

Grose suggests saying something like, “We have a hands-off policy in our house. You overstepped the mark when you hit your brother. We cool down and talk things through here. How will you fix this situation?”

The hands-off policy gives your kids a gentle but firm reminder that they are not expressing themselves appropriately. It tells them that they need to consider others, even when they don’t agree with them.

5. Use In Emergencies

The key to using the processes above is to keep calm. And I know that keeping calm is almost impossible at times. Really.

I yell and lose it too. We all do. It’s human.

But having a process to follow really helps. Just relax and believe in the process.

If you take a deep breath and think, “I just need to follow the process” it will work. It may take a little practice, but it will work.

But sometimes you don’t have the time or energy to put into mediation. Sometimes you just need a ‘quick and dirty’ solution.

In this situation, here’s what I do. I give the kids a choice.

I say something like, “If you can’t sort out who’s playing with the toy, I’ll take it from you.”

Some might say this isn’t ‘fair’, but it is. You’re giving your kids the choice to work it out, or give it up.

If you use this one, use it calmly and matter-of-factly. And you MUST follow through.

Take the toy if they can’t work it out and say something like, “You can have this back when you can work out how to share it.”

Every time I’ve done this, one of my kids will say, “Oh, no! She can use it! I’ll use it when she’s done.”

But even if it doesn’t result in that outcome, I’m happy to give the message that things will ‘disappear’ if they can’t be shared.

Keep Your Sanity

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up, but it doesn’t have to get you down.

Just follow the process, and it will be sorted out in no time.

Yes, it will keep happening. But with a little time and practice your kids will learn valuable negotiation skills.

And pretty soon they’ll be able to work out their difficulties themselves.

Even when they can’t, at least you won’t have to be ‘piggy in the middle’.

You can avoid the guilt that comes with taking sides and appointing ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

And your house will be a calmer place for everyone to live in.

So what have you got to lose (apart from a little sanity and stress?)

Give it a go today and you'll be reaping the rewards immediately.

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Cate is on a mission to help parents stop yelling and create families that listen to each other. She does this while imperfectly parenting two boisterous girls of her own, and learning from her mistakes. She has contributed to Tiny Buddha, Think Simple Now, A Fine Parent and many other awesome sites.