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Chapter 9: "It's Not Fair!" Handling Sibling Relationships

How do I handle siblings who are hurtful to each other?

I have twin teenage girls with cystic fibrosis and a pre-teen daughter without illness.  My girls are quite verbally abusive toward each other saying, "I hate you" and "I wish you would die from your cystic fibrosis."  Often one says, "You're so stupid."

These things hook me and I react in anger that is actually driven by sadness.  Frankly, I get ticked off.  Advice?  I have tried saying, "This is your relationship with each other, not my problem.  Period."  But I have trouble helping them to love each other.  – Katie L.


Dr. Cline’s Answer:


All children normally fight with each other.  When there is less than two years between the children, fighting tends to increase.  Our first job as parents is to physically protect children who might be injured.  Changing location is necessary when one sibling is a disturbed or very impulsive child.  So, if one child is truly chronically abusive to another then the abusive child needs to be dismissed firmly, but without a show of anger: 


"Richard, would you please spend the next two hours where Jane is not.  I find myself feeling tense when the two of you are together.  Isn't that sad?”


"You mean that where ever Jane goes, I have to leave that area?!!"


"That is exactly what I'm saying, pal.  I appreciate your understanding."


The more common situation occurs when two children are obnoxiously noisy and fighting in the parental environment.  As noted, siblings often have trouble with each other no matter who else is present. But if fighting takes place more consistently when parents are present, then certainly the children are unconsciously hyping things up either for attention or show.  In such cases, it is best for the parent without warning to make the following request, "Hey guys, feel free to be where ever I am not.  Thank you!" This request should be made regardless of who "started it."


Finally, children benefit by parents talking about their feelings but seldom benefit by parents showing negative feelings.  Therefore it may be helpful to say in a matter-of-fact voice, "I think, honey, when you tell your sister, ‘I wish you would die from your cystic fibrosis’ that may cause a scar that is very hard to heal.  It could play a role in how good you feel about getting together as adults and whether or not your children will even know each other.  It is kind of sad when cousins don't know each other.  And you know what honey…… you are capable of so much more thoughtful behavior.  And when I see your sister ticking you off and you don't say anything mean to her but handle it like a real leader, I feel very proud.  And you do that sometimes.  Thanks for listening."


Finally, taking five minutes out in the morning to meditate and thank the Almighty for the micro-seconds of patience that we do show increases our ability to show patience throughout the day.


Lisa’s Thoughts:  

It must be really difficult for you to see your daughters fight like this- especially with the health challenges they face. You are not alone. Sibling bickering and fighting is the number one complaint by many parents. Don't we wish they could just get along and love each other? But, that's not reality and Dr. Charles Fay (of Love and Logic) says this: “The first step towards the solution is seeing sibling conflicts in a new light.  Sibling conflicts are a normal part of family life. And, as frustrating as these conflicts can be, they are preparing our kids for a happier life in the real world!  Sibling spats are excellent learning opportunities for children. Is there any better way to practice the skills necessary for getting along with a tough teacher, a demanding boss, a snippy schoolmate or a future spouse?  For this important learning to take place, the following things must happen in the home:


Number 1: Children must witness their parents working out disagreements in a healthy, nonviolent manner.  Kids learn a lot from watching us. 


Number 2: Parents must place primary responsibility for solving sibling conflicts on the parties involved which are the kids.  In other words, parents stay out of it.

Number 3: Parents share ideas on how the conflict might be resolved in a healthy manner.” *


Following are some additional ideas about handling sibling bickering: 

Asking the kids to leave in the way Foster teaches generally solves the problem. But what happens if the kids won’t leave and continue to fight?  Or, what if you’re in the car driving down the road?  Develop a plan beforehand to help them pay you back for the problem like paying you with chores, money or toys (for younger kids).  I charge my (elementary age) kids 25 cents a minute each to listen to their fighting.  I just start my little timer and it’s amazing how fast they settle down when I start ticking off the amount due.  Sometimes I’ll ask them if they would rather work out their disagreement nicely or pay me for arbitration services. They usually work it out. If not, I make some money to buy myself a latte.


It is important to teach children how to resolve their differences in a healthy way. One way to do this is to sit with them for a few minutes and just listen to them- don’t try to figure out what happened, let them do the talking. Ask one child at a time to tell her side of the story (including her feelings) while you and the other child simply listen.  Then, when she is done, give empathy like, “Gosh, I’ll bet that was frustrating” or “Oh, I can see why you’d be upset.” Then, give the other child a chance to talk and give empathy there, too. But make no judgment and don’t take sides. Then, ask them how they would like to resolve it.  If they are stuck, give them several ideas and let them pick the solution. This one takes time and shouldn’t be used every time they argue but it teaches our kids how to resolve conflict which is not a skill most of us are born with!  


And, finally, be sad for their behavior and take good care of yourself rather than being mad at them (I know this isn't easy). "How sad. I won't be taking you to the mall today because your fighting has really worn me out. Maybe we can try again tomorrow."


See the Q&A "What should I do when my child says mean things?"  which will give you some ideas on how to handle your own frustration at your daughters' hurtful words.


Love and Logic teaches many other practical techniques for handling general sibling rivalry and Chapter 9 of our book Parenting Children with Health Issues addresses siblings' feelings of anger and resentment around health issues.


*This section was paraphrased from the article “Why siblings fight- and what to do about it” by Dr. Charles Fay, September 7, 2005. 

Posted 3/15/07  See disclaimer at the bottom of this page.





How do I handle my 4-year-old who inflicts pain on older sibs?


I don't know how to deal with my four-year-old daughter who inflicts pain on her six-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother. She seems to feel no remorse. How does one stop aggressive behavior?  -Pam N.

Dr. Cline’s Answer:


The focus of this program and website is dealing with health issues. Love and Logic has published a lot of information on handling sibling fighting. But because this is such a big issue in most homes including those with a special needs child, we'll briefly answer this general question here.


When a younger child picks on older children it is almost always because the older children have had their power disabled. Generally, when parents absolutely stay out of children’s fighting, younger children do not pick on older ones. They risk being mashed!


Usually, it is an exercise in frustration to try and prohibit fighting. However, parents can express pleasure when the children have been getting along and reward that in one way or another and allow consequences to do the teaching when they don’t get along.


If children fight whenever they are together, then parents should only take one child or another out to eat or on fun outings. The other ones stay home with "the baby sitter from hell." Love and logic has a great deal of material on handling sibling fighting. It comes up over and over so it is well covered in literature. For sibling fighting around medical issues, see Chapter 9 in Parenting Children with Health Issues.”


Lisa’s Thoughts:


When medical issues are present, it does become a bit more complicated but the basic skills for handling sibling fighting remain the same. Dr. Charles Fay has written a great article called “Helping Aggressive Toddlers and Preschoolers.” He suggests parents do the following when a toddler or preschooler is exhibiting aggression:

  • Begin intervention as early as possible
  • Limit exposure to television and videos
  • Practice alternatives to spanking
  • Consistently apply logical consequences and empathy to aggressive behavior
  • Neutralize arguing and power struggles
  • Teach social skills and problem solving on a daily basis
  • Systematically attend to positive behavior
  • Consult with qualified medical and mental health professionals
  • Apply multiple effective interventions simultaneously

Click here to link to Love and Logic's website to read a copy of Dr. Fay's article.

 Posted 4/07/07   See disclaimer at the bottom of this page.



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