Can there be any more to say about sibling battles? Apparently so. This problem is a real trigger for many families, with parents feeling helpless to stop the hostility.

Most parents follow the same approach their parents applied with them, although the world has changed significantly in the past 20 to 30 years. Parenting with the rewards and punishment strategies that might have worked effectively when we were children doesn’t necessarily work well with our own children. We can expect many of them to challenge their parents when limits are set. As with each child being temperamentally different, if your temperament doesn’t fit well with your children’s, you can expect that what might have worked for you growing up probably won’t work for them. An example — if you were a temperamentally “easy” child, and your child is spirited, strong-willed, it’s quite likely your parenting approach won’t get the results you want. Although you need to set limits with your children, it’s possible more choices and problem-solving will be required to avoid chronic power struggles.

When conflicts arise between your children, give them a chance to express how they feel about each other without attempting to talk them out of those feelings. If they’re struggling to identify their emotions, help them find the words, modeling how to talk about their feelings without name-calling, screaming, bullying, or physical aggression. Keep in mind that if you’re continually angry with your children, or frequently under extreme stress, it’s no surprise they are angry with each other. Anger begets more anger; thus, learning to manage your own anger effectively will help children learn how to manage theirs. Conflict mediation skills can be taught when things are calm — both through discussion and also modeling those skills when interacting with them and with other family members, friends, etc.

Several parents have asked: “What about hitting, kicking, pushing?” Let’s take a look at how violence can evolve over time with different ages, temperaments, and chronic family stress. Although our goal is to encourage our children to engage in win-win negotiations, so each of them gains something, when fights become dangerous, parents need to intervene. Physical fights that are serious need to be immediately stopped. At that point, children need to be separated to give them space and time to calm down. When that’s accomplished, talk through what happened, reinforcing clearly that violence is never allowed. If children are physically aggressive with each other frequently, and/or one child is typically the victim, is scared of his/her sibling, and doesn’t defend him/herself, this is abuse. This is when professional help and guidance are indicated. There is always an emotional root to any behavior; therefore, sibling abuse signals some very strong feelings between your children that should not be ignored.

Children can be involved in brainstorming the ground rules for sibling behavior. Setting these parameters, with clear and consistent consequences when anyone violates them, is helpful in averting ongoing altercations. Some suggestions for ground rules:

• In sibling disagreements, no hurting (such as hitting, kicking, pushing) is ever allowed.

• The same with name-calling and tattling

• When children fight over a possession or toy, that object is removed for a time.

• No battles in the car, or parent will pull over and wait until peace has been restored.

Family meetings can also help with sibling rivalry. This provides a forum in which everyone in the family works together to make decisions, taking a stake in the ones that impact the daily life of family members. The focus is to recognize that each person has an opinion that matters and should be heard — to be delivered respectfully, without yelling or name-calling or interruptions, etc. These meetings help forge responsibility and cooperation, reducing the likelihood of angry outbursts and rebellion. Parents need to appreciate that at the core of sibling rivalry is sisters/brothers competing for their parents’ love and attention. Consider another factor being the jealousy one child has for a sibling’s accomplishments, for his/her easygoing temperament, and/or the privileges granted to the other. When we add the many frustrations challenging and undermining a child, which he/she may only dare to release on a sister or brother, it then seems surprising sibling dynamics aren’t more explosive.

Sibling battles are not always as innocent or as healthy as we might want to believe. To expect that you can allow your children to always work it out, you could be contributing to the problem rather than addressing something more serious. When rivalry escalates to a level that appears risky or dangerous, this is the time to ask your children if their fighting is play or real, reinforcing that it needs to be fun for both children — and if not, then stopped immediately. If one child is being physically hurt, separate them until they have calmed down. When they’ve cooled off, work with them to resolve their differences, without judgment or criticism. Often a child who is temperamentally more impulsive and active might also be more aggressive and physical, increasing sibling conflicts. Some may eventually grow out of this, while others may need additional help and guidance from a professional.

Children have evolving needs, which will affect how they relate to each other. School-age children have a strong sense of fairness and equality, keeping score if they feel a sibling is receiving preferential treatment. Parents are their children’s role models, for better or worse. How you resolve problems and navigate through conflicts, anger and frustrations will carry considerable weight in how you influence your children.

“Eventually we will learn that the loss of indivisible love is another of our necessary losses, that loving extends beyond the mother-child pair, that most of the love we receive in this world is love we will have to share — and that sharing begins at home, with our sibling rivals.” — Judith Viorst

Please send me your questions.