While we may fantasize about having a peaceful, calm household, free of sibling suffering, the only way to prevent the inevitable rivalry is to have just one child. Children will always have their power struggles, yet siblings are learning how to get along in the world by testing, struggling, coercing, and negotiating with each other. Often unconsciously, parents take sides, identifying quickly with birth order, the “easiest” child or the “underdog,” or the one with more challenges, and so on. They’ve shared their stories of frustration with their children’s chronic disagreements, not knowing how to handle them. Those feelings of helplessness whenever children fight often trigger painful childhood memories. If a parent feels he was never heard, accepted, or loved as much as another sibling, he soon realizes he may be repeating this same pattern with his own children. When they fight, anxiety and anger can quickly immobilize a parent, blocking any hope of neutrality.

It’s likely we don’t witness the conflict and yet we assume the role of judge and jury easily in determining who is to blame. Allowing children to voice the full strength of their emotions towards their sibling(s), parents then provide a safe forum in which each child feels heard and understood, without blame or judgment. Parents sometimes align with the child who may be more capable, more successful, more temperamentally similar, either supporting her in the sibling rivalry and/or defending her against the other parent. Particular to divorce, one parent may believe she needs to protect her favored child from a co-parent, who might be more punitive or who is taking sides with another child. This protection may seem justified, thus strengthening the alignment, although this does great injustice to a child, often increasing a sense of false empowerment. “Once you recognize siblings’ anger, jealousy and love as a natural range of emotions, you can also help your children understand that those conflicting feelings are normal and acceptable. They can love and hate their sisters and brothers at the same time. When you guide them toward resolving their differences, coming up with their own solutions and expressing their feelings for each other, you are preparing them for future adult relationships.” — Nancy Samalin

The most helpful approach with sibling fights is giving children space to work out their own solutions rather than imposing our solutions upon them. It’s pretty impressive to witness even very young children coming up with some great ideas when we allow them the opportunities to work things out on their own. Parents need to resist jumping in to fix the problem for the sake of peace and quiet. The more a difficult dynamic is reinforced by parental favoritism, the more the seeds of resentment and jealousy will germinate. There’s enormous power in our words and our actions, reinforcing our children’s strong emotions either by trying to deny them or telling them they should feel differently (“You don’t really hate him. You should love him because he’s your brother.” Or “Your sister is so sweet to you, why do you always have to be so mean to her?”) We must try to separate what is helpful from what is most harmful to them. Parents have the power to exacerbate a contentious sibling dynamic or to trust them to navigate successfully through the complicated process of reaching resolution. We must pay close attention to our part in fueling toxic competition with either protection or favoritism of one child more than the other. Respectfully acknowledging and accepting their intense emotions gives children strength, supporting their healthy self-esteem. Parents are their children’s mirrors, reflecting their inherent value, their uniqueness. We want all our children to know they are enough, that they matter.

Siblings will inevitably bring their battles to their parents, searching for us to declare the verdict, for us to give them our attention, and/or to choose the favored child. Their unspoken question is: “Who do you love best?” That’s when we must pause, breathe, disengage. Rather than emotionally reacting to that question, triggered by our own childhood demons, we need to listen to each child’s perspective, connecting to the emotional root of the conflict, without criticism or judgment. When we listen very carefully, we can hear our child’s compelling need to have his feelings validated, releasing us from any responsibility to choose sides. What we are being called to do is to love each child best!