“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Is there anything more frustrating or distressing for parents than sibling rivalry? The question repeatedly asked is: “How can I stop my kids’ fighting?” Whether it’s an intact family or two homes after divorce, sibling dynamics can bring parents to their knees, compelling them to intervene. Yet children’s evolving needs will certainly affect how they relate to each other. Given parents are their children’s role models, their effective management of conflict, anger and frustration carries considerable weight. Fortunately, most sibling rivalries can be resolved between the children, particularly if parents remain neutral, without playing favorites.

Being fair is not the same as being equal. If parents believe they need to do or give the same to each child, they’re not honoring each child’s unique needs, based on age, level of responsibilities, and demands. Rather than trying to “fix” feelings of jealousy or contempt, acknowledge it’s hard for them to see another sibling having something that they would also like. There’s no way to give your children what they consider their “fair share” of attention, discipline, time, or responsiveness. Listen, without judgment or lecturing, to your child’s complaints and needs. Notice if there’s anything you could do differently to ease what’s going on in the family. They might not be so demanding if you at least understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, just listen and acknowledge their feelings, providing an environment in which your children can cooperate, rather than compete with each other. Competition with siblings represents their perspective that the other sibling is loved more, gets more, is favored, etc. It might be difficult to maintain a neutral position, if you find yourself aligning with one child against the other.

While siblings can have very strong feelings toward each other, their battles may not always be as innocent or as healthy as we believe. It’s important to observe whether the fighting is crossing a serious line. When an older sibling is bullying a younger one, we can’t expect children to consistently work it out. That said, we know that children who bully are typically insecure, lost, sad children. There’s emotional pain, a longing to be accepted, and a need to make contact. Unfortunately, the only way this child has learned he might achieve that is through aggressive, mean, sometimes even violent behavior. Consider whether you’re contributing to the problem rather than addressing something more serious. Is the co-parenting relationship contentious, with your children becoming the casualties? Are you assuming the role of judge and jury in their battles, determining the perpetrator and victim? Is one or both parents deflecting stress onto an older child, with a “trickle-down” effect? If rivalry is escalating to a dangerous level, with one child being physically hurt, do you separate them until they have calmed down? Do you then guide them in resolving their differences, without judgment or criticism? They’re expressing a need to be heard and understood.

Keep in mind that sometimes children fight simply to get their parents’ attention. When parents are constantly distracted (with screen time or other diversions), avoiding connection with their children, it’s no surprise their behavior becomes more challenging, aggressive. Just as adults want the attention of a partner, spouse, or friend to be fully present, expect children to want the same. However, bullies are usually insecure, oppressed themselves. Somewhere in their lives, they’re either victims of bullying and shaming or witnessing adults bullying, being aggressive. Their home environment may provide inconsistent, punitive consequences, with parents typically less affectionate, less supportive. There might be high conflict between parents and/or between a parent and child. The need for a child to bully her sibling indicates she’s having a problem. At the root of her harassment is some need that’s not being met. Unconsciously looking for acceptance, not feeling good enough, she deflects the stress inherent in her life circumstances onto an easy scapegoat. Important to note is that a bully can easily turn his victim’s life into a chronic nightmare. These children behave aggressively, while some are just “mean-spirited,” selecting a smaller, more sensitive sibling as prey. The effects can be lifelong and, in many cases, permanently damage self-esteem. The tormenting sometimes involves physical threats or intimidation by pushing, tripping, etc., or verbal abuse. It might stay under the radar, or might be openly acted out. Fear of the bully only increases her power. Teaching conflict agreement might not be sufficient, as the bullying sibling “is suffering deeply within himself,” needing additional help and guidance from a professional.

“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.” — Fred Rogers