The Science of Sibling Rivalry—and How to Fix It
Siblings Spend 10 Minutes of Every Hour Fighting. Here’s How to Help Them Stop.
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I have two siblings, two children, and two questions I get asked every time I speak about happy families: 1) Why do siblings fight so much? 2) What can I do to help?
Human beings are wired to be extraordinarily sensitive to other others, especially those who share their same environment. As early as the 1970s, researcherslike Marvin Skinner found that newborns respond more strongly to the tape-recorded cries of other infants than to their own.
And compete we do. Disputes among siblings are the most common conflict families face. Hildy Ross of the University of Waterloo, and three colleagues, found that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour, with those fights lasting a total of ten minutes out of every 60. Only one of those eight conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation. The other seven wrap up when one child simply withdraws after being bullied or intimidated by the other.
A primary reason siblings fight so much is that they understand intuitively that no matter what happens, they’re stuck with each other. As Scottish sociologist, Samantha Punch put it, “Sibship is a relationship in which the boundaries of social interaction can be pushed to the limit. Rage and irritation need not be suppressed, whilst politeness and toleration can be neglected.”
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There is some good news amidst the crossfire: parents can help. Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at Northwestern, has devoted her career to studying siblings. She created a program called “More Fun With Sisters and Brothers” that gives siblings the words to handle their frustrations and the skills to rebuild frayed relations.
Her chief insight is that the amount of conflict between siblings doesn’t matter to their long-term bond; it’s absolutely possible to be at each other’s throats when you’re young and still be close when you’re grown. What matters is having enough fun times to balance out the bad. This “net positive” is what predicts good relations as adults.
Kramer advises parents to spend less time playing cop to bad behavior and more time playing nursemaid to good behavior. Some practical examples include:
• To reduce fights during mealtime, make sure siblings spend at least 20 minutes beforehand engaged in a joint activity that reaffirms their connection
• To boost camaraderie, give siblings chores to do together to build trust and a sense of accomplishment
• To increase confidence, spend ten minutes alone with each child every night doing something suited to that child – reading a book, reviewing ball scores, telling stories.
But it was Kramer’s central piece of wisdom that came as a shock to me: Get involved in your kids’ disputes. On the surface, this observation might seem obvious, but when my kids were young, I often took the opposite tack. When one of my girls ran to me complaining the other had taken her toy, or stepped on her toe, or called her an insult, my response was hands off: “I’m not a referee. Work it out yourselves.”
This comment was based on what I thought was up-to-date parenting advice. We should teach our kids to be independent and not hover over them like helicopters, rushing in to solve every problem.
“But we can’t work it out!” the girls often complained.
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Turns out they were right. Kramer says children under eight are “generally unable” to manage conflicts with their siblings on their own. “The research that I and others have done,” she said, “has clearly shown that for children who don’t already have those skills in conflict management, it is critical for parents to step in and help.” She recommends diving in and giving kids a toolkit for resolving difficult situations.
So what should be in that toolkit? That’s where Sheila Heen and Doug Stone come in. The two are classmates and co-authors (with Bruce Patton) of one of the most influential books in the high-stakes field of helping others resolve their differences, from disputes over inheritance to showdowns with the neighbors. Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most is a step-by-step manual for navigating the unnavigable. When I visited with them a few years ago, they shared with me a kid-friendly version of the technique they’ve honed with adults. It has three steps.
1. Look in the mirror. “When one of my kids comes to me,” Heen said, “they are usually wanting adjudication. Whether it’s a birthday present or the amount of marshmallows in their hot chocolate, they want to know who’s right. As a parent, I refuse to play that role. Instead, I try to facilitate learning.”
The most immediate step is to get both parties to calm down, she said. Maybe go upstairs for a few minutes, or read a book. But the more substantive move is to get each side to examine its own behavior. I tell them, “I don’t care who started it. I care about what choice you made to continue it.”
2. Be curious Once a child acknowledges some responsibility, the next step is to get that child to explore the other side’s motivation. “A good way to phrase it is to invite curiosity about what’s going on in the other person’s head,” Heen said. “If you teach a child to model the mental state of the person they’re in conflict with, it will serve them in good stead throughout their life.”
3. Apologize. I’ve read different opinions about forcing kids to apologize. Some say it’s a necessary step, while others feel it’s just piling on. Heen comes down in favor of contrition.
“Saying you’re sorry really has two meanings,” she said. “One is to describe how you actually feel; the other is to take responsibility for the impact you’ve had on somebody else. I’m really more interested in the second meaning – accepting accountability for your choices even if you don’t genuinely feel apologetic. Later, when you’re less amped up on adrenalin, feeling sorry will come.” Also, she noted, research has shown it’s rare to see post-apology conflict behavior.
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But what if the dispute among siblings seems petty?
“On the surface, it may seem tiny, but it’s really about ‘Am I being treated fairly in the world?’ And they carry these issues with them their whole lives until one day they’re no longer fighting about marshmallows; they’re fighting about taking care of you.”
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