Why Sibs Fight

It started way back with Cain and Abel, so why should our family be any different?

When my sons were growing up life sometimes seemed like a perpetual wrestling match. As soon as they were able to walk they couldn’t so much as pass each other in the hall without somebody’s arm or leg shooting out to snag the other.

The back seat of the car became a battleground, and once they outgrew the physical separation of car seats we were forced to replace them with an imaginary line. “You stay on your side, and your brother will stay on his” (please please please).

At one point during the elementary school years I painted a huge wall-sized graphic over the couch in the family room that said, “You have to love your brother, even when he doesn’t deserve it”. We have a telling photo of the two of them, sprawled on said couch in full battle, the unheeded words clearly visible above them.

At the same time they were the best of friends. Together all the time, they shared a bedroom by choice until Older was in high school. We’re hard pressed to find family photos of either one by himself — it’s always the two of them. Inseparable.

So what is it about siblings? Why is the closeness and affection so often accompanied by an equal amount of of sparring? How do they manage to swing back and forth between adoring and detesting each other?

Before the second child is even born First Kiddo begins to sense a shift of attention and focus. He may not have a cognitive understanding of, “hey, wait a minute, Mom and Dad aren’t hanging on my every move anymore, what the heck?” but he sure gets that things feel different, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

But aside from losing the glow of the spotlight, a few other bumps can appear in the road when growing up with a 24/7 playmate.

Every child has their own set of needs, wants, and likes that change and grow along with their bodies. At each stage of development they learn how to make demands on their environment and claim their power (remember the terrible two’s). Just as it’s happening in their own internal world, the same thing is taking place on the interpersonal stage. And who’s right there to try new behaviors out on but brothers and sisters.

“It’s so frustrating! I don’t know enough words to tell Mom I’m feeling cranky because I woke up twice last night with those new teeth coming in. They hurt like heck. And Big Sister is getting on my last nerve. Maybe if I chomp down on her arm I’ll feel a little better.”

“Hmm. That ball Brother’s playing with looks like fun. Wonder what’ll happen if I grab it and run. He probably won’t even notice.”

“Wait just one little minute! What do you mean SHE got a brand new set of special markers just because she’s home sick and I still have to get on that stupid bus and go to kindergarten … marker-less. It’s not faaaaair!

You get the idea.

Your own MO when it comes to settling differences matters for your kids’ conflict style, too. If you and Dad manage to fight fair, chances are good that the kiddos will learn that skill. Stay respectful, let them see you work through problems, and keep the heat below the boiling point. As with all things in kid-world, they tend to follow your lead. It doesn’t mean they won’t still wrestle it out on the couch, but they’re more likely to follow rules of engagement when they do.

Maybe the most important influence on why and how sibs fight is their own individual temperament. We’re all born with certain hard-wired features that shape our personality. Some children are more sensitive, others less so. Some roll with the punches (literally), others react more visibly to stress. Some are more needy, while others wear their kiddie independence like a badge and are making their own breakfast as soon as they can reach the milk.

The way your kiddos’ temperaments mesh plays a big part in how they get along and how they work out their differences, and gender has a role here, too. Without going into too much detail (that’s a whole other post), girls and boys often have very different conflict styles. Sometimes that’s a plus, like when little girls help to verbalize a problem. And verbalize, and verbalize. Other times, girls’ more cognitive style may put them at a disadvantage with their more physical brothers.

Our boys would often look at their little sister with confusion. “Mom, she talks soooo much.”

Finally, parents can inadvertently make sibling differences worse. Comparing your kids, even when done in jest or in love, can come back to bite you later. Be vigilant, and strike “why can’t you …”, “but your brother …”, and “you’re nothing like …” from your playbook. They can’t and they aren’t.

Here are a few moves to help smoooooooth things over:

Stay OUT of it. Don’t get involved unless someone’s going to get hurt. They’ll figure it out — but only if they have room to do it.

Split the baby. Suggest a solution where neither child is happy with the outcome. Give them the opportunity to unite against you, the enemy.

It doesn’t matter who started it. It takes two to tango. Everyone’s to blame and no one’s to blame.

Separate but equal. Sometimes putting space between the combatants does the trick. “Go to your corners” can be a powerful tool.

Enforce consequences until they work it out. Make it worth their while to come together. Want to watch that favorite TV show or enjoy that delicious dessert? Make peace. You’ll be glad you did, kiddos.

Remember: when kids fight it out they learn valuable lessons about dealing with others in the world. Their life paths will come across challenges and conflict, so make room for them to learn the strategies they need to rise above it.

Our house. Just last week:

Older (pointing to Younger): “Wow, Mom. He’s really high maintenance, isn’t he?”

Perhaps. But you have to love your brother, even when he doesn’t deserve it.





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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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