Family Dynamics

Has Sibling Rivalry Gone Next-Level During Lockdown?

Solutions for dealing with conflict between your kids.

Posted Apr 09, 2020

“Haha—you lost!” “Stop singing that stupid song. You’re hurting my ears!”

Sibling rivalry is maddening enough under normal circumstances. Now that kids are home all day with no escape hatch for anyone, what seemed like constant conflict before the COVID-19 lockdown has escalated, driving parents to next-level stress.

There are some great articles on decoding the sibling relationship that I note at the end of this post. They are worth reading as they provide important insight into the complex psychology and dynamics between brothers and sisters. For the purposes of this post, I am going to cut right to the chase and provide some guiding principles and actionable strategies for responding supportively and effectively when your kids are causing chaos.

It is not your job, nor do you have the power to, make your kids love each other and get along. That is something they need to figure out. Trying to control the sibling relationship often results in more, not less, rivalry. 

It is not your job to solve your children’s conflicts. If you put yourself in the position of fixing everything, your kids will constantly come to you to be the arbiter, missing opportunities to learn to work things out on their own.

What you can control are the ground rules to keep kids safe. Let them know that it is their job to figure out how to play and be together. Your job is to be sure everyone is safe emotionally and physically. You will not let them be harmful with their words or their actions. 

Avoid being a referee. Taking sides, or protecting one child from another, plays right into and escalates the rivalry. It also creates a dynamic where one child is the “aggressor” and the other the “victim”—roles kids internalize and that get solidified, defining the sibling relationship into the long term.

Don’t fall into the bottomless pit of trying to untangle what transpired—the “he said, she said” black hole. Instead, listen to each child’s perspective. Then paraphrase what they share instead of correcting or fixing: “It’s hard for you when your sister has a different idea about how to build the tower.” “You thought he was done with the superhero cape.” When you restate each child’s experiences without judgment, it helps them put themselves in the other’s shoes.

Institute “pause-and-problem-solve.” Explain to your kids that when they are having a hard time, you will help them by using a handy tool called, “pause-and-problem-solve.”  When you hear unkind words or see people using their body in harmful ways, you will clearly announce, “Pause, people” to cue them to freeze. Then you will name the problem: “I see you are having a hard time sharing the trucks.” Or, “You have different ideas for how to build the castle.” Ask for their ideas. Suggest other options if none of theirs are viable, but be clear that you are not going to solve the problem for them. You are just helping them think through the situation.

One great strategy I have been using with kids, age three and older, is to give them five minutes to conduct their own “meeting” to figure out a plan for how they can solve the problem. (Kids love this concept, especially now that they are constantly hearing that they have to play on their own because mommy/daddy has a meeting.) Then, they present their solution to you. If it’s acceptable, they can go on their merry way and continue playing. The beauty of this strategy is that in order to keep playing together or have access to a desired toy, they need to collaborate.

If your kids can’t agree on a solution, you can:

  • Take away the object they are fighting over for a period of time. Let them know when they will get it back and have a chance to work on sharing again. Once they have experienced the consequence of their actions, children are more likely to change their behavior and make a better choice.
  • Physically separate your kids for a set amount of time to give them a break to calm down if they are getting too physical. This is not punishment. It is to keep everyone safe. “It looks like you are having a hard time keeping your bodies in control. It’s time for a safe-space break. Then we can try again.” Situate them in different areas and provide an activity that they find soothing, such as: Play-Doh, threading beads, or cuddling up in a kiddie tent or fort.

Don’t shame the “perpetrator.” “Why would you want to hurt your brother?” “What’s wrong with you?” This kind of response usually makes things worse  as it reinforces the reputation of the shamed child as the “difficult” one, making her feel resentful and more likely to act out toward her siblings, and others. Further, shaming results in kids shutting down and becoming evasive which interferes in their ability to learn better ways of dealing with conflict—the ultimate goal. It does nothing to support their ability to ultimately make better choices as they grow.

Focus on what you want your child to do, not on the infraction. While this may seem counter-intuitive, focusing on the wrongdoing tends to backfire and only increases negative behavior. Imagine that your 4-year-old grabs a rattle from her baby brother. You might say: “Oh, remember, it’s not OK to grab. Do you want to give the rattle back or should I?” If one child gets too rough with another, try: “It looks like you need a way to get your energy out. Here are some soft balls to smash, throw or bang.” Providing an option for solving the problem versus spending a lot of time on the violation tends to put children in a more positive state of mind and makes it more likely they will make a positive course correction.

Create a “cueing” system for kids who have a hard time with self-regulation. For example, a family I am currently working with has a 5-year-old, Jake, who adores but is also very jealous of his younger sister, Maeve. He taunts her a lot. His parents have acknowledged to Jake how hard it can be to share attention with Maeve and that jealousy is an emotion we all struggle with. At the same time, they have made it clear that it’s not OK to express those feelings in ways that are hurtful and they will not let him do that. To be his helpers, together with Jake, they come up with a word (he chooses “hippopotamus”) that they say when they see him heading down an unacceptable path. It is a loving and supportive way to throw a monkey-wrench into the behavior that is brewing. This often enables Jake to halt his haranguing or other unacceptable behavior.

Role-play. Have the kids pretend to have an altercation—something most kids find very amusing. Then proceed with using “pause-and-problem-solve” so they have a chance to practice conflict-resolution strategies and get a preview of what will happen when their actions require adult help. Play out a range of situations so they can experience the difference in outcomes when they can come up with a solution versus scenarios when a toy might need to be taken away or they need a full break from each other to calm their minds and bodies before they can peacefully come back together.  

The sibling relationship is the testing ground for building all sorts of skills for getting along with others: how to share, take turns, cope with envy, build empathy, learn to collaborate, and to jointly resolve problems. So, don’t fear the conflicts that arise among your children. When you position yourself as a facilitator of this process, versus a solver of all problems, it can reduce conflict and make it more likely that your children will ultimately learn to respect, value and even adore each other.

Here is a great article on sibling relationships and rivalry. And another.