Family Dynamics

Siblings Who Fight: A Strategic Solution

A shift in perspective may help your teenagers learn to get along

Posted Nov 04, 2019

 What can parents do when their children won't get along with each other and the house feels like a war zone?

Unfortunately, empirical research on decreasing sibling conflict is limited. In general, authoritative parenting approaches and prosocial communication modeling tend to be connected with better sibling relationships [3,4]. Family therapists have sought to tackle family dynamic difficulties for many years. Strategic family therapy, which favors practical solutions and simple behavioral changes [1], offers some simple directives for approaching belligerent siblings.

I'd like to offer the disclaimer that when it comes to problems in families, there's no one cure-all. As much as individuals are different, so are their families. With that being said, I think there's a powerful shift in perspective most parents likely haven't considered when it comes to restoring peace in the home.

Let me convince you. Parents I've seen who are looking to help their kids get along fall into one of two categories: they've either completely figured out why their kids fight, or they have no idea what the cause is and they're trying to find out. There seems to be this universal belief that we have to know why something's happening in order to get it to stop happening.

Certainly, this notion is reflective of medical practice, car repair, and perfecting a flaky pie crust, among other things. I, for one, can't help but be curious why a relationship has gone awry. But is it necessary to have the answer before we can make improvements for the better? 

Focusing on the problem or the "why" of a situation is in our nature, but the solution might not require a conclusion. Strategic interventions do not require comprehensive understanding of the etiology (cause) of a problem, just a basic intuition about what we would like a sibling relationship to look like.

We would like siblings to be supportive and encouraging towards each other. Reward your teens for each genuine (read: non-sarcastic) compliment they give each other. Compliment receivers can be rewarded as well for prosocial responses (e.g., "thank you, I appreciate that!"). One time, I instructed a teenage client to compliment her brother once per day in the two weeks between our sessions and to keep track of how many arguments they had. Daily argument counts were down to one or none by the end of the first week of compliment-giving.

Why does this sort intervention work so well? It ignores the "why" and focuses on the "what now?" Let's go back to our Psych 101 class and remind ourselves of Pavlov's dogs. He trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by pairing the bell sound with the taste of meat. Soon enough, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell even when there was no meat present. In the example above, the sister and brother (dogs) have associated their sibling (bell) with negative emotions because of all their conflict (meat). They are therefore conditioned to react negatively to each other's presence – eliciting verbal attacks (this would be the salivation) to keep their distance from one another.

While total sibling camaraderie is a conman's promise, my client eventually associated her brother with the kind words she used to describe him. And presumably, her brother eventually associated her with the desirable feeling of being complimented [2]. Essentially, we swapped the old meat for new meat so that the same bell triggered a different type of salivation: kindness. Now there's a sentence I bet you're never going to read again!

Admittedly, families are a little more complicated than dogs' salivary systems. There are a lot of moving parts, so to speak. But what's simplest is providing families with an additional line of defense before having to turn to a therapist for help with their dysfunctional family dynamics is worthwhile.

In short, craft situations in which your teens naturally associate each other with pleasant emotions.

Try a family game night – siblings vs. parents. Send them to events they both enjoy together. Have them be on their phones in the same room. Point out and explicitly praise every act of sibling-to-sibling kindness. The purpose of this post was not to seek to provide a solution for all battling siblings, but instead to encourage moving past "why is this happening" and towards "what would it be like if things were better."  


Nichols, M. P., & Davis, S. D. (2017). Family therapy: concepts and methods. Boston: Pearson.

Milevsky, A., Schlechter, M. J., & Machlev, M. (2011). Effects of parenting style and involvement in sibling conflict on adolescent sibling relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(8), 1130–1148. doi: 10.1177/0265407511406894

Pickering, J. A., & Sanders, M. R. (2017). Integrating parents' views on sibling relationships to tailor an Evidence‐based parenting intervention for sibling conflict. Family Process, 56(1), 105-125. doi:10.1111/famp.12173

Relva, I. C., Alarcão, M., Fernandes, O. M., Carvalho, J., & Fauchier, A. (2019). Sibling conflict and parental discipline: The mediating role of family communication in portuguese adolescents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 36(3), 295-304. doi:10.1007/s10560-019-00600-3