“Why can’t our kids just get along? Why must they always fight?” Parents get tired of the bickering, teasing, competing, and ongoing provocation between their children that’s always going on. They can’t understand why their children won’t stay off each other’s case, get out of each other’s way, leave each other alone, and just be friends. Sibling conflict is just an additional and unnecessary source of family stress. “Who needs it?” parents ask.

The answer is “the children do.” Fighting is not a sign of children not getting along. It is how they get along – using conflict to test their power, establish differences, and ventilate emotion with a familiar family adversary. Conflict from sibling rivalry is built into family life as children compete for dominance, parental attention, parental support, and household resources. Who gets what? Who does what? Who goes first? Who gets most? Who’s right? Who’s best? Unless your children are eight to ten years apart in age, there will be sibling rivalry between them. And even then, older child will probably resent the younger for getting away with more, getting given more, and being allowed to do more than older child was at younger child’s age. While the much younger child will resent the older for acting like another parent.

No wonder so many couples now elect to have an only child. They don’t have to listen to all the sibling arguments, break up all the sibling spats, or worry about dividing the parental attention and resources they have to give. Of course, the downside of being an only child is often manifest in significant adult relationships later on. By missing out on the rough and tumble of sibling warfare, the young adult only child may be woefully inexperienced with the complexity of sharing, and have a low tolerance and limited understanding for how to deal with conflict.

The more similarity there is between your children – same sex, close in age, similar interests – the more sibling conflict over dominance and differentiation there is likely to be. The major exception to this is identical twins for whom similarity creates an unusual intimacy. They seem to enjoy sharing a single identity between them. The more alike they are, the closer they feel. The closer they feel, the more alike they want to become. They can feel incomplete in absence from each other, they can have unspoken means of knowing what is going on in each other, and they may even construct a secret language between them that no one else understands.

For other siblings, however, similarity only increases conflict by increasing the need to win competition and establish individuality. To reduce some of this need for conflict from inadequate diversity (or excessive similarity), parents can encourage

§ Separate social circles for siblings,

§ Separate interests and activities for siblings,

§ Separate goals and future directions for siblings,

§ Separate times with parents,

§ Attendance at separate schools,

§ And joint activities that both siblings enjoy doing together.

The more diversity between siblings, they less they have to fight to differentiate from one another and contest dominance between them.

The issue of parental “fairness,” however, remains a divisive one. Charges the 14-year-old: “Since I’m older, but you should treat me differently and give me a later bedtime. That’s only fair!” Charges the 12-year-old: “Since we’re both your children, you should treat us the same and give us the same bedtime. That’s only fair!” And both siblings are right. Fairness is treating people differently to honor their individuality and the same to honor their commonality. Fairness is a double standard – siblings demanding to be the same and different at the same time. Parents can’t win. Fair to one child often seems unfair to the other. What’s a parent to do? Maybe treating them equally unfairly is the answer. That way, both children can agree: “Mom and dad are just not fair!” To which parents can reply: “We are going to treat you each according to what we believe are your individual needs.”

Older and younger child frequently engage in a positional conflict. Younger child provokes conflict to get the older child’s attention, often using imitation to prove: “I am your equal!” “Stop copying me!” complains the older child. Then older child puts the younger down to assert supremacy, teasing to show: “You are my inferior.” “Stop making fun of me!” complains the younger child. As for putting the older child in charge of the younger when parents are not around, this can often inflame positional conflict and add fuel to the competitive fire.

Just because conflict is built into sibling relationships doesn’t mean that parents should passively accept that reality, play hands off, and let it go. Sometimes, because they are tired of the bickering, parents may want to separate the combatants to get a little peace and quiet. More important, however, is parents maintaining a watchful eye on the conflict so it doesn’t get out of hand and do either child emotional or physical harm. To this end, parents must act as governors of the conflict in four ways.

1. Parents must hold both children responsible whatever conflict arises between them. It always takes a joint effort to create a conflict (conflict is cooperative), and only one to stop it (conflict stops when one refuses to play the game of opposition, to fight or argue back.) If you try to determine “who started it” you will only go back to the year one. They both started it.

2. As often as you can, separate don’t mediate. Tell them you expect them to work out their difference without continuing to fight about it. Instruct them to use separation time to think about how this peaceful resolution can accomplished. Remember: “Blessed be the mediator be he/she will he hated by both sides.” Mediation can be a thankless role. Each agrees you play favorites: “You always take their side!”

3. Monitor safety of the conflict. Conflict between siblings should never be used an excuse by either sibling to do physical or emotional harm. In family conflict, the rule of safety must prevail. To let one child continue to injure the other only encourages the hitting child to think it’s okay to abuse and the hit child that it’s okay to be abused (and the frequently hit child will grow very angry at parents for allowing this mistreatment go on.)

4. Let both children know that while you will hold both children accountable for any conflict cooperatively created between them; you will hold them each separately accountable for conduct in that conflict. Any time either child violates the rule of safety, that child will have family business to discuss with you.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. For permission to use, contact the author.