Patients and Families

What to Do When Children Fight

Parents want their children to love each other, and they find it hard to see their children quarrel. Yet sibling rivalry can be positive - sibling relationships provide opportunities for children to stand up for themselves, compromise and get along with others.

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of life in families with more than one child. Brothers and sisters do fight, but parents don't have to stay and listen to them! Kids should be allowed to work out their problems on their own, and parents should intervene only if the battles get physically or verbally abusive.

Families can establish rules for getting along with others, such as no name calling, hitting or teasing. Parents can set an example through their own behavior but should remember that it's normal for siblings to fight.

The way parents respond when their kids argue influences the way the kids will behave toward each other. If Mom or Dad comes running whenever the children get into conflict, they learn that fighting gets their parents' attention, so they will fight more. If the parents don't intervene, the kids have to learn to talk to each other and solve their problems.

Parent involvement usually complicates disputes. If the children are fighting over a toy, the problem is the toy. But if Dad intervenes, each child wants him on his or her side. The parent becomes another source of contention. Here are some things to remember when the kids argue:

  • Be proactive, not reactive. Teach children to handle conflicts before they arise. Parents can explain how they handle conflict and should praise kids when they cooperate with each other.
  • Be objective. Parents shouldn't argue over who started it or who's to blame, but should let the children work it out. 
  • If the conflict might become physical, a parent should step in and encourage the kids to talk. Each child should tell his side of the story. They should be separated if they need to calm down. When kids hit, stop the hurting behavior and demand an apology. Explain that physical attacks aren't allowed, and impose a consequence like time out, lost privileges or extra chores.
  • Be fair. Many younger children come running whenever their older sibling bothers them (or vice versa). If the parent constantly takes the side of one and gets mad at the other, one may become dependent while the other is constantly made to feel like a bully. Making an assumption about who is right or wrong can increase sibling rivalry. Parents often yell at the same child with words like, “Why do you have to hit her all the time?” Such responses reinforce children's aggressive tendencies. It's better to stay calm and reply, “I can see you're upset and need to be alone.”
  • Show understanding. If a child says her brother called her stupid, try saying, “That must have made you mad!” Empathy often can make a child feel better.

As always, children should be praised when they share, cooperate or play nicely together. Given the opportunity, children learn to get along with their siblings and are able to develop close relationships as they grow up.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC offers Positive Parenting classes and other parenting workshops. For more information, call the Community Education Department at 412-692-7105. Current classes are listed on this Web site.

Last Update
September 11, 2008
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Last Update
September 11, 2008
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