“Get outta my room!” (cue door slam), screamed 12-year-old Lily to her brother. “No!! I want my earbuds back! NOW!” Jacob responded while pounding both fists on the door so hard that the floor quivered. When Lily finally opened the door, she whipped the earbuds at her 10-year-old brother, hitting him in the eye. “Moooommm!”
Fighting is a natural and normal part of family life. But, for some parents, there is a nagging concern that their children will never get along and will hate each other for life. In the vast majority of cases, such parental concerns are unfounded. In fact, I asked dozens of tweens and teens what they thought about “battling it out” with their siblings and you might be surprised by their answers.
“We’re fine, Mom, leave us alone!”
Tweens and teens wish their parents would stop intervening. Amy P. put it this way, “My sister and I argue a lot over cleaning the bathroom, and my mom always comes upstairs and starts fighting with us about fighting with each other! It’s crazy!” Or, sometimes her mom lectures them about yelling and how they must respect each other. “We do respect each other, and we are trying to solve a bathroom problem together!” Amy says.
Michele Borba, parenting expert and author of 22 parenting books, agrees. “Parents should stay out of sibling fights at all costs, unless someone is at risk of suffering physical or emotional harm,” Borba says. When parents intervene, they rob their children of the opportunity to practice conflict resolution. Children learn as much from their mistakes as they do from their successes – maybe more! “So, when siblings hurt each other’s feelings or when problem-solving turns into a screaming match, they learn what not to do,” Borba says.
Fights can be misleading
“I hate it when my mom thinks she knows exactly what’s going on between my younger brother and me,” a teenager recently told me. “She thinks we are fighting over the remote, but the bottom line is that I had a bad day at school and my brother was just annoying me.” As parents, we often hear fighting and immediately jump to a conclusion about the cause of the squabble. In reality, the kids themselves may not even know why they’re fighting.
Patrick P., a middle-schooler in a suburb of Washington, D.C., told me that his mom always overreacts when he and his sister fight. “[My mom] comes in and starts screaming at us to stop fighting when it’s really no big deal. Sometimes she even cries because we are fighting, and we just want to laugh at her,” he says.
Adele Faber, parenting expert and author of “Siblings Without Rivalry” and other award-winning books, says, “It’s never helpful when parents respond with more intensity than the children feel.” The kids think it’s just a normal part of life and it’s “no biggie,” but parents inevitably turn it into a major issue.
Sibling feuds teach social skills
When children fight, they learn how to relate to their peers in a safe environment. “ The family is where we learn relationship skills. And the way they relate to each other, even in the heat of battle, is our gift to them, “ says Faber.
Sibling arguments teach kids about the limits in relationships. How far can I go until my sister snaps in anger? How mean can I be until my brother cries? How annoying can I act before my sister storms out? How hard can I push my brother before he pushes me back? These are useful questions to answer before venturing out into the “real world” of social relationships.
“I used to annoy my older brother because I just wanted to be with him … I wanted to be just like him and do all the things that he did,” says Jose D. But, instead of telling his brother that, he just did annoying things to keep his brother interacting (negatively) with him. Jose was inexperienced and didn’t know a positive way to connect with the sibling he admired. “When I got older,” Jose says, “we truly did enjoy being together … once I stopped being an annoying little brother.”
Squabbling develops life skills
“Everyone needs to learn how to resolve conflict to be a fully functioning adult,” says Borba. Kids practice compromising, sharing, negotiating and problem solving in the family setting. It takes years (sometimes decades) to learn those skills. With siblings, you can try these skills, fail miserably and try again without fearing that the other person will walk away and never come back.
One teen tells me, “I don’t care about fighting with my sister because I know she’ll be my sister forever, but when I fight with my friends, they threaten to not be my friend anymore.” Her older sister agrees, “Yeah, it’s like, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work in a relationship without losing the relationship.”
When sibling fights turn abusive
It is time to be concerned when there are damaging and violent fights. This type of sibling rivalry can harm long-term relationships between siblings and affect their mental health. If you are concerned that your children’s fights have turned physically and/or emotionally abusive, consult a professional. Your general practitioner will refer you to a mental health specialist who can determine an appropriate course of action.
What can parents do when siblings fight?
Stay out of it.
Unless there is serious harm being done, let them work it out themselves. Sometimes kids argue just to get parental attention. Negative attention is better than no attention at all. What gets a parent’s immediate attention? Loud fighting!
Siblings fight. It is not necessarily a reflection of your parenting or the love they have for each other. It happens and it will continue to happen. You may have adult squabbles with your siblings even now that you are grown up. It doesn’t mean that you love them any less.
Repeat a mantra.
If fighting really gets to you, use a mantra that can help calm you down. Say something like, “Our home will be peaceful again,” or “I can control my own behavior,” or “This too shall pass.”
Look to your own relationships.
Do you fight with your partner or members of your family of origin? The best way to teach good relationship skills is to model appropriate behavior. Actions speak louder than words.