Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

You imagine they will be best friends, playing together, walking hand-in-hand, but then reality strikes, and you find yourself being the referee. Here are some ideas to restore the peace in your home.

Minimizing Rivalry
Occasional spats will naturally occur, but there are things parents can do (and not do) to minimize sibling rivalry.

1.  Don’t compare your kids. I know this seems like an obvious one, but it’s pretty easy to catch yourself comparing them even when you don’t mean to. Comparisons can have 2 outcomes. One is resentment toward the “better” sibling, and the other is a feeling of inadequacy or low self-concept. Even when you’re giving one the “favorable” comparison, for example, telling one she is so much more responsible than her sibling, this sets up a competitive atmosphere. Instead of comparing, describe what you see, what you like, what you don’t like, or what needs to be done, but leave the other siblings out of it. Instead of “Why can’t you do your homework without a fuss like your brother?” describe what needs to be done. “You have homework that needs completed before TV time.”

2.  Don’t treat them equally; treat them uniquely. In the book Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, they say “even though they seem to want everything the same, they don’t really.” When questioned, she describes this scenario:  Imagine a young wife who suddenly turned to her husband and asked, “Who do you love more? Your mother or me?” Had he answered, “I love you both the same,” he would have been in big trouble. But instead he said, “My mother is my mother. You’re the fascinating, sexy woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less.  To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self- is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.

3.  Beware of labeling. “He’s the musician in the family.” “She’s the artist.” Again, from Siblings Without Rivalry, “No child should be allowed to corner the market on any area of human endeavor.  We want to make it clear to each of our children that the joys of scholarship, dance, drama, poetry, sport are for everyone and not reserved for those who have special aptitude.”

Setting Limits
I don’t expect my kids to always get along, or to even always like each other, but I do expect them to not resort to violence, taunting, or name-calling. I expect them to remain respectful through their disagreements.  This is a boundary that I have made clear to them. Each child should feel safe and comfortable in their own home. Allowing one child to be constantly bullied or taunted by the other one isn’t fair to that child. Set appropriate boundaries that respect each individual in the home and that create an atmosphere of acceptance and love, not rivalry and conflict.

Enforcing Limits
What happens when your boundary is crossed and one sibling shoves another or calls the other a disrespectful name? This depends largely on the age and maturity of your children. For younger children, under 4 or 5, a time-in is appropriate for the one who shoved or name-called. Take the child onto your lap or sit near them, restate your limit, help them to return to a state of calm, and discuss alternatives to the pushing or name-calling.  If 2 or more children are involved, and you don’t know who started it, you can call for a separation. When mine were a little younger and things got heated between the 2 of them, I’d call for a “cool off” and they knew that meant they were to separate from each other until they were cooled off.  They could do whatever they liked as long as they weren’t near each other. If they didn’t cooperate, I helped to physically separate them and get them involved in separate activities. When things were calmed down, we’d discuss the incident.

Problem-solving is the best option for older kids. I’ve started incorporating this now with my 5 and 3 year olds. The 5 year old does most of the “problem solving” but it’s good practice for the younger one to go through the steps. Now, when a spat breaks out, I ask them “Can you two solve this, or do you need my help?” More often than not, they agree they can solve it themselves, so I step out of it and let them.  For example, they both wanted to same Nerf sword and were having an argument. I asked them if they could solve their problem or if they needed my help. My 5 year old said he’d take care of it. I left the room for a couple of minutes, and when I came back, he declared that they had decided to take turns with the sword. Had they not come to this solution on their own, I would have assisted them by offering solutions, such as taking turns or one picking another toy to play with.

If they had both continued to fight over the sword and refused to come to a solution, I would have likely just taken the sword for myself as a last resort. I don’t personally view that as a punishment but as an enforcement of my limit. I simply don’t allow fights to continue without working toward a solution.

Rivalry on Trips
My very simple but effective solution for fighting in the car is that, as soon as an argument begins, I immediately pull the car over. I don’t say a word and will usually start a game on my phone (you can bring along a book if you’re a reader). I’ve explained the drill to them beforehand. “I can’t drive safely if you’re fighting, so when you fight, I will pull over.” After a few seconds, the fighting stops and one will say “You can go now, Mom.” Very rarely will I ever have to pull over twice.

If an argument breaks out in the grocery or department store, I will restate my limit and give a warning. If it continues, I will leave the store, if I am able to do so, or if not, I will take them to a more secluded area and work on problem-solving or have a time-in in the shoe section. I have taken them out to the car and sat quietly until they tell me they are ready to go back in and try again.

Peaceful parenting is about having peaceful homes and peaceful relationships. Conflicts will always arise, and that is perfectly normal, but by setting boundaries around respect and teaching problem-solving skills, we can teach our kids how to find solutions, repair relationships, and come back to peace.


  • Mel Roberts Posted 21 February 2012 15:23

    I use time in if its possible – but I often find that the child who has been hurt needs comfort , and the other is then left without having a boundary enforced. Any tips on how to manage this?
    Great post by the way 🙂

  • darlene Posted 16 September 2014 9:40

    I really wish this question had been answered. We also struggle with this.

  • Anonymous Posted 16 September 2014 9:40

    Same question as Mel Roberts….

  • Rebecca Posted 16 September 2014 9:55

    Tricky, isn't it? I wish there was a clear answer that fit every occasion, but that'd be too easy. 😉 If your child will sit in the cozy corner (just a blanket, pillow, books, calm down jar, whatever helps) then you can tend to the hurt child while the other is self-regulating. However, this really depends on the age and development of the child. Some sit and look through books, others scream bloody murder.

    You can get the aggressor to be involved in comforting the other child. "Go get a band-aid for your sister" or "bring your brother his blanket to help him feel better." This teaches her/him to repair relationships and lets you tend to the hurt child at the same time.

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