How to Help Siblings Build Great Relationships for Life

As a parent, nothing hurts you more than seeing your child hurt. Whether it’s your tween moping because she didn’t get a part in the school play or your toddler sobbing over the last piece of cake, you feel your child’s pain as if it’s your own. 

And when it’s another child who’s hurting your child…that can strain your compassion to the limit. Your neighbor’s cute toddler at the playground will transform in your mind to an evil demon the minute she hits your child in a fight over the swing. 

But when the child who’s hurting your child is also your child? You’ll never feel so torn.

Siblings can be each other’s best friends and worst enemies – often in the same day. As a parent, seeing your children fight can be overwhelming. You want to simultaneously yell at them  and hug them both forever. 

But as difficult as it is, sibling conflict is also an opportunity. Siblings know each other better than anyone else, and sibling relationships are the key place where children can build conflict resolution skills like compassion, negotiation, and compromise. Here’s how you can help them build those skills – even when you’re seeing red. 

Appreciate each child’s individuality 

A desire for parental attention is often at the heart of sibling rivalry, so giving each child your undivided attention is key to minimizing conflict between your kids. Try to schedule 1:1 time with each child, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. Let them take the lead and tell you about their interests and stories. Listening and encouraging what they have to say will promote a healthy sense of self, which can help them learn to set boundaries and manage conflict with their siblings. 

Listening to each child talk about what they care about will also help you know how you can encourage activities they’re interested in. Valuing and recognizing the interests and personality traits that make them unique will help each child feel appreciated for who they are, without comparisons to siblings. This can help you, as Mayo Clinic recommends, “respect each child’s unique needs” and parent them equally, but not identically. 

Model healthy conflict 

Parents who have partners often think it’s best to go somewhere private to solve disagreements between adults, so children don’t have to listen to arguments. But the reality is that conflict with your partner is unavoidable, and since it can happen at any time, trying to keep it private often means that children see the beginning but not the resolution. It’s probably better for kids to watch you work things out, as long as you can do that in a healthy way. One study found that teens who observed “cooperative marital conflict” had better emotional coping skills. Another study found that children whose parents demonstrated “constructive marital conflict” had more prosocial behaviors. Good conflict means being able to compromise, avoid aggression even when you’re mad, and ultimately resolve the situation – even if you never come to an agreement. 

Arguments with your partner aren’t the only opportunity to model healthy conflict resolution – disagreements between you and your kids are inevitable, too, and you can use them as opportunities. Practice staying calm even when you’re frustrated, and model what you want them to do when they fight with each other. Demonstrate “I” statements, firmly but kindly step away if you need to cool down, and be open to negotiating with them. After all, if you want them to compromise with their siblings, you might need to be willing to compromise, too! 

Let kids work it out when you can

It can be tempting to break things up quickly when your kids are fighting. But waiting to see if they can work it out will let them build conflict resolution skills. If they’re not yelling or punching each other, let conflict go for a little to see if they can solve it on their own. 

You can set them up for success by creating routines that help prevent arguments before they happen. For example, teach toddlers to take turns with toys (it’s easier than sharing, which young kids don’t understand). When your kids start to argue, pay attention to their tone and body language – that will give you a clue whether the conflict is escalating or moving toward resolution.

If you do need to step in, be a coach, not a director. Offer suggestions and tools, but let your kids take the lead, especially when working out a compromise. If the ideas come from them, they’ll be more satisfied with the outcome – and they’ll have more skills for the next disagreement. 

Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to ruin relationships. Rather than preventing sibling rivalry, work on teaching your kids skills that will enable them to build better relationships not just with each other, but with friends, teachers, and even you.