How to Nip Sibling Battles in the Bud

The following guest post is from Dr. Laura Nathanson

Siblings are supposed to fight. Aren’t they? Isn’t that why Nature gave us backseats in cars?

That’s how it seems in the media. It’s a running joke. In real life, many parents really want their children to get along together, but are quick to add that “Of course I expect them to fight.” When asked about that expectation, they often say that siblings fights teach children how to negotiate; give them skills valuable in the real world. I doubt it. Once a real fight starts, negotiating usually doesn’t stand a chance. Look at the Mid-East.

When siblings are allowed to “work it out on their own,” here’s what they learn:

  • The bigger and stronger child wins.
  • The louder, more aggressive child wins.
  • When you fight frequently, you can forget — or never learn — how to play without fighting.
  • When you are always fighting, there’s no reason to try to see things from your sibling’s point of view — so mean teasing and sneaky nasty tricks are all just fine.

Of course, more often than not, parents simply can’t stand the noise and unpleasantness, and go and break up the fight. Here’s what siblings learn from that experience:

  • I can sneak up and grab my sibling’s toy. When my sibling punches me I can yell that I got punched, and Mommy or Daddy will come in and I’ll say I got punched and they’ll punish my sibling.
  • If my sibling and I start to scream and fight, after a while Mommy or Daddy will come in, and listen to both sides of the story, and if my side is better, I can get my sibling in deep trouble.
  • I can get Mommy or Daddy’s attention consistently by picking a fight with my sibling.
  • If we fight often enough, one of us gets the reputation of the Good Child and the other one gets the reputation of the Monster.
  • The one who gets the reputation of being The Monster can act like a Monster all the time because that’s what they expect.

Parents who want to establish a Family Contract need to nip sibling battles in the bud. That doesn’t just create a more satisfying family life; it actually teaches children something important: true negotiating skills: how NOT to escalate a disagreement into a screaming or hitting fight.

To nip sibling wars in the bud, adjust your Parental Response to the age of the children.

Siblings Who Are Both Two and Under
Children this young usually can’t play together at all. A Two is just learning how to play imaginatively and socially. Two can just barely play with other Twos, who after all do have rudimentary social skills: they can talk a bit and imitate each other’s games. They can get help from, and tattle to, an adult.

But asking Two to play with a younger child, without close supervision, is like asking a chimpanzee to babysit.

Not advised.

Siblings Who Are Both Three and Under
Two children will be unable to really play together until both are old enough to really play. They will be unable to share toys until both are old enough to share. They will be unable to negotiate themselves out of a battle until both are able to talk.

A Three who is expected to play with, or even to entertain, a younger child doesn’t understand why Fifteen Months can’t join him in a pretend game, for instance, or sing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” song. Three just thinks that the younger child is being “mean.”

If Three is asked to “share” a toy with the younger child, and is rebuked for not “sharing,” Three’s face crumples in bewilderment and outrage. He is not being asked to “share,” he is being asked to find it OK when somebody grabs his toy. This violates every rule Three is trying to learn, so laboriously, about sharing. My heart always goes out to Three when I see this happening.

The Moral of the Story: If you’re right there, suggesting play strategies, narrating what Three is doing, praising Three for being so grown-up, intervening when Younger Siblings grabs the precious fire truck — fine.

But keep your eyes sharp and your expectations low.

When outrage and fighting occur with this age spacing, it’s not the children’s fault, if you get my drift.

When Both Siblings Are Over Two, and One Is Four or Over

Finally, they are of ages that can play together. What Siblings this age need to learn is the following:

  • It is up to US to play together without fighting. We get better at that as we get more experience.
  • If we do start to fight, nobody is going to come over and listen to My Side of the Story and Administer Blame and Mete Out Justice.
  • If we do start to fight, somebody will come in and separate us. Which is the most frustrating and exasperating response in the world.
  • Therefore, it is pointless and self-defeating to start a fight or to try to get the other sibling in trouble. Too bad. It is so satisfying to feel as if I am the favored one. Or to go into a grand sulk because I am the Martyr and It’s Not Fair.
  • But that’s OK, because I get a satisfying amount of time alone with Mommy or Daddy regularly. I don’t need to compete for it, or whine for it. It just happens.

So here is the technique that works for this more mature duo of siblings:

  • Put the responsibility on the children to learn to get along. This does NOT mean letting them fight it out! On the contrary, it means separating them as soon as their interaction escalates to shouting or name-calling. Don’t wait for a physical aggression. As soon as you hear the signal, go in and say, “NO FIGHTING!” Just those words. Don’t try to figure out who’s at fault, or who did what to whom. Even if you witnessed what happened, don’t judge or administer blame. Instead, separate them. Put them in two different rooms for three minutes.
  • If they are squabbling about a toy or object, go in when you can hear that they are not working it out on their own: when one of them gets that shrill note in his voice, or yells a threat. Put the TOY in “Time Out” for an hour or a day. Don’t try to figure out who had it or who grabbed it.
  • Make sure that each child gets about ten minutes of one-on-one time every day with each parent, especially Mommy. Extended one-on-one times — all day, or all afternoon — aren’t necessary and may make things worse. It’s the daily focusing that counts. See the Oppositional Behavior sheet for making One-on-One time really work.

Fighting in the backseat is a temptation because both children know that you have to pay attention to driving. Because this is a dangerous pastime, it needs to be nipped in the bud as soon as it starts. I suggest you take some practice trips to do so, while both children are still young and gullible.

That is, you tell them that you are on your way to some desirable destination. Drive there slowly, on side streets. As soon as fighting begins, pull over, stop, turn around, say “No fighting in the car!” Then turn around, drive home in silence, and put each in his or her own room for five minutes.

Let them overhear you call someone at the desirable destination and explain why you are not going to show up.

It rarely takes more than two practice trips to make the point.

Excerpted from The Portable Pediatrician by Dr. Laura Nathanson.

Dr. Laura Nathanson is the author of The Portable Pediatrician, as well as several other books. She has practiced pediatrics for more than thirty years, is board certified in pediatrics and peri-neonatology, and has been consistently listed in The Best Doctors in America. For more information please visit, and follow the author on Facebook