The Fussy Baby Site

What to Do About Sibling Fighting

Siblings on couch: sibling rivalry and fighting

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails and messages about sibling fighting and sibling rivalry.

Almost without fail, the scenario goes something like this:

Older brother or sister (usually between 3-5 years old) is acting out with younger sibling (usually anywhere from infant to preschooler). This “acting out” involves hurting, annoying or yelling at said sibling, often without any provocation.

Now, when older kids fight, I often recommend parents stay out of it…at least to a point. Because as soon as we step in, it’s easy to take sides, get into the whole “he said, she said” thing, etc.

But when we’re talking about physical harm OR one sibling being an infant, OR one sibling clearly and frequently being the instigator, it’s definitely time to set some limits.

I recently got an email from a parent who is struggling with this exact situation. She writes:

“My son just turned 5. He is highly sensitive and has trouble handling his emotions. Whenever my son gets angry at his 10 month old baby brother, he hurts him. It could be because the baby is crying or if the baby is getting in the way of whatever toy he is playing with. I tell him over and over how he cannot hurt anyone and how he can’t hurt his brother. Then I give him things he can do when he feels angry, like walk away, go to his room and throw a pillow, etc.    I find if I react in a “negative” way – time out, send him to his room, take toys away, etc, it makes his behavior ten times worse and he’ll lie to me about hurting the baby. I recently tried telling him that he’s not going to get in trouble. Then he is truthful and tells me what happened. After that I will tell him to go to the baby, tell him sorry, to ask if he’s okay, and to tell him to say 3 things that he loves about the baby. I’m trying to match the discipline to the offense. But he still keeps hurting him! I’ve been doing it this way for a couple of weeks now. I’m just not sure what else to try and if I’m even handling this correctly”.

First of all, I love how she’s handling the situation! She’s figured out that punishing him for his behaviour simply pushes him into lying or trying to cover up what he’s done – something that often happens when we used punishments or manufactured consequences (i.e., consequences that really aren’t related to what our child has done).

I also love that she’s helping him “make it right” afterwards. By having him tell the baby he’s sorry, this is a good first step to helping him learn – over the long term – that when we hurt someone (physically or emotionally), we need to take steps to repair that relationship.

Finally, she has discovered that yelling or giving time-outs – especially with a highly-sensitive, spirited child is a recipe for all sorts of trouble!

Why? These kids tend to feel things SO deeply, take things SO personally, and respond SO intensely to traditional discipline strategies. When we use these strategies, we tend to simply set up an “us against them” situation, they feel backed into a corner, and this is when they respond with yelling, defiance, meltdowns, and more negative behaviors.

So, what else can she do about this sibling fighting – both in the moment and afterwards?

  1. Start by realizing kids (especially spirited ones) typically aren’t good with changes to their routine…and having a baby brother or sister is a HUGE change. All the attention they were used to getting before is now being split 2-ways…and this is hard for them to understand and adjust to.
  2. Due to this decreased attention, they will seek out attention from you in whatever way they can…even when that way is not adaptive and gets them in trouble. It just tells us how much they crave our attention, if they’ll get in trouble just to get it! To help with this, make sure to plan in 1-on-1 times with your older child where you’re 100% emotionally present with him. Think about times of day when he’s more likely to act out, and be proactive by spending even 10 minutes with him BEFORE he’s likely to irritate or fight with his sibling.
  3. When he does hit/annoy/get in his sibling’s face, etc. (and he WILL do this), respond like this: Acknowledge the feeling (“I can see you’re really angry he took your toy”), set the limit (“But you can’t just take it from him”), and redirect him to something else.
  4. Afterwards, think about ways you child could make it right. For older kids, get them to brainstorm some options with you. Making it right could mean saying sorry, but I personally prefer more hands-on activities like coloring a picture or sharing a favourite toy.
  5. Some parents find it helpful to read books together like I Am a Big Brother or You Were the First. Don’t expect these books to be miracle cures or anything, but I do think they can help your spirited child feel a little more special, especially if you’re taking some extra 1-on-1 time to read to them.

Now, it’s important to note that none of these are quick fixes. Our kids are complex little creatures who haven’t yet developed impulse control (under the age of 4..and even after 4, they’re in that egocentric/lack of empathy stage). Spirited kids also often struggle with the skills of problem-solving and frustration tolerance.

So, it’s unrealistic to think any of these strategies will magically fix sibling rivalry, jealousy or fights.

However, over time, practicing these strategies can definitely help them get used to using these more appropriate and adaptive ways of dealing with their big emotions, solving problems, and sticking to the limits you’ve set (and that they know are there…they’re just having trouble meeting them right now).

While these behaviors are certainly frustrating and annoying for parents, the most important thing to remember is that your child isn’t trying to be “bad”.

If you respond with anger, frustration, yelling, etc., it’s likely to prolong the behaviors; but if you’re able to set the limit calmly and confidently and move their focus to something else, this is your best bet to move through this stage as quickly as possible.