1. School Age
  2. Behaviour
  3. Friends & siblings

Preventing sibling fights

2-8 years

You can do a lot to help your children learn to get along. Lay the groundwork with family rules, routines and lots of praise for good behaviour. This will guide your children towards better ways of resolving conflict.

Look after each child’s needs

Your children need to feel that you love and value them all equally – this way, they won’t feel they have to compete for your affection and attention. You can foster these feelings by spending special time with each child regularly, giving lots of hugs and smiles to everyone, and trying not to compare children with each other.

Although children need to learn about sharing, it’s also helpful if they have some special things of their own that they don’t have to share. A little bit of private space – even just a drawer that siblings can’t get into – is a good idea too.

Children will also feel valued if you make it clear that it’s not OK for younger children to mess up older kids’ activities, and vice versa.

Loving your children equally doesn’t always mean treating them the same. At different ages they need different rules and boundaries. You might even show your love for them differently – by doing different activities with them, for example – just as long as each child feels sure of being loved.

Set clear family rules

Rules let children know what’s OK and what’s not. If you have family rules in place, it’s easier for you to step in and say, ‘Remember, no fighting’, or ‘Hey, no name-calling’.

Rules should be simple. And as much as possible, try to state your rules in a positive way, focusing on what you want your child to do, rather than what not to do. For example, rules such as ‘We all speak nicely to one another’, ‘We look at how to solve the problem’ and ‘We treat people and things gently’ show what you do want. On the other hand, ‘We never hit other people’ shows what you don’t want. 

It’s a good idea to limit the number of rules too – you don’t need dozens of them.

Three tips for making rules stick

  • Involve children in setting up rules. This will help your children remember them. Even three-year-olds might be able to contribute to the discussion.
  • Hang a copy of your house rules on the fridge or somewhere prominent as a reminder for the whole family.
  • Follow through every time children bend or break the rules. Start with a friendly reminder – ‘Are we all speaking nicely to each other?’ Then give another chance. If children still break the rules, use an agreed consequence. This could be taking away whatever they’re fighting about for a short time.
Despite your best efforts, squabbles can sometimes turn into full-blown fights. Read our articles on handling fights and why children fight for more help.

Set up routines

It’s much easier to handle disagreements about everyday things when you have a family routine. It means that everyone just knows who sits where, who does what chores and on what days, and who’s first in line for the video game, trampoline or bathroom.

A sample routine

  • Television: Samantha chooses the program from 6.30-7 pm. Jake chooses from 7.30-8 pm (after Samantha has gone to bed).
  • Games: Jake chooses on Saturdays, Samantha chooses on Sundays.
  • Bathroom: Jake uses the bathroom first in the morning, then Samantha.
  • Chores: Samantha and Jake take it in turns to do the chores – garbage duty one week, drying the dishes the next week.

Catch them being good

This means noticing and giving positive and encouraging feedback to your children when they’re behaving well.

The key is to tell kids very clearly and specifically what they’re doing well and how much it’s appreciated. When you notice and encourage good behaviour, you’re much more likely to see that behaviour again.

Here are some examples of clear and specific praise and encouragement:

  • ‘I really like the way you’re both taking turns.’
  • ‘You’re all sharing and playing really nicely together.’
  • ‘Hey, you worked out that problem really well. How about we celebrate and have a special treat.’

Try to give your children six positive comments for every negative one. This is a good balance for guiding behaviour and maintaining healthy motivation and self-esteem.

Catching children being good + giving them positive and specific feedback = repeat performances. You might like to read more about praise and encouragement.

Demonstrate how to get along

You are your children’s number-one role model. Your children will notice if you treat others pleasantly and work out differences without fighting.

But if you fly off the handle with other people, your kids are more likely to do this too. If you want them to work things out without swearing and yelling, it won’t help if you swear and yell. If you want them to be able to say sorry to others – an important thing in every relationship – they need to see you apologising too.

Coach your children

You are your children’s problem-solving coach. You prep them on how to handle disagreements and guide them as they work things out. This is better than being a referee who breaks up fights or steps in when they’re brewing.

Think of coaching as constantly steering kids towards the skills and understanding they need to find non-fighting ways to work things out. For example, you might say, ‘Girls, you need to share the toy. Who’s going to have the first turn?’

Tips on coaching

  • Give your children opportunities to play with others. For example, playgroups, playdates and games help children learn to play well together and practise positive alternatives to fighting.
  • Step in with ideas as soon as you see that children are finding it difficult to work things out. For example, ‘Remember to share’, or ‘Can you boys think of a way that you can both have a turn?’
  • Debrief to prevent repeats. With older kids, working out a solution together afterwards will make the fight less likely to happen again. Wait until things have cooled down, and sort it out together. Ignore the issue of blame. For example, ‘How could you have handled it so that both of you got to use the computer?’ 
  • When you can see that children are feeling upset, help them find ways to express their feelings. Encouraging them to use words – not fists and feet – is important. For younger children, you can also look for play activities that help with feelings – for example, water play, painting or playdough. For older children and teenagers, doing things like going for a run or playing music can help. You can also talk with them to find out what helps.

Cool down fighting hot spots

Many children have fighting hot spots, like when they’re in the car. It can help to think ahead about how you can handle fights in these situations. You can set things up so that there are fewer opportunities for kids to fight.

Here are some ideas to help you plan for common fighting hot spots.

Hot spot Tip
At home
  • For younger children, make sure there are enough toys for everyone, so they can play together without always having to share.
  • If you have three or more children, make sure that the same child isn’t left out all the time. For example, when organising playdates, you could try to invite a friend for everyone.
Out and about
  • Modify things that work at home and use them when you’re out. A game like ‘I spy’ can divert attention at the supermarket, the beach, on public transport or in the car.
  • On public transport, park yourself or a pram between the kids.
At the supermarket
  • Create a special rule. For example, ‘No fights at the supermarket means we’ll go the park when we get home’.
  • Ask kids to hold onto opposite sides of the shopping trolley. Or send them to opposite ends of the aisle to choose grocery items.
  • If supermarket fights are very bad, see whether you can leave one of the children with a friend or family member while you shop. This could be a step on the way to a new routine.
  • If all else fails, leave the shopping, pick up your kids and walk out.
On the phone
  • Set children up with an activity (or two separate activities) that will keep them interested.
  • If a fight breaks out, excuse yourself for a moment. Explain to the kids that if the fighting continues, you’ll remove a treat or privilege (or whatever else your family rules say).
  • Hang up, deal with the problem, and call back later.
In the car
  • Always pull over. Turning around to talk to children or separate them takes your attention off the road.
  • If there’s a spare seat in the back, sit children either side of it. If there isn’t, put the oldest child in the front seat. Keep in mind that it isn’t recommended to allow children under seven (and it’s illegal to allow children under four) to travel in the front seat.
  • Get one of the children to swap seats with a grown-up.
At other people’s houses
  • Excuse yourself, and take both children a little way from the group. Bend down to their level, and remind them of what you would like them to do.
  • If your children need some quiet time, ask your friend or relative if they can suggest a safe area you could use.

Let kids work it out sometimes

When you let kids try to work it out by themselves, you help them develop their problem-solving skills. Here are some tips to help you guide your children’s negotiations.

  • Let children go if they’re trying to work things out. Talking, debating and even arguing are all signs that children are trying to work things out. Add some enthusiastic feedback about the way they’re interacting. For example, ‘Hey, I'm really proud of the way you’re trying to work this out on your own’.
  • Keep an eye on the action. This is your best chance of preventing full-scale fights. 
  • Give some tips . A few well-placed suggestions might be all children need. For example, ‘Can you think of a way you can all use the computer when you need to?’ or ‘Remember to be fair and take turns. Whose turn was it last?’
  • Divert their attention to something new. Suggest a new game, join in yourself for a while, and ask kids to come up with ideas together for what they would like to do next.
  • Give friendly reminders about rules of the house, what you expect and what will happen if a fight breaks out. For example, ‘Remember we all speak nicely, no name-calling’, or ‘Are you keeping your hands and feet to yourselves?’
  • Change the setting to create some space. Head outside to play, or read a book with a child on either side of you. Set up a favourite activity, and get children to sit on either side of the table to take part. Or sit them on separate chairs or opposite sides of the room for a few minutes.
Sometimes disagreements about the computer or a favourite toy seem to zoom straight into name-calling and worse. If this sounds like your situation, you might want to start the reminders and coaching as soon as the computer is turned on or the toy comes out.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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