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Parent conversations: Why do siblings fight? How should I react when they are fighting?

My life is so much richer, thanks to my brother and sisters. Each one helped shape me into the person I am today. Part of that shaping involved fighting—a lot of fighting. Yet those fights taught me so much about life, and I was able to learn those lessons in a safe space.

Fighting with our siblings is definitely not what God had planned for us when he created the world. But we can benefit from the lessons that we learn during these fights. I know that I learned about compromise and sharing. I learned better ways to communicate and how to choose my battles carefully. I learned patience—okay, I’m still learning that one—and how to build others up.

As my children fight today, I see many of the same lessons being learned. Keep reading to hear from two other parents who are in the trenches and have some insights to share about sibling bickering.

— Nicole Balza

Sibling rivalry, otherwise known as “For crying out loud, stop fighting with each other all the time!”, can be an exhausting family challenge. No matter how old your children are, they are prone to finding the moments of perceived unfairness or pointing out the times when the other sibling is getting more parental attention. It could lead them to take matters into their own hands to even the score. But funny thing about evening the score: As hard as you try, it just will not create the desired result.

Quick family story: Everyone in our house knows that my son, Josh, loves going out to eat. It doesn’t really even matter where we go; he just loves the restaurant or fast-food experience.

One day my wife took our daughter, Kayla, shopping. They were gone most of the day, so they stopped at Culver’s for lunch. After they returned home, guess who noticed the Culver’s drink cups in the car? Oh, that did it! Josh bounded into the house asking, “Where’s mine? How come Kayla gets Culver’s?” The words and actions that ensued were clearly meant to punish those involved, especially his sister, and even the score. He perceived something unfair happening. Kayla felt she didn’t deserve this treatment from her brother, and the fight was on!

How can parents help deal with the challenges of sibling rivalry? Different strategies help address these behaviors, including:
  • Implement an immediate consequence when the fighting begins, such as removing a privilege.
  • Balance your one-on-one time with each child and watch out for favoritism.
  • Point out and praise children when they are having positive interactions.

These and similar approaches certainly have their place as parents help their children to learn respect and to appreciate their own uniqueness and God-given gifts. However, we are not perfect parents, are we? Sometimes our natural reaction leads us to lean on the law and immediately punish bad behavior when what may have initially been needed was an expression of understanding and forgiveness.

Remember Josh’s reaction to finding the Culver’s cup? We certainly could have removed a privilege, sent him to his room, or given another punishment. But as his emotions were firing up, what was really troubling him was that I had told him last week we’d go to the arcade (food court inside, by the way). But I got busy and couldn’t take him. I actually forgot all about it. So we had a choice at that moment. Josh could continue to even the score and try to punish us—which likely would have led to him spending time in his room. Or, we could help him acknowledge his hurt, express an understanding of the missed arcade time, and let him know how sorry I was for forgetting about it.

Kayla, feeling like the innocent victim in this situation, was looking for Josh to get a good yelling or some kind of punishment. However, our approach helped her recognize the need for patient understanding of her brother’s reaction. It was a moment for Christian faith in action—forgiveness, understanding, and love.

The boundaries of acceptable behavior still need to be enforced, but times like this are teachable moments. Moments when we can help our children learn that, no matter how hard they try to even the score, they will never reach a point of resolution. The only resolution comes from seeing how God evened the score with his Son’s death on the cross for us. That moment of forgiveness is our example and our opportunity to reflect God’s love when our kids find the empty drink containers, when we as parents have the challenge of balancing law and gospel during those teachable moments, and when we need to seek forgiveness for our own faults.

Let’s continue to use these times as moments when the Holy Spirit can deepen our understanding of God’s love. Let that be the motivation for change. May God continue to bless our families and give us all a rich measure of patience as we thank him for evening the score.

Dan Nommensen

Some of my earliest memories include intense battles with my younger brother. He was a first-class button-pusher, and I could never resist presenting my buttons for pushing. We would provoke each other to the point of imminent violence and then race to the bathroom, which was the only room in the house with a lock, for refuge. Sometimes my parents would intervene, and sometimes they would just let us work it out. Today as adults, my siblings and I are very close and love each other deeply. My parents’ strategy seems to have worked out.

Siblings fight. This is a reality that all parents know intimately. My kids are champion bickerers and expert behind-Mom’s-back insult hurlers. As their mom, the constant fighting can be exhausting. I’ve come to realize that my role in their arguments is less referee and more encouraging, neutral bystander. Occasionally, my kids just need someone to listen to their frustrations rather than to give advice. I’ve learned to ask, “Do you need me to listen or to give you help?” This question has helped prevent me from becoming the target of their anger in the heat of the moment.

Parents conversation side bar about devotional bookThe Bible is full of examples of sinful siblings that I’m thankful not to have to parent (I’m looking at you, Cain and Abel!). And I don’t exactly want to draw from the story of Joseph and his brothers when I’m encouraging my kids to work out their disagreements. Many of the biblical examples of sibling rivalry stem from jealousy—over parental attention and affection, over a sibling’s talent or success, even over inheritance. In my experience, both as an older sister and watching my own kids today, I think it may also be boredom that instigates many of these fights. Boredom and the fact that siblings are a safe outlet for those feelings of frustration because they’ll still love you at the end of it.

On my best days I look at the bickering as my kids practicing expressing their needs and learning to stand up for themselves as adults. In some ways, they learn practical ways sinners need to deal with other sinners. From that perspective, my role is to teach them the proper ways of doing that. Shouting “Zip it, stink bug!” at a board meeting is probably not appropriate, so on the days that I can keep my cool, I try to pull each kid aside and quietly encourage them to express their frustrations in a kind way. Other days, I take the dogs into the backyard and hope not to return to a crime scene.

Even though the fighting between my kids wears on my nerves, I know they love each other. They can forgive. I’ve seen it when they think I’m not looking. I get a lot of comfort knowing that I fought with my siblings a lot as a child and our relationships today are healthy and strong. I hope the constant bickering solidifies my kids’ relationship in adulthood. Until then, I’ll be on the patio, hiding from the fallout!

Kerry Ognenoff 

Authors: Multiple authors
Volume 108, Number 5
Issue: May 2021

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This entry is part 27 of 71 in the series parent conversations

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