What Causes Sibling Squabbles?

When you first brought home your littlest love, you may’ve noticed that your older kids were jealous of baby—and so began the first flickers of sibling rivalry and squabbles. It is normal for siblings to bicker – but it doesn’t have to be an everyday thing.

To ease the sibling squabbles in your household, you first need to get to the root of why your toddler and other kids are bickering. Common causes of sibling squabbles include:1,2,3

  • Being very close in age. Kids closer in age may duke it out more often because they’re after the same things—toys, snacks, and time with you.

  • Same gender. Sure, there may be more in common, but there may also be more competition.

  • Being the middle child. They’re not the baby of the family nor do they have the benefits of being the oldest—lashing out may follow.

  • Changing needs. As children grow, of course their wants and needs grow with them. Things that had once been nonissues—like sharing certain toys or sleeping in the same room—may suddenly cause friction.

  • Personal temperaments. Some kids are clingy, others need lots of space. Some children are easygoing, others are a little more tightly wound. The temperaments of your kids can and will affect whether or not they squabble.

  • Common relationship tension. Your kids will likely spend more time together than with anyone else, including you. This much togetherness is bound to result in the occasional rift and tiff.

  • Moodiness. Whether one of your kids is tired, or cranky, or stressed, that can spill out into their interactions around the house—and siblings are an easy target.

  • Family strife and conflict patterns. Parents who separate or divorce—or bicker themselves—or other trouble in the household may cause stress amongst the children, leading them to squabble with their siblings. And if parents or caregivers typically model poor conflict resolution or picking fights over seemingly silly things, the children around them will start to behave this way too.

The fact of the matter is, if one of the kids in your household is a toddler, sibling squabbles are inevitable; the younger your little loves are, the less capable they are of reasoning or solving problems. Even as adults, squabbles with siblings can still occur. Personality differences, along with competition for parental love and respect can lead to sibling rivalry into adulthood.

How to Minimize Sibling Squabbles & Improve Relationships

Here are some tried-and-true tips for easing instances of bickering between your little loves:1

  • Treat your children like individuals—and avoid comparisons. The kids in your family aren’t a monolithic group—even if they’re similar ages or present as the same gender. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another and smoothing over squabbles won’t necessarily come from telling your littles to “just get along.” When it comes to treating them like individuals avoid direct comparisons—saying things like “Your sister doesn’t behave this way” or “Your brother is nicer when he’s upset” won’t solve anything.

  • Set rules for appropriate interaction and reinforce them.Sibling squabbles should never be no-holds-barred knock-down drag-outs. Be clear about the rules of engagement and what the consequences are for breaking those rules. Belittling, putting hands on one another, throwing things, and the like are common nonstarters.

  • Praise when good behaviour leads to getting along. If you spy your littles willingly sharing, being patient with each other, or resolving conflict on their own, point it out and praise that behavior. It doesn’t have to happen in the moment, necessarily, but it should be acknowledged—especially if the good behaviour is new and something the household has been working on.

  • Listen to your little ones. Give your kids the space to express themselves. Toddlers may not have the vocabulary necessary to express feelings and frustrations clearly, but they have their ways of communicating their emotions. Let kids vent about sibling issues and acknowledge their feelings, then offer tips for getting along.

  • Lead with love. Spend one-on-one time with each of your children. Not only will this reinforce that they’re special to you as their individual selves, it will also provide opportunities to talk about any issues they may be having when it comes to getting along with their siblings.

  • Anticipate potential points of friction. If you know that one of your littles is in a snit or tensions are running high, find ways to keep your kids occupied in ways that don’t require a lot of interaction or cooperation. If there are toys that your littles typically fight over, consider creating a schedule.

  • Don’t get directly involved. When sibling squabbles happen amongst younger children or include toddlers you may have to help decode how your kids are feeling so their siblings understand, but don’t take sides. As much as possible, encourage your kids to settle their squabbles themselves.

Teaching Siblings to Problem Solve—Including Toddlers

The ability to let your kids work out their squabbles themselves requires that you teach them how. If one of your littles is a toddler, you’ll want to meet them where they are in their communication and emotional development—and likely lean on your older children to do a little more of the problem solving work.

Start teaching your children how to resolve their conflicts by mediating—without taking sides, as mentioned earlier:2

  • Explain the process of problem solving together. In language everyone understands, explain the step-by-step approach to working out conflict. This is the perfect time to set—or reinforce—rules for how to interact appropriately, e.g. no name calling, no yelling, etc. If your littles are on the same page about the rules, they can hold themselves and each other accountable and your mediating is simpler.

  • Taking turns to talk is key. Taking turns is important when it comes to preventing sibling squabbles, but it can also help resolve them. Teach them to explain their points of view one at a time, to listen to each other, and respond. It may turn out that the bickering is due to a simple misunderstanding or different communication styles.

  • Share feelings to gain understanding. “When X happens, I feel Y” can be shared by each of your kids in order to illuminate how actions affect feelings. This can help encourage empathy amongst your littles as well as help younger kids and toddlers understand emotions.

  • Talk through a solution. After talking, listening, and having empathy, it’s time for figuring out how to solve the conflict. Let everyone share their solution—and let the kids try them out. If a proposed solution doesn’t work, they can move on to another approach for resolving their conflict.

  • Have a solution waiting for them just in case. If your children can not work out a conflict amongst themselves, you’ll find the need to step in and mediate once more. Have a clear-cut, no nonsense solution waiting—taking the toy away, no one getting to have screen time if they can’t share, etc.—that encourages them to compromise without you.

The Importance of Ensuring Your Kids Get Along

Studies suggest that children on the losing end of sibling squabbling—being teased, having their toys broken or taken, or being physically affected—are more likely to be picked on by their peers.4 Setting the groundwork for appropriate sibling conflict resolution and self-expression early is the key to keeping things from escalating to that point. It also helps ensure that these important relationships are on the right path towards a lifetime of love.

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