Sibling Conflicts: A Source of Stress for Parents and Children

Sibling conflicts are a common occurrence in families with multiple children. These conflicts can range from mild arguments to physical altercations and can be a chronic source of frustration for parents. Parents may feel like they spend most of their time mediating conflicts, which can increase stress and exhaustion. Constant conflict can also make it difficult to spend meaningful time with children, either together or separately. Some parents struggle to remain calm or patient in the face of intense rivalry. Others worry that the rivalry will negatively affect their children at school, with friends, or in adulthood.

Effects of Sibling Conflicts on Children’s Well-Being

The effects of Sibling Conflicts on children can vary. In the moment, an argument with a sibling can be stressful and frustrating, particularly when a child feels that a parent favors their sibling or does not care about their needs. Chronic physical violence, particularly when one child is usually the victim and the other child is usually the perpetrator, can be traumatic. Chronic sibling violence may increase a child’s risk of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), depression, anxiety, difficulties at school or with friends, and relationship problems in adulthood.

Conversely, sibling conflicts also confers some benefits. Siblings teach one another social skills. Early conflict resolution skills can prepare a child for the many conflicts of adulthood, as well as the challenges of living with other people, such as roommates or spouses. A 2013 study found that fifth graders without siblings had more social skills deficits, even five years after entering school. This trend suggests managing conflicts with siblings continues to confer significant social benefits even after a child enters school and spends daily time with other children.

Benefits of Sibling Relationships and Conflict Management

Having siblings can be a great source of support and comfort for children. Siblings can share similar experiences and can understand one another in a unique way. Siblings also provide a built-in playmate and can help combat feelings of loneliness or isolation. By learning to manage conflicts with siblings, children can develop important life skills, including problem-solving, communication, and empathy. Parents can encourage positive sibling relationships by modeling healthy conflict resolution skills and praising their children for resolving conflicts peacefully.

Strategies for Preventing and Managing Sibling Conflicts

Sibling Conflicts is common, but not all forms of sibling conflicts are normal or healthy. Some strategies that may help include:

  • Preparing young children for the arrival of a new baby by talking to them about the baby and helping them feel like an important part of the process.
  • Not making sudden changes in a child’s life following the arrival of a new baby.
  • Consistently enforcing rules in an age-appropriate way. Siblings are more likely to behave abusively toward one another when such behavior is rewarded. For example, a child who can get what they want by stealing from a sibling is more likely to continue doing so.
  • Intervening in conflicts that are one-sided or physically aggressive.
  • Not showing favoritism or comparing children. Don’t urge one child to be more like the other. Don’t make negative gender or appearance-based comparisons. Don’t force twins to wear the same clothing or expect they will behave the same.
  • Spending meaningful alone time with each child. This makes it easier for parents to recognize and nurture each child’s unique personality and talents.
Managing Allegations of Favoritism

Children who accuse a parent of favoritism often feel genuinely distressed about the experience. So parents should not dismiss their concerns—even if the parent does not have a favorite. Instead, focus on what the child is feeling and how you can help ease those emotions.

Parents often struggle with sibling conflicts, which can be a chronic source of frustration and stress. Conflicts can negatively affect children’s mental health, academic performance, and relationships in adulthood. However, sibling conflicts can also have some benefits, such as teaching social skills and conflict resolution. To prevent unhealthy rivalry, parents can prepare young children for the arrival of a new sibling, enforce rules consistently, intervene in conflicts, avoid showing favoritism, and spend meaningful alone time with each child. When children accuse a parent of favoritism, it is important to listen to their concerns and focus on their feelings rather than trying to prove that you treat each child equally.

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