Ask the Experts—Tips for Handling Brotherly (and Sisterly) Sparring - MetroFamily Magazine
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Ask the Experts—Tips for Handling Brotherly (and Sisterly) Sparring

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In this new column, we ask local experts to give answers to the real parenting questions and issues that we all may face. This month’s question: Sibling rivalry is threatening to turn our happy home into a disaster zone. What can we do as parents who don’t want to take sides?

Gayla Westbrook, MA:

Sibling rivalry is a normal, healthy part of family life, though sometimes it can escalate into something more. Commonly there is more competitiveness in children who are close in age, and it may be more prevalent in younger children, decreasing as the children get older.

  • There are steps that parents can take to help minimize the fighting:
  • Establish family rules. Include children in the process, and create rules of how to get along.
  • Praise positive behaviors. Pay attention to the behaviors that you want to see more of, and be specific with your comments so your children understand what you are praising.
  • Treat each child as an individual and recognize individual accomplishments. Be careful not to compare your children with each other.
  • Spend individual time with your children. Children need one-on-one time with each parent. Take a walk, read, play games or just snuggle. This alone time will decrease the rivalry and strengthen the parent-child bond.
  • Model good behavior. Pay attention to how you get along with other adults, especially your spouse. What is your problem solving method?
  • Encourage children to resolve verbal issues on their own, especially school age children.
  • Remain neutral. Refrain from taking sides and encourage children to stand up for themselves, verbally and respectfully.

Parents need to stay away from overreacting to sibling disputes, as this teaches children to do the same.

Gayla Westbrook, MA, is the Program Director at the Parents Assistance Center. Contact her at 405-232-8226 or

Devonne Carter, LCSW:

Sibling rivalry is an age-old problem. I have seen many clients for this issue and have dealt with it in my own home. This is actually a great learning opportunity in many ways. Siblings are the first playmates kids have. They learn to communicate verbally with their peers, as well as learning to interact non-verbally. They learn to disagree with their siblings first, which helps them prepare for school, the workplace and marriage. It teaches them that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and they are not always right.
In almost every parenting book I have ever read about this subject, authors convey that children are seeking parental attention when they argue. Many times, books suggest the parents ignore the arguing. I have to admit that is a very hard thing for me to do personally, and I assume it is for other parents as well.

I can see the value in letting children work out their issues without interference, which allows them to learn a diverse set of skills for communication and compromise, but that is sometimes easier said than done. Some children don’t have the skills or the motivation to work it out, and some children just argue out of anger, boredom or a need to be “right.”

I believe in setting boundaries concerning working out differences. You do not have to take sides, and you can still let your children learn from their rivalry without going crazy.
Set limits and create rules for their disagreements. I would create a set of rules to include the following: if your argument is disruptive to others, take it elsewhere. There is no physical contact during an argument. No put downs are allowed. Listen to your brother without interruption.

I do not referee these discussions, unless the above rules are broken. But I will have talks with my children after they have finished arguing with each other. I will give them pointers for communicating next time. I will point out something they might not have thought of. I will encourage him to remember that his sister has feelings. I will praise them when they do something positive.

Arguing at home should be a safe place to prepare children for a world that isn’t always as safe.

Devonne Carter, LCSW is a Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Edmond. Contact her at 405-326-3923 or

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