Sibling Rivalry – A Quick Tip For The Busy Parent

by Jennifer Weberman on 08/07/2012

Some of the most common questions I get from parents center around sibling rivalry. It’s an enormous topic because it happens in seemingly every family. Thousands of books have been written on the subject, and rightly so. Siblings just have a knack for driving each other crazy – and for taking their parents along for the ride. Siblings will fight. They will bicker. They will compete. They will tease relentlessly. It’s nature, plain and simple.

As a parent, if you make it your goal to stop the madness, you will only drive yourself crazy. Although it can be irritating, those sibling battles are actually terrific exercise for your kids’ conflict resolution muscles. Truth is, there’s no better sparring partner on earth than a sibling.

Here is a simple technique you can use to help guide their clashes away from destructive power struggles into the arena of effective problem solving. I don’t promise it will put an end to the bickering, but at the very least, you’ll be giving them tools to figure things out for themselves!

On a recent hot summer day, I was hanging at the pool enjoying the company of my friends’ children; two sisters, ages seven and four. Big Sister was telling me stories about salamanders, frogs, and the many different bugs she had discovered throughout the day. She spotted the one empty pool chair next to me and climbed right in. When Little Sister saw Big Sister getting lots of my attention, she immediately wanted to join in, so she jumped across Big Sister’s lap, attempting to squeeze her tiny self into the even tinier space left in the chair. Predictably, a squealing, high-pitched, argument ensued that sounded something like this:

Big Sister: “GET aaawwwwwffffff of meeeee!!!”
Little Sister: “MOOOOOOVE oveeerrrrr!!!”
Big Sister: “I was here FIIIIIIRST!”
Little Sister: “NO FAIR! NOOOOOOOO!!”


Maybe just reading this is irritating to you, or maybe you’re laughing because it’s such a familiar exchange. I admit that my desire to end the screeching made it very tempting to turn to both of them and respond with ANY of the following go-to reactions:

  • Telling them exactly how to fix it: “You need to share!”
  • Scolding them for arguing: “Would you two knock it off already!”
  • Taking a side: “Just let your little sister sit there.”
  • Should-ing on them: “You’re 7 years old. You shouldn’t be acting like this.”
  • Whining and complaining myself: “Why can’t we get through one day without you two arguing!”
  • Giving them a well intentioned but vague instruction: “Work it out.”

Recognize any of these? Which have you found yourself using in hopes of instilling a cease-fire? I know I’ve used most of them at one time or another, and I’ve heard countless parents use them, too. But on this particular day, here’s what I did instead: I summoned my inner-Peter Falk, tilted my head to the side, and gave my best Colombo impression, wondering aloud…

 ”Hmmm, two girls and one chair. I bet you guys can figure out how to solve this problem.”

And then I stopped talking.

Both girls stopped arguing for the moment, they looked at each other curiously, and then they looked back at me. Suddenly Big Sister exclaimed, “We can get another chair!” And Little Sister then scanned the patio for a second chair, and upon spotting an empty one, sprinted toward it determined to drag it back over and place it not one inch farther from me than her sister was. I looked at Big Sister and told her, “You’re a very smart problem solver.” She beamed proudly in her achievement and we continued our conversation about bugs.

The next time sibling tensions flare up, encourage your children to engage in their own problem solving, with these simple steps:

Step 1. Say what you see. For example: “I see two girls and one chair,” or “I see spilled juice on the floor,” or “I see a wet towel on the bed.” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of Siblings Without Rivalry, refer to this step as “describing the problem with respect.”

Step 2. Say something that expresses the confidence you feel in their ability to solve the problem. For example: “I bet you guys can solve this problem.” “What do you think would be a good idea right now?” Or, “What would be the smart thing to do?”

Step 3. Stop talking. This may be the hardest step because we adults can be such talkers, but if you can bite your tongue long enough to give your little ones a chance to think it through, you may be surprised at the turn their conversation can take!

Step 4. If they put a great solution into place, acknowledge them for this. If they put a great solution into place, acknowledge them for that. However, rather than offering a broad, “Good job,” specifically acknowledge the trait you want to reinforce. For example, acknowledge your child’s problem solving skills or the cleverness of their ideas. As kids gain confidence in their own skills, they are more likely to use them the next time they encounter a difficult situation.

I invite you to have fun experimenting with this technique in various situations to see what kind of results you get. Did it work? How did your kids respond? Please let us know by posting your story in the comments section below. Thanks!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica August 7, 2012 at 8:56 PM

Excellent article!


Jennifer Weberman August 28, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Thanks Jessica! Glad you stopped by :)


Erica August 25, 2012 at 4:58 PM

Fabulous article! My daughter’s first grade teacher uses this strategy often and it has really encouraged all the children in her class to “problem solve” about both little and bigger challenges. Definitely an important life skill!


Jennifer Weberman August 28, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Hi Erica, glad you liked the article! Yes, its a great strategy to use in so many contexts. Really helps kids exercise those “problem solving muscles” rather than relying on adults to solve the problems for them. Thanks for commenting!


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