Images of smiling siblings are impressive for social media, but life with two or more children is decidedly less picture-perfect. According to research from University of Toronto, toddler-age siblings clash more than six times per hour and siblings under 7 fight, on average, every 20 minutes. Arguments that turn physical can leave lasting physical and emotional scars. If sibling fights disrupt the peace in your household, here’s help.
Early Years, Ages 0-5
Research shows that conflict between young siblings is statistically normal. But regular bouts of biting, hitting and kicking aren’t—parents need to intervene when clashes between toddler-age siblings becomes physical. Though kids as young as 3 may be able to talk though minor disagreements during playtime (“I had it first!), they’ll nearly always need guidance to navigate more heated exchanges and physical fights.
What to do: Start by separating the scuffling sibs, with a statement like “We never hit.” Once children calm down, ask them to explain what happened, reassuring each child that they’ll get a turn to speak. Statements that bridge conflict to build connection can diffuse fights and guide kids toward resolution: “Jackson, I know Olivia is a good listener, so you can tell her why you didn’t like it when she pushed you.” Encourage tots to use words to self-advocate (“I didn’t like it when you took all the blue LEGOs!”) helps prevent future fights from spiraling out of control.
Elementary Years, Ages 6-12
Bad news for parents of school-agers: According to a study led by David Finkelhor of University of New Hampshire, “sibling attacks,” or acts of physical violence toward a sibling like shoving and punching, peak from ages 6–12. Over a third of children in the study experienced sibling violence in the past year; for about 5 percent, the violence left a lasting mark such as a bruise, chipped tooth or broken bone.
While violence between parents and children (or between spouses) is viewed as unacceptable, violence between siblings is often overlooked as normal squabbling, says Finkelhor. And repeated sibling attacks can have serious repercussions. In the study, children under 10 who were repeatedly attacked by a sibling in the past year experienced signs of trauma, including sleep problems, depression and fear of the dark.
What to do: If sibling spats often get physical and seem one-sided, with one sibling most often playing the role of antagonist, seek help from your child’s pediatrician or a licensed counselor.
Teen Years, ages 13 & up
According to Catherine Salmon of University of Redlands, up to 95 percent of siblings say that personal property—an important part of a child’s budding sense of identity—is a point of conflict between siblings. Though teens may be able to work through some property-related conflicts on their own, parents may not know if and when to intervene. “It can actually be a natural and healthy developmental process for siblings to work out conflicts on their own,” says licensed psychologist Vanessa Roddenberry, Ph.D. Parents who constantly step in risk invalidating teens’ emotions and communicating that fighting is an effective way to get caregivers’ attention and focus, she notes.
What to do: When sibling disagreements escalate to yelling or physical fighting, parents can help by separating siblings and putting the disagreement on pause while each takes time to cool off and process emotions separately. Once feelings have calmed, a kitchen-table meeting moderated by parents can help get teen siblings on the same page again.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.