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Toddler Tips

Sibling Rivalry

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 2, March - April 1998, pp. 52-53

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


My toddlers, ages two and four, are constantly fighting. I've tried taking turns, buying them identical toys, and spending time with each of them alone. Things may be quiet for a while and then it's back to the screaming and hitting. I'm at the end of my patience. I've heard that a certain amount of sibling rivalry is normal but I think it is out of control at our house. What are some ideas that others have used to help their children get along and to give themselves a more peaceful household?


In our house we have a zero tolerance policy on violence. This includes practicing nonviolence as parents (no hitting, screaming, or throwing anything), no violent movies or television programs, and no association with families where parents hit their kids or whose kids hit each other. I believe that children learn this type of behavior. If they don't see it at home, perhaps they encounter it in some other situation. Both parents need to agree to these values for their family and support each other in this decision.

Some children who don't yet have verbal skills to argue may hit or scream. Parents need to make a conscious effort to model alternate behavior when conflicts arise. It is acceptable for siblings to argue or even yell when they are really mad. There are always alternatives to fighting (for example: timeout, separation for cooling off, intervention of a more mature third party, or punching a pillow or inanimate object to release pent-up anger).

Sometimes parents have to be the referees. You have already gone to great lengths to get to the root of the competition between the siblings (buying identical toys, spending time alone with each). Perhaps until they learn to relate in a more sensitive and civilized manner you need to be vigilant and ready to stop a fight before it escalates into screaming or hitting. If you keep them under your watchful eye, you can quickly separate them or distract them with another activity before they fight.

When kids are having fun, they rarely need to fight. Having a stimulating indoor or outdoor environment and lots of good social contact with other children can help keep things peaceful. Creativity; supervision, and the effort to do fun things together can go a long way to make living with young children an exciting, challenging, and delightful experience.

Liz Luyben
Calgary Alberta Canada


I have two boys, ages four and 19 months, and can really empathize with you. My four-year-old is very energetic and physical when playing with his brother, and this is the main cause of conflicts between them. If my four-year-old can expend some of this energy running around outside before dinner time, we usually have a more peaceful evening when their dad comes home. I've also explained to my four-year-old that his brother is not able to wrestle or jump around like he does and that if wants to exert his energy that way he needs to go to his room where his younger brother will not get hurt. I find that I really need to be one step ahead of my two boys and be with them all the time in order for there to be peace in our household.

Toni Nardo
Fairfield CT USA


I think most parents of more than one child recognize themselves in your dilemma. Rather than list suggestions, I recommend Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, (LLLI catalog No.379, $12.00). This book doesn't offer overnight, magic solutions but does offer a range of practical strategies that address relationships within the family. Most important, these authors respect children and the real feelings they have.

Having children who get along and respect each other is a long term goal that requires a long range view. Like most things in parenting it is worth the investment.

Debbie Landauer
Enosburg VT USA


A certain amount of sibling rivalry is normal, as you've heard, but it is not pleasant to live with. I have four children who are now grown. The possibilities for rivalry in our family sometimes appeared limitless.

Treating children alike may not be the answer. Children have different needs, so identical treatment may still be unfair. You will need to assess each situation separately to decide whether identical treatment will help.

Try to look at your lifestyle. Many families live busy lives. Children need peace and quiet and time to just "be," as well as stimulation and teaching. In his book, Raising Your Child Not by Force But by Love, Sidney Craig says, "There is no way to teach a child not to hunger for 100% of his parents' attention." This is an impossible demand to satisfy, but spending individual time with each child, letting each know you love him or her, is necessary for the child's peace of mind.

Many of us have an idealized picture of family life. We need to remember that personalities can clash, even among siblings. Being members of the same family doesn't necessarily mean that brothers and sisters will like each other. You may need to accept this. I've often said, "I don't need you to like each other. I just need you to live in peace. If you can't, please avoid each other for a while." You have rights, too. Only by keeping this in mind can you express that important message to your children. It will also help you to forgive yourself when your patience runs out. The ever-patient mother is another of those idealized images few of us would identify with.

Finally, I want to give you hope. As my children grew older, even those of my sons who had nothing in common as tiny children and seemed genuinely to hate each other found things both enjoyed. My children are now grown and all get on wonderfully. Each is different, but they all like and respect each other. So hang in there, things can only get better.

Eileen Harrison
Rennes France


I, too, have children who at times seem to be constantly at each other. Reading the book He Hit Me First by Louise Bates Ames has helped me understand why my children fight and how I can deal with it. I highly recommend it. One thing that has helped is for each of them to have time playing alone. This works out well when one is playing on the computer and the other is playing outside or with another toy. I give each of them an hour on the computer each day. The child not using the computer will usually find something else to do. I also try to see things from my older son's perspective. Having a younger child constantly following you around and wanting to do everything you do can be annoying. My older son has the option of playing on his bed alone without his younger brother. This way, he can take a break before he gets to the point that he's hurting his brother.

In addition, I try to make time each day for each child to have individual attention from me. During story time each evening, my sons take turns sitting on my lap. This way, both feel my love and don't have to misbehave to get it. It can be very frustrating to cope with fighting kids and difficult to avoid taking sides with one or the other. Staying neutral helps to calm the situation. I tell my sons that they can work it out during many conflicts, sometimes reiterating our rules in the process, for example "Use words and not fists." Also, keep a mental record of the times your children do get along, so that on the days they seem to be at each others' throats, you can put things in perspective. Good luck!

Rebecca Barrett
Lowell MI USA


I have three children, ages five, three, and eight months. When the older two were two and four, they started fighting. First, I thought about what had changed recently in their lives. It occurred to me that my younger child used to go along with everything the older one wanted. When he turned two, he decided he wanted to do things his way sometimes. Unfortunately, he did not have the skills to negotiate, and the older child was not ready to give up her power over the younger one. I knew I had to intervene, not to take sides or fix things, but to help them develop the ability to solve their problems.

I found that my children needed me to be near them. I would do my work nearby or bring them to the room I was in. This way, I would notice when tension was starting to build, which often meant that I could redirect arguments before they happened.

Clear rules needed to be established. My husband and I told both of the children that no hitting would be allowed. Yelling was also forbidden. We gave our older child some alternative ways to deal with her anger, such as walking away or finding a way to take turns. If one child does hit the other, we first attend to the injured party, but without overdoing the sympathy. Then we remove the hitter from the situation to give him or her a chance to cool off, while reminding the child of the "no hitting" rule.

When the children seem headed into a conflict, we try to help them find solutions they can live with. We ask specific questions of each to find out what he or she really wants. Then, reminding them of the need to keep family harmony, we help them come up with a solution together. At first we needed to give them suggestions, but now they have become quite good at finding their own ideas. Remember not to judge their solutions. If both children agree to something, let them try it out even if it seems unfair to you. It may be just right for them.

Most of all, try to model the behavior you want them to use. Between modeling better ways of disagreeing and keeping a close eye on their play to catch problems early, they will soon get along better. Now that my children are a year older, all it takes is a reminder and they work out their problems kindly and peacefully. Good luck!

Stephanie Giles
Reading PA USA

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