Why are my kids fighting all the time?

Sibling rivalry can get intense and complicated during adolescence, but can be managed

Ritika Dhaliwal

Parents may have noticed their children competing or fighting with each other. It can sometimes seem impossible for their children to get along amicably, or maintain a balance between them. A persistent rivalry between children can also affect their friendships and the family environment.

What is sibling rivalry?

Sibling rivalry is defined as competition or envy that exists between siblings. It could be mutual or directed from one child to the other sibling(s). These feelings involve jealousy, resentment, envy, and can lead to arguments and fights. It can also become a competition for parental time and attention.

Sibling rivalry begins when one child becomes aware of the fact that they will have to now share their parents' time and attention with another person or persons. It can get intense and complicated during adolescence when the child is developing their own identity.

What is the difference between rivalry and occasional fights?

Fights among children who play together are common. When two or more children live in the same house, they spend most of the time together, sharing toys, television time and also their parents' attention and affection. Minor arguments between siblings can be normal and do not need much attention, but a rivalry can be more serious as it is frequent and persistent. Sibling rivalry not only affects the children but also disrupts the family environment and family dynamics.

Manasi was seven years old when her sister was born. She was excited about having a sibling and would share with family and neighbors how she would soon have a little sister to play with. After the baby came home, Manasi  – who was known to be a quiet, gentle child – began losing her temper and throwing tantrums often. She would refuse to see her sister for days together. There were complaints from school about her academic decline and uncharacteristic behavior. She had been an obedient child who did well in school and was very sociable, but after her sister was born, she began picking fights with other children at school. She also started being rude to her parents. Manasi's parents couldn't connect the change in her behavior to the arrival of her sister and the shift in attention.

What are the signs of sibling rivalry?

A common sign of sibling rivalry is a sudden change in the child's behavior with the sibling, parents, friends or at school. Sibling rivalry can impact the academic performance of the child. For example, the child may get lower grades than before, or stop doing their homework. They may also start bullying other classmates. There may also be a noticeable change in the child's appearance - they may start dressing loud to get noticed by others, or sometimes become shabby and ignore their appearance altogether.

What causes siblings to fight with each other?

Even when parents make conscious efforts to ensure that all their children get equal attention, siblings may see each other as rivals.

Studies show that human beings are biologically programmed to fight with others to get the limited resources in order to survive.  Even today, when a child needn't compete with others for resources linked to their survival, this predisposition is one of the reasons for children to fight with each other.

What can parents do about it?

As parents, it is very important to be responsive to the needs of the children and make them feel understood. The most important factor that influences sibling rivalry is how the family reacts to this competition among their kids. Here are some ways you can deal with sibling rivalry:

Preparing the older child: Prepare the child for the birth of their sibling. Initially, the child may be excited about having a sibling, but it may start to wear off in 2-3 days and the child may begin to realize that theu have to share the affection and attention of their parents. It may help to prepare the older child and let them know that while things might be a little different after the arrival of the newborn, you will spend as much time with them as possible.

Avoid gender discrimination: When the siblings are of different gender, you could try to make decisions fairly without any bias and be aware that your decisions are not perceived to be unfair by either of them.Consider the case of a younger boy and an older girl. Socially, the parent may think that it's less risky to let a boy stay out late, and therefore offer him more freedom. But this may make the older sister feel resentful as the message she receives is that her parents don't trust her as much as they do the younger brother. 

Let them solve it on their own:Don't interfere in every fight the children have. Letting them solve their own problems could be a good approach. The downside of this could be that if one child is stronger and bigger than the other, they might always win. This would lead to bullying and further rivalry. The parents should intervene if this behavior is commonly seen and teach children how to negotiate instead of using might as their strength.