Sibling rivalry -- help! What worked for you (as kid or parent?)
May 20, 2022 3:29 AM   Subscribe

I have two kids, 7 and 9. They fight ALL THE TIME. Help??? Anecdotes, wisdom, advice, suggestions, all welcome.

Not much more to say other than that! I have read So Many Books, so I'm looking for both tips and anecdotal advice.

Personality-wise, they are chalk and cheese. They bicker and argue and undermine each other. They used to play together a bit, but not much anymore. We have had brief reprieves during the first lockdown (forced together -- but didn't work for later lockdowns) and on a family vacation. When they see each other when they've been apart, they literally groan.

They get some 1:1 time with their parents, but it's never enough it seems. We do not label them, we are positive parents, we (parents) have an excellent relationship and do not bicker ourselves. They get lots of sleep.

Any ideas? (Or books that helped you -- maybe I missed one.) Is therapy a ridiculous idea at this age? (I have thought of finding an art therapist who could see them together.)

Help me before I send them both off into the woods to fend for themselves!
posted by heavenknows to Human Relations (37 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My sisters tormented me for my entire youthful life, my parents ignored it totally. I think in that situation what I wanted most was to be heard, even if I couldn’t be safe from my sisters. Sounds like you’re doing the right thing there.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 3:37 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

I'll be interested in the answers you receive to this question.

I know plenty of siblings who just don't get along. Having a blood relationship does not mean that you will have a harmonious one.

That said, I do love the idea of art therapy. Along those lines, perhaps a joint project or responsibility that they both enjoy equally - an art or a gardening project for example - might help them to get along better.

I think as long as there are certain baseline boundaries they must observe, e.g. no physical fighting, no shouting, no comments on physical appearance (I don't know, just spitballing here, but you get what I mean I'm hoping), it may help telling yourself that it's ok for them to bicker?

On the flipside, and in case it helps, I can also point you towards me and my siblings, who bickered continuously throughout childhood and are now, weirdly enough, good friends. We bicker because we feel safe around each other, safe enough to be our egregiously rudest selves.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:51 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

My brother and I are also very different personality-wise. And he picked on me a lot when we were kids (I didn't pick on him back, but largely because I'm not wired to pick on ANYONE really, I just sulked and stayed in my room a lot). It DID stop when we grew up; largely because we grew up. We're not super-close BFFs, and there was one uneasy late-night "let's rehash our relationship and how we were as kids" conversation fueled by some wine, but otherwise today we get along.

I think the very different personality styles is fueling much of this. Look at it this way - if you met someone who was very different from you at a party, you'd sort of naturally be civil to each other but then gradually find other people to talk to who were more like you, and that would be fine. But if you met that same someone who was very different from you and the two of you were the only people there to talk to, and they were ALWAYS there, it'd get on your nerves eventually. And if there were someone pushing the two of you together and saying you HAD to be super-close friends, that'd make it worse, right?

So I think maybe scaling your expectations down a bit towards behavior may be the way to go. If you're trying to push them to be friends "because you're brother and sister" or whatever, then....maybe don't, because a family relationship sadly doesn't always overcome very different personality styles. Instead, treat this as a way to enforce the rule that "even if someone is really different from you, you should still treat them as a human being". Society doesn't require us to be best friends with everyone we meet, but it DOES require that we at least get along with them well enough not to taunt them in the street or punch them or groan when they walk into a room.

So maybe this could be the focus. Maybe don't insist that they "be friends", maybe settle for teaching them how to respect each other. Even if that means that the only way they can do that would be to just each retreat into their separate rooms and not really talk to each other.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:12 AM on May 20 [26 favorites]

As far as I can remember my brother and I were definitely bickering and occasionally arguing but I also have memories of playing together and both of us enjoying it. As adults we now have very little to say to each other - we're just very different people with very different priorities.

The one thing I do remember more than anything else though is the resentment I felt at being told that I was "older and should know better". It felt like that was happening a lot so I guess the fact that sticks out must mean there were more arguments than I can recall. Still, I am 1.8 yrs older than my brother, not 5 so expecting me to be a lot more mature when I was 7/8 was probably unrealistic and it certainly felt very unfair at the time, not least because my mother had to talk to his teachers and his friends' parents all the time because he'd done something or other and nobody ever got called about my sounds as if you're more aware and involved than my parents were in general so keep doing that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:21 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]

Do you know if anything particular is fueling it? Does the older kid try to impose their authority on the younger kid? Does one of them keep picking at some particular sore point the other has? A lot of times it's easy to just file away siblings fighting as "they don't like to share" or whatever, and sometime it's that; sometimes it's just a personality mismatch; but sometimes there are legitimate grievances and resentments that are at the heart of it.

What do they say when you ask them what's up (individually, of course)? Do they use totally different behaviors towards other kids?
posted by trig at 4:28 AM on May 20 [10 favorites]

My friend paid her kids not to fight. They got $1 a day for any day when the conflict didn’t bother the parents. (I think they got one warning before the dollar was forfeit). The dollar was shared and either kid could lose the dollar for both of them. If they got $5 in a row they earned a bonus $5.

I think for the course of the summer the grand total they could earn was $120. The money was tracked and at the end of the summer they got it all at once, to spend it on a shared treat - I think they chose some gaming thing.

She said it was a huge success and taught them cooperation, self control, conflict resolution, math, and the value of money, and since getting along is an important workplace skill, she felt it was reasonable to pay them.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:35 AM on May 20 [72 favorites]

Just because kids are the best and most precious thing ever doesn't mean they won't sometimes behave like horrible human beings, and there are some stages in their development and that of their relationships that make horrible behaviour more likely than not.

As long as there's no consistent pattern of initiating aggression on the part of either one of them, I think you'll do OK just by continuing to shut down the most egregrious bad behaviour as soon as it goes past your own lines in the sand. Just don't let the little monsters sucker you into a back-and-forth fight with either one of them. You can and should love and cherish and nurture and support them but you will also occasionally need to be their ultimate authority figure even when doing so leaves you feeling like the worst person in the world on the inside.

The basis for that authority has to be your ability to know and understand what's actually going on with them, though. Before you pull a kid up short for unacceptable behaviour, you really really need to know whether there is some consistent pattern of covert one-sided bullying that might account for it.

Another tack that's worked for me is asking for their help: "Every time you two fight, I feel awful about it. Can you help me work out what I should do to stop it happening, or to shut it down when it does?" Making that work involves way way way more listening than talking; basically the only thing I've found safe to say after opening that particular can of worms is "thanks, that's helpful" and depending on the dynamics it can be a lot better to have these conversations one-on-one than to create an opening for a three- or four-way brawl. In particular, don't make the mistake of committing to anything after one of these conversations; you're looking for advice, not entering into a negotiation.

But it seems to me that the most likely thing is that you're already dealing with what's in front of you in something pretty close to the best way available, and that the main thing you're probably overlooking is the absolute necessity of self-care. Raising kids is hard. It just is. It can remain an emotional grinder for years, it will take a toll, and you'll get no thanks for any of the skill you showed and/or developed while doing it until they're much, much older.

Worth it, though.
posted by flabdablet at 4:36 AM on May 20 [8 favorites]

My kids didn't get along at all. Bribery was somewhat helpful when they were small because it motivated them to find ways they COULD get along. They were in such a bad way that we rewarded them for every FIVE MINUTES they spent together that wasn't nasty.

But mostly we helped them find space from each other. They are very different people and one of them has a very dominating personality, and we wanted to protect both of them from feeling abused as well as encouraging peace as much as possible. It was sad, but their father and I spent a lot of time with them separately instead of having time together as a family.

As they got older they better tolerated each other in the same way adults put up with being around people they don't like.
posted by metasarah at 4:46 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]

I have a friend who has a 12 and 14 year old who sound about the same (like metasarah says, very different people, one of whom is pretty dominating). They mostly do their separate things. They have separate friends and a lot of access to those friends, separate spaces, and they're both very active with lots of hobbies and pastimes, so they keep themselves pretty busy, but entirely separately.

I know they've always had pretty elaborate reward systems in place for all kinds of behavior management, and getting along is a big part of that. Things like points systems, allowances, weekly rewards. I mostly see them in the summer and they often do a different system each summer, but in general points for desired behaviors and losing points for undesired ones has worked. The points sometimes cash in for money or sometimes for privileges.

Generally, one of the kids cares a LOT more than the other about the rewards, but he is also the one who tends to start conflicts, so that works out. His sister is mostly content to be left alone.

But yeah, my advice would be to facilitate a world in which they aren't stuck with each other too much, and then focus your behavioral enforcement on politeness, which might be easier when it is needed less.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:00 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

I read that two years difference is the hardest because the maturity level is enough that there is a big enough gulf that they don’t “get” each other but they can still really hurt each other’s feelings and crave emotional connection whereas the more apart they are they don’t expect that, and the closer they are- they get that. Also if it’s a more mature older child (I was an older sister 15 months older than an immature brother) it can be that way too… my little boys are 11 months apart and thankfully they have enough in common that they have bonded and are peers and they play by the same social rules and have the same interests. Hopefully if you give them enough space from each other they will not do enough damage that when they get a little older and can connect with each other, say 16 and 18? Then a nice friendship can happen…
posted by pairofshades at 5:32 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]

I’m a fraternal twin from a BIG family. We shared a room & shared a classroom until HS. I remember there was some pressure that, as ‘twins’ we should be close, but neither of us felt much ‘twin’ connection. It was uncommon to have much individual attention from our parents (always an infant/toddler who needed more), and we were all encouraged to do our own thing, find our own interests. But maybe b/c of this one major rule of the family was we had to get along or it would impact every one else! With a lot of neighbors we each had our own space and didn’t need to spend much time together. We fought sometimes, but grew out of it. Today he’s not the sibling I’m closest to, butwe all get along great. I’ve learned that’s uncommon for big families...
posted by TDIpod at 5:33 AM on May 20

I just want to add, I’m not bragging that my kids get along YAY, I am just grateful for that now because I didn’t get along very well with my little brother… and that info was just to hopefully share an aspect you maybe hadn’t thought of, and can’t change- but maybe can factor in if it resonates!
posted by pairofshades at 5:34 AM on May 20

Response by poster: Thank you all! This is so helpful already. As to questions, I think they both fuel it, though one probably more than the other. They are so different that they don't compete over the same stuff (besides their parents' attention, it seems, and they get SO MUCH OF IT) -- i.e., their interests are very different.

They do now have their own separate spaces (rather than sharing a room -- I had thought sharing might help), so there's that . . .

I probably should have had them further apart or closer together! But my sibling who was two years apart from me was my absolute best friend.
posted by heavenknows at 5:36 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

This seems really silly but is there any family video game time? We play family minecraft and we build a place together and have to negotiate, plan, share, and cooperate - my husband, 3 boys, and I.

There's also post and pre game analysis and planning.

I think modeling some real cooperation and generosity in the game might be worth trying.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:16 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

One of the most difficult aspects of parenting, it seems to me, is making the leap from seeing the kids as extensions and reflections of ourselves to understanding them as genuinely autonomous beings in their own right.

Quite a lot of what I've learned about parenting over the years has come down to expectation management on my own part. It's just really hard to tune one's own expectations on the basis of what kids actually do as opposed to what we ourselves do and/or think our kids would be better off if only they'd learn to do. Harder still given that we're apparently hardwired to think of them as parts of us. But their world is not as ours was at their age, and their lives are not our lives, and it's important to keep those facts front of mind.

The thing about genuinely autonomous beings is that all of us only ever learn what to do by exploring the consequences of a huge range of things not to do. And we're often not super fast at drawing what can seem to others as the obvious conclusions, especially when those consequences are trying to push us in the direction of changing long-established habits.

You yourself are right now exploring the consequences of giving your kids their own individual refuges. Only time will tell whether this works better for them and for you than forcing them to negotiate within a shared refuge. In my experience it generally has, and genuinely letting their spaces be their spaces works better than trying to impose anybody else's organizational preferences on how they're arranged internally.

Hang in there. It doesn't ever get any easier, but at least by the time they hit puberty and their milk brains fall out you'll have had more time to get used to how hard it is, and more opportunity and motivation to get the self-care thing squared away. If you're all still breathing once their adult brains have grown in, that's a win.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

Every time my kids start to bicker (always when they are on the back of the bike - grrr), I interrupt and make them start telling me jokes. "Who can tell me a joke first?" Then they switch off. For whatever reason, it works.
posted by Toddles at 7:06 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]

They are so different that they don't compete over the same stuff (besides their parents' attention, it seems, and they get SO MUCH OF IT)

I totally agree with all of the amazing comments above, but I wonder if this is worth exploring a bit -- could it be that the bickering and fighting is because they haven't had as much opportunity to be autonomous and learn to collaborate and figure things out on their own? Only you can tell, of course, if you always 'step in' or something, but maybe think about that angle! I know I have to think about meddling a little too much in my own parenting. Good luck!
posted by knownassociate at 7:24 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]

I probably should have had them further apart or closer together! But my sibling who was two years apart from me was my absolute best friend.

Oh no, don't worry about that. There's no magic age difference (or personality combination, not that you have any control over that). My sisters (3 of us total) and I have about 2 years between each of us. The two younger ones are closer (2 years apart). The youngest and I (4 years apart) are probably more similar in a lot of ways, but when we were kids I definitely rubbed her the wrong way a bit (too similar!).

When they see each other when they've been apart, they literally groan.

This definitely happened with us! Mix in we're all a bit sarcastic and we definitely bickered, sometimes seriously and sometimes not. But to the point that my mom stopped enforcing family dinners on week nights because she didn't want to listen to us.

I think that helped: we're all a bit introverted, so less time around other people is good, especially after a school day where you were constantly around people. Not sure how your early vs later pandemic lockdown activities worked out, but if later pandemic lockdown involved more realtime online interactions (school), that could explain the difference. You mention one on one time with parents, but do they get alone time? I feel like 7-9 was when we all really started to enjoy being by ourselves (obviously not guaranteed to apply to your kids).

I also think in our case it was another situation of we felt safe enough with each other to bicker/be snarkier in general with each other. Now that we're older, the two younger ones are still closer, but we all stay in touch (texting, we are not a family of phone talkers) and wish we could see each other more (live in different states).
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:31 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you are doing a lot of great things already. My favorite book on the subject: Siblings Without Rivalry.
posted by Text TK at 7:37 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]

I'm the youngest of four. All of my childhood and teenage years, I did NOT get on with the sister who was the next youngest. We were in constant conflict.
I'm learning a lot about myself right now and looking back, I think that one of the reasons is because the two of us had very different approaches to conflict.
She was always getting in trouble, and openly challenged my parents' authority. I saw how much turmoil this caused and from a very early age tried to avoid conflict, be pleasing, good, and loved.
This caused a lot of conflict between us. I found her cruel and abrasive. She must have found me unbearably smug and spoiled.
But our relationship became much better when we became adults and were apart for a long time. We both grew up.
Now I'm the closest to her of all my siblings, and she's the one I trust most, and go to for advice.
None of this is particularly helpful, I know, in how to deal with the bickering right now.
I'm just telling this to show that relationships are unpredictable and you can't really know what will happen as kids grow up.
posted by Zumbador at 8:15 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]

My siblings were not terrible but we only got along once we were adults living our own lives.

In general you can enforce rules about bullying, yelling, shoving, etc. But you can't make them be close.
posted by emjaybee at 8:18 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

So I do want to add a book that I found helpful, my older 6 year old has ADD and the 5 year old autism, so while they get along with each other- I wouldn’t say that they get along with others in society in a free and easy way, and daily life can be strained and stressful and I’ve had to just accept that this is how they are and how my life is right now and my family is how it is and it’s lovely and I love them and we have our ups and downs. My house is not full of cookie baking, singing and hugs.

But the book I want to recommend was great because it talked about acceptance in the MOMENT when a kid is just not behaving in a free and easy way and it they are bringing chaos into your life and home and how to get grounded and remind yourself that it’s only how it is NOW, it may not always be this way.

Your children may very well end up being lovely friends together. Don’t panic and think they will always bicker. Things change, it’s all weather going across the sky.

I didn’t even read the whole book, I think you can find the preface and just get a boost from reading that… the book is called….

Mindful parenting for ADHD
posted by pairofshades at 8:32 AM on May 20

Growing up with my sisters in the 70's/80's - when we were forced to do things together, we bickered constantly. They are twins and 4-years younger than me. In our case, the age difference was large enough that I would be doing my thing and not interact with them in general. As we all got older, they learned to gang-up on me when bickering/fighting. We had plenty of other family troubles, so frankly - the bickering was the least of the problems.

In my mid-teens, there were a series of commercials for the old single monopoly phone provider in Canada - the official slogan was something like; "Family! That's what Bell long-distance is for!"

Everytime that played on TV/radio, I would loudly proclaim; "Sisters! That;s what Bell long-distance is for!"

Now that we are all adults - we communicate generally without issue. Time, distance and life experience have helped us tolerate each other.
posted by rozcakj at 8:33 AM on May 20

So here's my anecdote. When my brother and I (I'm the older) were those ages it was pretty rough. When I look back, the phrase "pressure cooker" seems apt. There just wasn't any space to escape physically or mentally from that relationship and all the baggage that had accumulated a little bit at a time over a long period. He seemed to be everywhere, right next to me, ALL OF THE TIME. The groaning at each other is familiar, I remember thinking something like, "ugh, this guy again? And he's still doing that THING he does?"

Then at 10 I went to summer camp on my own. It was just a week long program, with the stereotypical things, archery, sailing, horses, etc. When I came back everything seemed different. Everything was exactly the same of course, but *I* had changed. I had learned that I could rely on myself sometimes and that there was a whole world of stuff out there that wasn't my family. It was like the volume had been turned down on all the brother stuff, as if the stakes had been lowered.

My theory is that I had outgrown the space I was occupying, like a goldfish or a plant that needs re-potting, and all the conflict was the natural outcome of needing a bigger world to live in. I dunno if my parents noticed, but I definitely remember that as a moment when my inner experience expanded and the percentage of the universe made up of 'Brother' was reduced to a tolerable level.

Dunno how a sleepaway camp works during covid times, I'm sure it's inconvenient and expensive. Maybe there's something more local in your area like a day-camp or outdoor program, perhaps affiliated with your town's parks and rec department.

TL;DR: "it might be time to re-pot one or more of your kids"
posted by Horkus at 8:51 AM on May 20 [13 favorites]

Mother of 3 kids here - two 16-year old girls and one 14-year old boy. I think they have fought once, and I don't think they've ever seriously raised their voice at each other. (I say this not to brag, but to demonstrate that this is something we've taken very seriously and I think have done a pretty good job at. There are plenty other things we have not; definitely not trying to make us out to be parental paragons.)

My wife and I decided very early on that we really wanted a harmonious home, so we actively prioritized teaching our kids 2 things: 1) respect, and 2) conflict resolution. When they said something sassy, we stopped the situation and asked them to see their comment from the other's point of view, and we did this consistently. We taught them that it's totally OK to be angry, and you don't always have to like each other or their behavior, but it's not OK to hurt someone. When they were upset, we really listened to them and gave them space. We helped them figure out how to express what they needed, and helped find age-appropriate ways to resolve their conflict.

I think that teaching respect/appreciation is easier, in that it's intuitively easier to teach if you yourself are an appreciative and respectful person. The hardest part is consistency.

Conflict resolution is HARD for everyone, adults included. There are great books on techniques for kids, so I don't think I have much to add here. But I think successful conflict resolution is predicated on the ability to respect the other person, so if you don't have respect first, the resolution won't stick and the behavior just repeats over and over again.

Since your kids are 7 and 9, you still have plenty of time to work on this with them. My son is mildly on the spectrum and could be super annoying to his sisters when he was that age, so we really focused on teaching his sisters coping mechanisms when he was too much for them to handle. There was a stage when we would often hear "I love you but you are being so annoying right now. Quit it or I'm leaving." Sometimes he'd quit, many times they walked away. Car rides were more difficult, because they couldn't easily remove themselves. So we stepped in more in those situations - rewarding good behavior or punishing bad, distracting them and shifting the focus away from the conflict.

Focusing on respect is really an investment into their future. My kids are now teenagers, and they are honestly fantastic young people and (knock on wood) while there are a few wobbles now and then, the teenage years have been a joy so far. Every single time we go out to eat or buy them anything, they thank us. Many times my kids have said "I know you have other things to spend the money on and I really appreciate you spending it on this for me." And we always say 'thank you for saying thank you' back. It genuinely makes it a pleasure to do things for them. Again, it's not all kumbaya and unicorns over here, but this thing? This thing I know we have done really well.

It's hard to give more specific advice here, but if there's anything I can help you with, I'm happy to chat. Zero judgment. Parenting is hard.
posted by widdershins at 9:36 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]

As a therapist who works primarily with children and teens, therapy can absolutely help; either talk therapy, play therapy, art therapy, or some combination of these. I would recommend having them seen individually rather than together unless your budget/insurance makes that prohibitively expensive. They almost certainly have their own thoughts and feelings about what's going on and would appreciate being able to express these when they are the sole focus of attention.
posted by epj at 9:38 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

My thought is to be much stricter about politeness and respect (to echo someone above). Some of the behavior you describe here is not behavior I would personally tolerate from my similar-aged child, notably, groaning in response to seeing a family member. I think "we don't speak that way about each other" should be a really strong bright-line rule.

Feelings affect behavior, but behavior also shapes feelings. It's a lot easier to get along with someone who is basically polite to you. That would be my first area of focus.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:18 AM on May 20 [5 favorites]

When our kids (5&8) were having a lot of conflict we had a family meeting. I created a PowerPoint outline with fun photos and short text so that our little guy would have something to ground him in the conversation and we projected it on the TV. (I know it sounds ridiculous but it really helped!)

The conversation itself went well. We basically told them that we know that being a sibling can be really frustrating. And that all FEELINGS are welcome but all BEHAVIORS are not. The kids came up with a list of behaviors that made each kid feel really good and behaviors that made each kid feel really bad which we wrote down. And then my partner and I gave non-negotiables around how we do and don't speak to one another in our family and that we no longer wanted to hear our kids speak to one another in those ways.

The two big shifts we made were:
1) Each kid was given a private spot in the house- one kid chose the downstairs bathroom, one kid chose the bedroom. And they can say 'I need space' and go there at any point. If we, the parents, think there is too much conflict we can also say 'we think you need space from each other' and send them to those areas to gather themselves.
2) We bought a glass jar and a bag of cheap plastic gems. Each kid is now encouraged to share any time their SIBLING does something kind and awesome. If they do, a gem goes into the jar. When the jar is full, the kids get a Sundae party. Parents can also unilaterally give gems along with a description of the awesome sibling behavior that warranted it. The kids are SO into the gem jar and it really makes them pay attention to the positive aspects of their relationship with one another.

While no system is perfect, this has been remarkably successful overall. The kids are really so much kinder to one another.

Good luck!
posted by jeszac at 10:32 AM on May 20 [15 favorites]

I'm glad you are asking this question. I think one of the worst things parents can do with regard to sibling relationships is just ignore it and leave then to their own devices believing it will work out on its own. I can firmly say it will not. This stuff leaves a mark.

I think it's fine if kids don't get along as siblings, and don't want to play or spend a lot of time together, and don't even have to feel love for each other. I do feel incredibly strongly that the way we talk to each other in our home matters deeply, and is nonnegotiable, and I teach my kids how to improve on it constantly. Brene Brown also addresses this in her books, about how her two children would certainly fight or bicker or disagree but they were not permitted to ever tease/mock/shame/physically harm each other (I kinda think groaning at the sight of each other would also fall into this category). The reason being because with all the shit going on on in the world, one's home absolutely needs to be a safe haven where you don't have to worry about how you are seen or treated. As a young parent, I really took this to heart and it has been at the center of supporting my kids' relationships with each other. We spend a lot of time on basic politeness and how we rephrase our requests and our frustrations in a way that doesn't instantly alienate the other person and have them digging in and doubling down on their position. I sit with each kid in private and help them identify nuances of their sibling's personality and suggest ideas for how catering to those facets can help soothe a disagreement. In addition to retraining them on how to more constructively speak to one another during conflict, I also religiously point out every opportunity when the other child needs support/praise/encouragement, and have them join in with me (cheering at a game, making a sympathy card, offering a hug, remembering to get their favorite treat at the supermarket, whatever). It's never perfect but it does tend to build on itself over time.

I do think incentivization can help a lot too. My brother and I were always complete and total monsters to each other in the backseat during our many family road trips, and the second we pulled out of the driveway my mom would pin two stacks of dollar bills to the sun visor, one for each of us. The compensation was tied to each other; we both lost money for arguing/pinching/bugging each other and got it back when we were getting along harmoniously.
posted by anderjen at 12:01 PM on May 20 [8 favorites]

But my sibling who was two years apart from me was my absolute best friend.

It may be worth thinking about whether some of your discomfort with their bickering may be because it was absolutely not your experience and may at some visceral not-entirely-conscious level feel "wrong." Me and my sister fought all the time when we were kids, we both had some mental health issues that weren't well managed and my parents fought and then divorced so it wasn't a calm household otherwise. Each parent kind of favored one of us and I think our bickering could mirror theirs. I don't have advice for you specifically except to say that once we became our own people and weren't in our parents' orbits anymore we became basically best friends (at about mid-20s) and remain so to this day, 30 years later.

So other people have given you good advice on things to try but it sounds like you're doing just fine, but it's okay to look a little at your and your spouse's own feelings about it and manage that as its own thing. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:33 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

My ex has a very close relationship with his siblings. I do not. They fought much more and much more viciously than mine, and still have a very rambunctious style - I once declared I was leaving and going to bed because I couldn't stop feeling like they were fighting even though we all knew they weren't (this was okay with them - it was later in the relationship and the sibling was the one who most understood it).

Having my own space was crucial and is still crucial for me to avoid being an absolute butt to everyone. My sister and I grate on each other in ways we don't with our brother. It's easier know I know why (she acts and gets busy with anxiety and it ramps mine up, and our mother gets passive aggressive and our father gets regular aggressive). Being the eldest daughter meant I was expected to behave a certain way that clashed with who I am and who she is - we were also categorised horribly as the smart one and the pretty one. A lot of the conflict came from those issues rather than actual conflict between us.

That said, kindness always was the rule of behaviour. Not just being nice and polite and obedient, but kindness. Pranks, malicious behaviour, wrecking or ruining things was utterly verboten. I'm sure it happened because I cannot actually remember any instances of it - our mother would have made it clear that it is unacceptable. It's a bit like the Overton window where certain sibling behaviour gets accepted because it's difficult to modify, but it expands to more and more terrible behaviour until that gets normalised.

Riling a sibling up is an example where my mother would shut it down. Emotionally picking or prodding at someone was never ever okay. This was much clearer to me as the eldest in that if I teased a sibling until they clocked me, that prior behaviour was dealt with as much as the lashing out. The tendency to tell siblings you don't care who started it obscures a lot of cruelty that leads to conflict.

I was also excessively protective which drove my sister crazy once we evened out in size. What worked when she was a tiny elfin toddler and I was a very very solid five year old doesnt work when we are both adult sized at 12 (with a younger brother the same size). That caused conflict too. Once of the weirdly healing moments in our relationship was as an adult I randomly posted about how proud I am of her achievements and how badass she is. It made her cry apparently, but she had no idea I thought like that because we were so used to our roles.

My mother also used divide and conquer a lot, and if you transgressed the divide you were in trouble. If a kid was sent to their room it wasn't punishment, so going in there was a problem and an escalation. Protecting the safe spaces, providing constructive ways to work as a family, and addressing the foundational issues not just immediate behaviour seemed to help.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:05 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

Sibling rivalry or conflict (or bullying) is not always just something people get over spontaneously: Link

The hands-off approach didn’t help with my brother (18 months younger) and I. (The neutrality our mom espoused ended up facilitating bullying. Sometimes one kid really is the asshole. Fairness matters, antisocial behaviour needs to be addressed.) As close as we were at times, he never got over certain advantages he felt I had (through no fault of my own, if they existed - and they weren’t what he imagined, anyway), and never stopped fighting for status.

We aren’t currently speaking (and have spent the majority of the past ten years that way). Things were somewhat ok for a while in adulthood, occasionally high-conflict but at least with an underlying bond. A lot of factors have played into weakening it, including partners and especially, huge disagreements around caring for our parents (as in he is doing none, I’m doing the rest). We might have gotten through it if not for that. As it is, nope.

He probably needed more help directing and articulating his feelings, and I’d have appreciated a more interventionist approach on my mom’s part.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:14 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]

She was always getting in trouble, and openly challenged my parents' authority. I saw how much turmoil this caused and from a very early age tried to avoid conflict, be pleasing, good, and loved.
This caused a lot of conflict between us. I found her cruel and abrasive. She must have found me unbearably smug and spoiled.

Of all the family dynamics mentioned in this thread, this one probably most closely resembles my childhood relationship with my brother. What makes this hard is that he genuinely was difficult — constantly acting out, getting into trouble, fighting with my parents and causing angry sad chaos in the house. And he was also deeply, unimaginably cruel to me. Even into our late teens and early 20s, his name for me was "the little shit" — and not in like a "cute dirty pet name way," but positively dripping with bitterness and resentment. And the truth is, we haven't talked in nearly 20 years (we're both in our 40s, he's two years older). I think at this point he would like to reconcile, but the truth is I have very few positive memories of him, and I know that he's done basically nothing with his life.

Looking back though, I think there were probably some things my parents could have done better. I was "smarter" (I passed the IQ test that got me into the gifted program, he didn't), and he truly did behave badly. But I know there are things parents are supposed to do when they have a second child, to make the older child still feel loved and appreciated — and I'm quite sure my clueless, useless parents did none of these things. And despite my complete lack of interest in sports (unacceptable for a boy in the 80s and 90s), I did have some socially-acceptable interests, like programming computers. My brother had some interests, but they were looked upon as weird and undesirable at the time — he was obsessed with fashion, enjoyed recording himself imitating TV announcers (!), and had sort of a nascent interest in singing and acting (never really explored in school). I think my parents could have been better about encouraging him to explore these interests, and could have helped him turn them into legit hobbies. Instead, I think they settled into thinking of him as "the bad kid" and me as "the smart kid." Again, this was complicated by the fact that he really did cause a lot of angry, sad chaos in the house, and was constantly acting out in cruel and manipulative ways.

I wish I could find some sort of neat takeaway for you here, but I'm not a parent and know nothing about parenting. And my brother and I will (hopefully) never have a relationship. But if I could offer any advice at all, I would say this — the way you treat your children individually will affect the relationship they have with each other. You can't have a "bad kid" and a "smart kid" and expect those kids to get along. I grew up being bullied at school and abused at home, and I could never figure out why my brother hated me so much; why he was so cruel to me when I all I ever wanted was to be his friend. But the truth is that I genuinely did have a better life than him, even if many of his troubles were self-inflicted. It's not hard to see why he would resent me.

And I guess if all else fails, and you have one kid who truly does look up to a sibling who hates them and is cruel to them, I guess as a last resort you can just try being candid with the bullied child. Tell them that their sibling has problems and will never be a good friend to them, and instead they should work on making connections with their peers outside the home.

Sorry I don't have any better advice.
posted by panama joe at 5:39 AM on May 21 [2 favorites]

Can't favorite this hard enough. As an only child single parent, the conflict between my girls (10 and 13) can be astonishing, mystifying and deeply troubling at times. The teasing, the scorn, the thoughtlessness, the casual pointless meanness--and that's all before things really explode--it's all so alien. The idea that "this is just how siblings are sometimes" is just...really? My childhood of books and Legos and friends down the street seems like some weird idyllic outlier.

So yeah, it's been a heck of a learning curve. Sometimes I think a 3.5-year age difference is the worst: not quite far enough apart to exist in different worlds, just close enough to have enough to agree on and/or share--but also to fight over--to keep the embers fanned. They're both high-energy kids, especially the older one, so they're either best friends or want to kill each other; there's not all that much middle ground. I know they love each other regardless, but man, it's juggling bobcats sometimes.

A lot of the time my main goal is just keeping them apart. One-on-one time is always fun and easy with either. So: playdates, grandparents (though less and less as they get older, sadly), planned outings with one or the other. When in doubt, the universal pacifier, screen time. This is tough as a single parent, since it's almost always the 3 of us. As for encouraging and enforcing mutual respect and kindness, anything beyond setting a good example...dunno, really. (Ideas?)

A lot of it is letting go of some of my fantasies of how family life would be. But it is what it is, warts and all, and I remind myself that everyone will be ok, and it's less about your parenting than you probably think.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:41 PM on May 21 [1 favorite]

I don't have anything to add regarding fighting, but will add one thing from experience on a related issue. We had a problem with the kids (3 years apart) tattling to get the other one in trouble because they were mad at them. The solution, offered to us by a counselor of my wife's, was this: whenever one tattled, _both_ were sent to their room and not allowed to use the TV or video games in there. This reduced the tattling to near zero.
posted by TimHare at 9:05 AM on May 22

Also, once I asked my older one what were the main reasons her and her sister started fights out of seemingly nowhere.

Her answers, in order:

1. Delayed retribution for some past injury, just remembered
2. Teasing taken too seriously
3. Bored

(She very grudgingly would consider parental attention as #4)
posted by gottabefunky at 10:18 PM on May 22

I'd love to hear more idea on consequences for not-OK sibling behavior besides scolding, taking something away or room-banishment. As in an answer to the frequent cry "She did X to me, do something about it!" Especially in cases where one is clearly more/completely innocent. Positive reinforcement only goes so far.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:13 AM on May 24

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