#141 - Honest Strategies to Combat Sibling Rivalry

by Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC & Jessica Hill, COTA/L February 24, 2021

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Honest Strategies to Combat Sibling Rivalry

We are often asked about how to deal with fighting between siblings and how to help them get along better. 

First off, it’s always useful to remember that fighting is a natural and inevitable part of life between children, and it’s just a matter of making sure that the difficulties that do arise are within a reasonable limit and are not dangerous. 

When a child has sensory challenges, these kinds of conflicts can be exacerbated and in some cases may be harder to deal with; sensory processing and verbal communication challenges can lead to outbursts and aggressive behavior. 

It’s vital to start understanding the messages that your child is sending you - many of these might be in their body language and patterns of behavior, so if you’re able to identify these you can begin to implement healthy boundaries and changes! 

This means identifying the trigger points, finding the why for a difficult dynamic, and responding to these accordingly. 

We all need to allow our kiddos to develop healthy and expected play skills, and this comes down to how you are able to preempt and respond to the situation and their patterns. For all this and a whole lot more, listen in with us!

Key Points From This Episode: 

  • Setting consistent boundaries to manage the inevitable fighting that occurs between siblings.
  • Identifying the trigger points for aggression between siblings.
  • Overstimulation, struggles with play, troubles with communication, and more!
  • Measures to take in the case of a fight or the breaking of a boundary. 
  • The education that is needed for better play skills and sharing. 
  • Modeling good and expected behavior and allowing children to practice this.
  • Responses to aggressive behavior; better and worse ways to deal with acting out. 
  • The vital importance of consistency, follow-through, and clear boundaries.
  • Clarifying where the actual problem lies and addressing it head-on.
  • A reminder to understand the causes of aggressive behavior in order to target improvement. 

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:


 “I have an older brother, and we grew up fighting and wrestling and just getting after each other non-stop. I grew up with it, so I have kind of a personal take on the situation, as well as a professional take.” — Rachel Harrington [0:01:39]

 “All siblings fight, bicker, wrestle, whatever. I think it's just the natural part of being a family.” — Jessica Hill [0:01:53]

 “Maybe your child is becoming overstimulated by too much noise. As your children are playing together, it's getting loud and maybe it's just too much auditory input.” — Jessica Hill [0:03:35]

 “All of these factors can lead to aggression, so being able to figure out the why. This is why my child is becoming aggressive. They aren't just an aggressive child. They aren't just hitting to hit. There's typically a reason.” — Rachel Harrington [0:04:46]


How To Combat Sibling Rivalry

Encouraging healthy sibling relationships can be a complicated matter. Though sibling disputes are typical, it becomes more challenging when one child has sensory processing issues, verbal communication difficulties, or has a diagnosis that results in aggressive behavior towards their siblings. In such scenarios, adopting targeted strategies can prove helpful.

Identifying The Trigger

Determining the root cause of your child's aggressive behavior towards their sibling is crucial. What underlying issues could be contributing to these conflicts between siblings

Go through all of the sensory systems and ask yourself:

  • Is the environment excessively visually stimulating? Are there scattered toys and blocks lying all around?
  • Is it possible that they have put something in their mouth which tastes unpleasant or unappetizing to them?
  • Perhaps your child is experiencing overstimulation from one or multiple factors at once.

Your child might find it challenging to share and comprehend how to engage in play appropriately. They may hit or snatch a toy from their sibling's hands unintentionally, without trying to be hostile or aggressive, simply because they do not know how to play or interact properly.

Another possibility is that your child faces difficulties with verbal communication. They may not be able to articulate their desires or needs, making it challenging for them to say things like 'I want that' or 'I need a break.' Consequently, it could lead to aggressive behavior.

All of these factors can contribute to aggressive behavior, making it crucial to identify the underlying cause. It's essential to recognize that they are not inherently aggressive but rather reacting for a specific reason.

Target The Behavior

Once you have identified the trigger, you can work towards addressing that particular behavior. For instance, if your child finds excessive noise overwhelming, try to be mindful of the noise level in your home, and identify the threshold of noise that leads to aggressive outbursts towards their sibling.

Encourage your child to take a break and lead them towards a more peaceful environment. While handling sibling conflicts, it is crucial to maintain a positive tone and avoid negative phrases such as 'I'm over it, you're done' or 'timeout'.

Instead, try using positive language like 'Let's finish this game and then go get a toy from your room' to help alleviate the situation. To help with transitioning, consider using a visual timer to make the process smoother for children who find it challenging.

If you've determined that your child can tolerate five minutes of noisy playtime with their siblings, consider setting a timer for four minutes. Once the timer goes off, it indicates that the playtime is over, and they can have some quiet time to take a break.

Furthermore, if your child is having difficulty sharing or engaging in appropriate play skills, it may be necessary to teach them. This is especially important if they don't interact with other children often, as they may not have the chance to observe and model positive play behaviors.

Taking turns can be challenging, especially for children who struggle with communication. To encourage positive play between siblings, practicing with them and modeling turn-taking behavior consistently can make a significant difference in their ability to engage positively in play.

Activities that trigger children with sensory sensitivities can be improved through consistent practice of turn-taking and communication. It is essential to have them assessed by an Speech-Language Pathologist to address any underlying speech and language challenges they may have.

At home, it's important to model good communication skills and practice during playtime. You don't have to spend hours doing this; even just five minutes can help. Take the time to help your child learn new signs or words, such as 'more' or 'all done,' and provide them with opportunities to practice.

What To Do If Aggressive Behavior Is A Result Of Seeking Attention

Setting expectations and boundaries ahead of time is often necessary to address aggressive behaviors. A great resource for parents struggling with this is the book 'Parenting with Love and Logic,' which provides helpful insights and ideas.

If your child displays unexpected aggressive behavior, it's important to remain calm and neutral. Later, when they demonstrate positive behavior that is expected or helpful, praise them generously to reinforce that good behavior will get a positive response from you.

When your child displays unexpected aggressive behavior, calmly acknowledge their actions and take them to their room. You can ask them if they want to go on their own or be carried there.

This approach provides an immediate physical response that communicates the behavior is not acceptable. It's common for parents to say things like 'stop doing that' or threaten consequences without following through, but this can be ineffective in correcting the behavior.

Children can be clever and may try to push boundaries by testing whether you will follow through on your promises. It's important to recognize that this isn't anyone's fault; we often get busy with other tasks like making dinner and don't have time to respond immediately.

Children are perceptive and will quickly pick up on patterns. For example, imagine you're at a store and your child starts to get upset. You tell them that if they scream one more time, you'll take them to the car.

It's crucial to ask yourself whether you're prepared to follow through on your statement. If you're not willing to do so, it's better not to make that promise.

If you consistently fail to follow through on your promises, your child won't trust you. As a parent, it's important to decide ahead of time what the consequences will be and ensure that you're willing to follow through.

Establishing Limits for Behaviors

Setting clear boundaries is crucial for behaviors that you find acceptable or not, consistently enforce them, and model the behavior that you want your children to emulate. Additionally, it's important to take a step back and consider why siblings may engage in conflict.

It's a natural aspect of human biology and can provide children with valuable proprioceptive input. Moreover, sibling disagreements can help children develop social-emotional skills, safety awareness, self-awareness, and force modulation abilities.

Incorporate a safe word into your roughhousing routine. Teach your children that saying "uncle" means that you must stop and end the activity immediately. This way, they know that this word is their safe word, and they understand what it means beforehand.

While roughhousing can offer numerous benefits, it's crucial to establish well-defined limits to prevent it from becoming aggressive. It's essential to determine the root cause by identifying the reason can help you can create a plan to address the behavior and help your child adjust. 

Sensory Strategies to Help Sibling Relationships

Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC & Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC & Jessica Hill, COTA/L

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