How much sibling fighting is normal?

Sibling conflict is normal, but when does it go too far?
Sibling conflict is normal, but when does it go too far? Photo: Shutterstock

Fingernails scraping down a chalkboard might be the go-to sound people say they hate, but for me it is the sound of a pair of squabbling siblings. I am so attuned to a high-pitched "Stoooop!" that it has become something of a super power, being able to hear bickering brothers over TV, through walls and during conversation with my wife.

I put my hypersensitivity down to being an only child. There is a lot of handwringing about whether it is okay to have just one kid; I highly recommend it. What some call loneliness, I called peace. There was no one to fight with but myself and I imagine that is why I find the fighting of my own two boys,  aged 10 and 7, so hard to ignore.

But can you intervene too much? And how much fighting is normal?

Dr. Kimberley O'Brien, principal child psychologist with Quirky Kid Clinic says that when it comes to fighting, too much is when the most sensitive family member is affected.

"If the family dynamic feels like its changed or feels negative then it is something to address in a family meeting because you don't want to have stressed parents, dealing with that sort of noise in the background," Dr O'Brien says.

Dr O'Brien adds that, although sibling conflict is normal behaviour, it is not a bad thing for parents to keep an eye on things, particularly if it sounds like it may turn physical. But a parent like me, who can be overly sensitive to a bit of back-and-forth can have some detrimental effects when it comes to helping the kids develop their own conflict resolutions skills.

"With too much intervention, kids can become quite dependent on the umpire and they might call on you even before they have tried to solve things for themselves," she says. "And then, as a parent, you have a full-time job of trying to manage the sibling rivalry which can be pretty constant."

Dr O'Brien suggests a family meeting early on, where all parties lay out what it is they want to see. A fight-sensitive father might explain exactly what it is that annoys them, try to find the point that they tend to intervene and then have everyone try not to get to that point. Reward behaviours that you want to see, like walking away, or coming to a parent to calmly ask for help, rather than getting their attention with an epic whinge.

Intervention of any kind can be tricky. It is rarely clear as to which child started, escalated or aggravated a fight, and picking sides can lead to simmering tensions between your kids. That said, in my house, it feels like the eldest is often, shall we say the most enthusiastic for a fight, which makes me even more likely to chime in, because I do love to back an underdog.

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Dr O'Brien says that an older sibling pushing around the younger is often more common than the other way around, and it is the most likely to get parental attention.

"It has a special trigger for parents who are just naturally more protective of the younger one," she says. "So you maybe need to change something that you are doing, if you have always been super protective of the little one and now he is learning how to me a bit more independent or a bit more resilient then you have to give them space to learn those new skills before you step in."

And since the most common root of fighting amongst siblings is boredom, Dr O'Brien recommends making a space for both kids, away from each other.

"What kids get out of fighting is stimulation if they are bored," she says. "So you need to set up separate sibling spaces; that's your table with our paper planes and robotics or whatever the younger one is into and a separate one for the older one, so they can be stimulated without looking around for something to do, because that is when trouble starts."