What to Do if Your Kids Just Don't Get Along

An angry brother and sister facing away from each other with arms crossed

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Most parents hope that their kids will be friendly, kind, loving, and supportive of each other. We may even dream that they'll grow up to be best friends. In reality, that's not always the case. Some of the over 80% of kids who grow up with siblings get along well. However, other siblings fight all the time.

Of course, some teasing, competing, misunderstandings, and bickering now and then is normal. But what about when siblings don't seem to get along at all? Or they ignore each other altogether.

It can be difficult to distinguish between healthy-sibling ups and downs and an unhealthy relationship. Learn what to do if your kids are seemingly always fighting and how to heal their relationship.

Is Their Relationship Healthy?

First off, it's vital to distinguish between occasional spats and a dysfunctional relationship. Remember that even the closest of siblings will have moments of disharmony. So, no matter how well-adjusted they are, sets of siblings will have disagreements about things like sharing, turn-taking, chores, or what to have for dinner. In fact, conflicts between siblings are very common.

Most siblings will also have periods of wanting space from their sibling, which may mean preferring to be with friends or alone rather than playing with their brother or sister. Wanting to assert their independence and unique personality by doing their own thing and/or creating some distance between themself and their sibling (and family) is also a normal part of growing up.

So, if your children engage in occasional fighting (or screaming) but otherwise maintain a friendly rapport, it's likely that they have a positive relationship, overall. Likewise, they can still generally like each other even if they have periods of giving each other the cold shoulder. However, it becomes a cause for concern when repeated patterns of discord become their dominant way of relating.

Signs of a Healthy Sibling Relationship

There are many types of sibling relationships—and as many different ways of relating. Some siblings may fight all the time but still be super close. Other dyads may not talk much but have a very strong bond. So, what looks healthy or unhealthy in a sibling relationship is quite variable and somewhat subjective. In fact, the biggest indicator may simply be how each sibling feels about the other and their relationship.

However, studies show that the signs point to a generally healthy sibling dynamic:

  • Aside from occasional arguments, they seem to like and accept each other.
  • For the most part, they react positively toward each other.
  • Generally, they communicate with each other effectively.
  • More of their time together is spent harmoniously than not.
  • They are considerate and supportive of each others' feelings, concerns, needs, and differences.
  • They seek each other out for play, leisure time, conversation, advice, and support.
  • They share hobbies, interests, friends, and/or inside jokes.
  • They resolve their disagreements constructively and let go of past hurts.

Note that the quality (and closeness) of a sibling relationship may naturally ebb and flow. It's normal for sporadic periods of more intense arguing or distemper to pop up in otherwise happy relationships and for some disharmony to linger from time to time. This is particularly common when age differences cause gulfs in physical and emotional development that, for a time, may cause a disconnect in the relationship.

This is not too concerning as long as the moments of discord don't outweigh the time spent getting along. However, any time there is a significant uptick in fighting or coldness in their relationship, it's wise to keep an eye on their dynamic. You'll want to encourage working through any issues, as appropriate.

Healthy relating may differ widely based on personality, culture, generation, identity factors, and age group. Some families communicate with loud, intense conversations. Others tend to keep emotions and voices more in check.

The key is to consider if your kids leave their sibling interactions feeling loved, accepted, and supported. If they harbor resentments or other negative feelings, then their relationship likely needs support.

Signs of an Unhealthy Sibling Relationship

While fighting often may just be kids being kids, sometimes it can be an indication of trouble, particularly when other signs of an unhealthy sibling relationship are present, too. If your children exhibit the following potential signs of relationship dysfunction, their relationship may be struggling and in need of repair:

  • Miscommunication, competitiveness, and hurt feelings fuel many of their interactions.
  • Their fighting, bickering, or ignoring has become a regular pattern.
  • They are excessively reactive to each other, anticipating hostility before the other one has done anything negative to them.
  • They are not respectful, aware, or supportive of each other's feelings, needs, or differences.
  • They feel bullied by each other.
  • They hit, pinch, punch, or otherwise engage in physical altercations.
  • They leave their disagreements unresolved and do not communicate positively with each other.
  • They rarely have fun together and say or do hurtful things to each other, including teasing, putting each other down, disrupting each other's activities, yelling, slamming doors, stomping off, or taking each other's stuff.
  • They try to get each other in trouble and seem to look for opportunities to complain about their sibling.

Don't despair if your children engage in some (or a lot) of the above behaviors. The key is to acknowledge that their relationship dynamic could be off and to seek ways to heal it. Crucially, this is not something that parents can do on their own; you'll need your children to understand and face what's going on, and for each of them to be invested in improving their relationship.

Why Sibling Relationships Matter

The quality of a sibling relationship has a big impact individually on each child—and on the family at large. More bickering or fighting can lead to a more stressful household. When kids don't get along, the home can become a place of unease. It's hard to feel "at home" when you're bracing (or looking) for the next fight. This can all get magnified if there are more than one pair of siblings, particularly if there is substantial acrimony all around.

Much research has been done to show how impactful the parent-child relationship is to the well-being of a child (and future adult). Studies clearly show that a suboptimal bond is detrimental to both the child and parent. Fewer studies have focused specifically on the impact of a poor sibling relationship. This is an area that is getting more attention, particularly as the limited available research points to the influence of the sibling bond on kid's well-being in the present and future.

In fact, one study showed that the sibling relationship has a profound effect on each child's future. Researchers found that siblings who regard each other warmly are positively influenced by each other's successes—and if one completes college, the other is likely to do so as well.

Research shows that a positive or negative sibling dynamic can impact the following areas:

Causes of Strained Sibling Dynamics

All sibling relationships are unique—and the causes of difficult dynamics are just as unique as your kids are. However, there are some common reasons why animosity may develop among siblings.

When looking for the root causes (and potential cures) for the underlying tension, distrust, or discord between your kids, consider that there may be multiple contributing factors that need to be addressed for the relationship to heal.

While it's vital to look for the underlying reasons for tension between kids, avoid assigning blame. Instead, think of looking for the causes of their fights as an investigative mission that may hold the keys to repairing their relationship.

Developing Skills

Kids develop key social skills at their own pace, so if one (or more) of your kids is still working on crucial milestones like empathy, self-regulation, impulse control, respecting other people's personal space or privacy, or sharing, then your kids may be more likely to fight.

For example, many toddlers can't gracefully take turns without prompting from their parents. Some tweens may not have the social awareness to notice when their sibling is upset. So, sometimes disagreements or miscommunication can happen when social cues are missed.

Unresolved Hurts

Past disagreements or slights (big or small) may build up to a point that one child just can't get past them. Unresolved hurts can fester. These lingering feelings may prompt kids to look for issues to fight about simply because they're still mad. If one sibling routinely picks on the other, calls them names, or tells them to "go away" or "I hate you," the other may naturally hold a grudge.

Bad Habits

Another common cause of sibling discord is that it has simply become a bad habit. If your kids have been at arguing for a long time, it stands to reason that the negativity between them has simply become normalized. When they expect to have unpleasant encounters with each other, they often will.

When animosity becomes habitual, they may be more likely to remember their negative interactions than their positive ones, too. This is called negativity bias, which is a common problem that is easy to fall into. And thinking about the negative interaction may soon become a self-affirming loop by putting each child on heightened alert, which may make them prone to start the next fight.

Sibling Rivalry

Most brothers and sisters experience sibling rivalry to some degree. It's expected for kids to want to one-up each other, to see who is the fastest, who gets the best grades, who draws the best pictures, or who can make mom laugh the hardest.

For the most part this competition—for status, for parental approval, and pecking order—is a normal part of growing up. In fact, sibling rivalry may even help kids strive to push themselves out of their comfort zones and help them become even more successful. That said, when sibling rivalry gets overly competitive or intense, it can become destructive to their relationship.

Family Structure

Multiple elements of family structure also influence how well siblings get along. These factors include the age, gender, birth order, interests, and personality of each sibling as well as the total number of siblings and who else lives in the home. Whether or not the siblings are twins or other multiples will also greatly affect their relationship. None of these factors automatically mean that siblings will either like or dislike each other, but they could impact their bond.

For example, research shows that sisters tend to form more intimate bonds than brothers. Additionally, twins are often especially close. Being farther apart in age can leave some siblings with less in common but they also may get along well because they have less reason to feel competitive. Conversely, siblings who are closer in age may naturally be more competitive with each other, but they also may be more prone to be best buddies.

Family Dynamic

Your overall family dynamic, which may be influenced by culture, parental relationship, family values, and other socio-economic factors, may impact how your kids get along. For example, some families talk about everything, while others keep things to themselves. In certain families, interrupting often or talking loudly may be expected. Consider how your family environment and ethos may be contributing to your kids' communication styles.

Marital Discord or Divorce

Divorce and fighting between parents can sometimes cause distress for the children involved. This may spill over into sibling relationships. In fact, studies show that fighting between parents tends to beget fighting among siblings, particularly if those siblings didn't start out close. On the other hand, research also finds that warm sibling relationships can help kids cope more positively with the stress of living through periods of family turmoil.

How to Heal Their Relationship

Improving your kids' relationship can be easier said than done. The below strategies can help get the ball rolling, Aim to tailor your approach to the specific issues that are impacting their interactions. If you have more than two kids, working on their relationships can become more complicated but the following tips still apply.

Talking It Out

A good place to start is to talk to your kids about what is going on. It may help to speak to each of them privately and then discuss the issue together. Be sure each person gets uninterrupted time to speak. Follow the basics of conflict resolution by letting each child feel heard and have the chance to air their grievances. Also, let them share what they think is going on and offer potential solutions

You can also tell them how their fighting makes you feel and how it impacts your family as a whole. Ideally, you and your children can come together to brainstorm solutions to whatever issues are hurting their relationship. Maybe they can agree on better ways of communicating, such as not interrupting each other or not calling each other names. They may need to make amends with each other. Owning up to hurting each other in the past can help them let go and move on.

Modeling and Praising Positive Relating

Try to model the behavior you want to see from your kids. Research shows that kids often learn social skills through mimicking. Do your best to speak to them in a kind, compassionate manner. Show them how to communicate effectively. Ask them questions and socialize with them in a friendly way. Also, aim to handle disagreements with grace, patience, and a calm manner. No parent is perfect, but avoid yelling, blaming, or shaming.

When you notice them getting along well, be sure to praise them. Focus more on catching them doing well, rather than on pointing out missteps. Not getting along may be deeply ingrained, and it may take time to unlearn this pattern. Whenever you see them being thoughtful, pleasant, or simply just not mean to each other, be sure to give them kudos. Positive reinforcement is likely to encourage continued improvement.

Setting Up Clear Expectations

It's important to have house rules that everyone is expected to follow. Make clear that treating all family members with respect and kindness is non-negotiable. Also, establish consequences when these guidelines aren't followed. For instance, if name-calling, physical fighting, or bickering in the car are against the rules, you might establish that they may lose their phone privileges for one day.

Explaining clear expectations and consequences upfront puts everyone on the same page and makes it easier to know how to respond when your kids are in the thick of a conflict.

You can also try motivating your kids with a reward for getting along well. Offering something they both like (like movie night, extra video game time, or eating out at their favorite restaurant) may help shift their dynamic from competitors to teammates. Working toward winning the reward gives them an extra reason to focus on treating their siblings like a friend. Plus, they can only win by improving their relationship together, which puts them both on the same team.

Not Playing Favorites

Be careful not to take sides or play favorites. Know that kids often perceive that the other child is favored and/or in the wrong. However, usually, both siblings play a part in their animosity. Instead of immediately stepping in, encourage them to try to work out their difference on their own before coming for help.

Suggest they brainstorm together to find a compromise or other solutions to any conflicts. Not only will this take you out of it (and eliminate complaints of favoritism), but putting the job of conflict resolution on them may build up these skills.

Avoid Blaming

Don't let your kids get away with blaming each other—or you—for their misbehavior. For example, they might say they hit their sibling because they took their toy. Make clear that, as the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right. That said, if you think the tensions are mostly one-sided or one child is being egregiously unfair, aggressive, or mean, do step in. Siblings often bully each other, so be sure to stop cruel behavior right away so that the victim gets the support they need.

Building Connection

Help your kids have more fun together, which can strengthen their connection. Think about what activities they both enjoy and set aside specific times to do them together, either as a family or just the siblings. Prioritize family time by scheduling it at regular intervals. Establish pizza Fridays, weekly game nights, or mandating that everyone eat dinner together. Movie nights, baking together, going on hikes, craft projects, soccer games, or camping trips are other possible ideas.

Family bonding can encourage sibling bonding, even if they're both just complaining about having to play another round of Scrabble. However, don't overdo it or force their relationship—as this might backfire and cause resistance on their part. Even more importantly, don't expect their relationship to instantly become harmonious.

Don't worry if they don't go from at each other's throats to best buddies right away. Have patience while you allow time for the rifts to heal and a true friendship to develop.

A Word From Verywell

Having kids who fight a lot is really hard, on the parents and the kids. It's understandable for parents to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or sad, especially if they're trying to help their kids get along but don't feel like it's working. Give yourself a break and know it's no one's fault. Most likely your kids are trying to do well but are just stuck in bad patterns. Trust that with consistent attention, together, you can shift the tide of their relationship toward friendship.

These efforts may offer big benefits, such as a lifelong companion who knows them well and accepts them for who they are. Learning to relate positively with their sibling can help kids develop their emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, which in turn will aid them when relating to peers and other people in their lives.

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