What Our Children Can Learn From Sibling Conflicts

It can drive us batty when our children aren’t getting along, particularly when their conflicts become emotional. In the moment, we’re likely to follow our impulse to either appease, rescue, scold, shout, punish, or whatever it takes to put an end to the misery. Yet conflicts can actually be positive learning and bonding experiences if we are able to heed infant specialist Magda Gerber’s challenging (but magical) word of advice: Wait
Line’s experience is the perfect example:

Dear Janet,

I would like to tell you about an incident yesterday with my two children. My oldest is 3.5 (girl) and youngest 1.5 (boy). I have been practicing sportscasting and have seen the benefits of letting them work things out for themselves without me interfering or playing referee, but it’s not always easy.

Yesterday’s battle was no exception. Big sister had her hands on some toys that little brother wanted, and he chased her from one part of the living room to the other. It was not a game. He was really crying hard because she wouldn’t share. She ran away from him, not gloating or being aggressive, but determined and dismissive. She just removed his hands and wiggled free from him clutching her. At one point he got ahold of her. They fell on the floor (softly) and got up again, continuing the struggle.

He was getting increasingly unhappy, seemed really devastated and upset, and I was staying in the background (but still close) and tried to say out loud what I saw. “I see both of you really want those toys. I see you are getting upset, and I see you don’t want to let go,” and so on.

And then, when I was really starting to doubt myself — feeling that perhaps I was just the worst mother, abandoning him, not helping either of them, “prolonging his agony” and so on by not putting a stop to it — instead of reaching for the toys after having chased her again to one side of the room, he just stood beside her, still crying but less so. I said, “It seems he just wants to stand next to you now”.

She ran across the room again, and he chased her, but calm now, and just stood beside her. Then he put his hands around her and gave her a hug, and she hugged him back. My daughter then proceeded to take his hand, and they ran across the room together giggling. She gave him one of the toys. Then they looked out the window, and he said, “Out.” My daughter said, “We would like to go outside and I would like to help him put on the winter suit.” I told them that sounded like a good idea, and they sat together in the hallway for 15 minutes helping each other get dressed until they needed my help.

I was SO moved by this, SO happy that you helped facilitate such a precious interaction between these two, made possible because I was patient and didn’t step in. THANK YOU!

But the best part is yet to come: My eldest told the story later that day on two different occasions, totally on her own, making it so apparent how significant it was for them to have that experience of a shared conflict solution. She said something like, “Me and my brother both wanted the same toys, I had it first, but then he hugged me, and I gave him one of my toys.”

Thank you again. You really are a great inspiration!


Here are some of the affirming messages Line’s children learned through this experience. Her daughter learned:

“My parents don’t expect me to acquiesce to please my brother just because he’s younger. My feelings and desires matter just as much as his. My parents don’t take sides against me or perceive me as a bully for following the impulse I sometimes feel to be controlling. While they don’t let me harm my brother, they don’t judge me for wanting to dominate him.” (I share more about that HERE.)

These messages fortify our parent-child relationship and provide children with a strong sense of emotional safety and security.  Alternatively, if we react harshly or judgmentally toward our older child (which can be hard not to do), we create distance and stoke fear, which usually causes more unkind or aggressive behavior. Like all of us (but perhaps more so), children are at their worst when they feel worse.

Meanwhile, Line’s younger child learned:

“I am capable of asserting myself with my sister. I don’t need to be rescued by my parents. Not getting what I want is uncomfortable in the moment, and I can be vocal about that, but the feelings pass.”

Both children learned:

“Our parents believe in us, and we are capable of handling struggles and resolving conflicts,” an invaluable affirmation since life is chock full of them.

Children are experiential learners. They learn best how to handle the ups and downs of sibling and peer relationships by being offered a safe (physically and emotionally) place to experience them. Conflicts like these can be priceless opportunities to build problem solving skills, self-confidence, emotional resilience, and social intelligence, while also deepening bonds of trust. But they don’t play out this way in a vacuum.  Line was able to offer her children affirming messages because she didn’t follow the impulses many of us have to:

1. Break up or disallow the conflict
2. Resolve the conflict herself – directing the children to take turns, share, etc.
3. Distract and/or redirect
4. Intervene beyond what was necessary to keep the children safe
5. Make judgments, scold, take sides

Instead, Line followed the advice of Magda Gerber to:

Sensitively observe

Sensitive observation is the key to understanding our children and their perspectives in any situation. By observing we become aware of our personal projections, which often have little to do with our children’s feelings and experience. We learn to separate our projections from the picture rather than acting on them. For example, it is my guess that Line’s son’s “devastation” and “agony” were Line’s projections, which is evidenced by the way they were quite suddenly completely resolved. As parents we tend to perceive these as worst case scenarios when children express themselves strongly. The younger the child, the more likely we are to make those assumptions.


Waiting is what helps us to refrain from acting reflexively or fearfully out of our own projections and discomfort. And it gives children the opportunity to take in and process situations at their own (much slower) pace.


Sportscasting is offering simple impartial observations as Line did when she said: It seems he just wants to stand next to you now.” The idea is to say only what we know for sure, rather than making any assumptions. Sportscasting is not intended to directly assist in resolving the issues, but to demonstrate to children that we are there supporting them.


Basic trust in our children to handle age-appropriate struggles (and all the emotions that go along with them) with our support is the baseline for them to flourish as self-confident learners.

Well done, Line!

Would you allow an experience like this to play out for your children?

Recommended reading:

Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting? by Adam Grant, The New York Times

Siblings Without Rivalry (classic!) by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury

Dealing With Sibling Aggression by Amanda Morgan

7 Reasons to Stop Judging (and Start Trusting) Sibling Play and my many other sibling posts and podcasts: HERE


(Photo by Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. What about when they’re actually hurting one another? My older son sometimes just pushes or attacks when his little brother takes something (3 and almost 5) and they’re really rough. The five year old also constantly “mothers” and threatens the younger one (learned from our discipline before learning about this type of parenting) and tattles. How do we discourage this behavior? I don’t want to let him beat up on his brother.

    1. Anastasia says:

      I have the exact same follow-up as Jen does. In my case, the kiddos are almost-4 and 1, and the older one has moments when she gets into this “fugue state” where she will forcefully push her little brother while he’s sitting on the hardwood floor so that he hits his head against the floor or against the wall with full force. It’s absolutely terrifying and appears to be a completely performative behavior as it manifests itself in my presence and not my husband’s and not in daycare — she knows I get upset about it and it’s a fascinating button to push over and over. I have tried lots of out-of-the-moment approaches like validation and “parts language” (“part of you is happy you have a little brother, and part of you probably misses the time it was just the three of us” etc.). Bodyguarding only sort of works — it actually riles her up even more, and she emits this almost demonic little laugh, like “I’m off the wagon now, I can do what I want”. The behavior arises rather predictably when we are getting ready to go outside and I simply cannot always separate her from her brother because of all I have to do to get us out the door, or when I am preparing dinner and my daughter wants my attention. I should add that we live in a small New York City apartment, and many of the separating-their-space interventions that you suggest are just not practicable. Any help regarding this more violent type of sibling interaction would be appreciated.

  2. My two boys are about the same ages right now and the older is usually quite reactive to the younger touching “his” toys; grabs the, back, doesn’t let the younger touch any toys, very possessive and yells. My younger son often reacts by crying, trying to choose something else, and it goes on. I find, though, that if I do some sportscasting, monitor for safety and mostly leave them alone, my older son will sometimes suddenly flip a switch in his brain a few minutes into these interactions and start talking to the younger in his “RIE” voice. “Oh, you’d like to play with this toy, oh, good. Here how about this one? Oh, it looks like you’re crying, would you like this one back. Here how about this one?” And then they’re playing peacefully.

    It’s hard because this toy taking behaviour usually starts around the time when I’m making supper and we’re all a bit tired, hungry and my attention is clearly focused elsewhere. Some days it doesn’t work out and there’s a frantic juggling between trying to get supper going, figuring out how to keep everyone safe and trying not to become upset with my older “instigating” these conflicts. None of us get it right every day, but those shining examples like this parent’s remind me to keep trying.

    Thanks, Janet, for doing this. It really is helping.

  3. This is a good reminder for me to use more sportscasting. I’m far from getting all this right all the time, but when I use your methods, they definitely work!

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