The yelling had escalated into slapping and punching between the two sisters, 10 and 13. “The younger sister kept invading her sister’s room, dancing in the background of the screen during virtual learning,” says Amanda Ann Gregory, a psychotherapist in Chicago. “It was really embarrassing for the 13-year-old. Things were very, very tense.”
It's a scene that’s likely playing out in many family households, as the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched and strained families in extraordinary ways thanks to school closures, social isolation, and anxiety over an uncertain future. And with kids spending most of their time at home under heightened stress, experts say this may lead to an uptick in sibling conflict.
The quality of sibling relationships can have significant impacts on kids’ development, says Maria Johnson, director of Youth and Family Innovations at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth. “When sibling tension increases beyond the norm to toxic and abusive behaviors, it can be psychologically detrimental later in life,” she says. For example, research suggests that sibling conflict is linked to anxiety, depression, and aggression.
On the flip side, positive relationships between siblings often provide kids with social support, which can be a form of protection from other life stressors. So when conflict arises, teaching kids how to navigate them in a healthy way can help forge stronger bonds between siblings and set them up for future success.
Luckily or not, parenting during the pandemic means you might be facing more opportunities than ever to teach children more effective conflict management skills. Here’s how to turn that turned-up tension into teachable moments.
Why siblings fight
Before the pandemic, if a child was frustrated with a sibling for sneaking into their room or taking a toy without permission, they had other ways to take space, recharge, and vent their frustrations, whether that was playing sports or spending time with friends. In fact, research shows that children who can distract themselves from a distressing event and focus their attention on something else show lower levels of frustration and other negative emotions.
But during pandemic restrictions, Johnson says the combination of normal sibling tensions and forced togetherness can lead to explosive conflicts that have a lasting impact on their relationships. One of the main challenges is that kids often haven’t fully developed the tools they need to manage these complex emotions or engage in perspective-taking when conflicts arise.
“A child’s own stressors, biases, and influences can get in the way of them seeing another’s perspective,” Johnson explains, adding that this is normal for the developing brain—but often amplified during turbulent times such as these.
“The young mind does not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which helps us think and reason through sibling conflict,” she says. “When we respond with heightened emotions, our capacity to consider other’s thoughts, feelings, and points of view becomes quite restricted.”
And though those screaming matches might be driving parents crazy, learning how to resolve disagreements with siblings can help kids cope with all kinds of stressors and develop life skills they’ll need as adults.
Gregory compares sibling conflicts to the relationships among a litter of cats or dogs. “If a puppy makes a mistake with a sibling, they get a nip.” Likewise, reactions and social cues from siblings teach kids how to get along with others, especially when it comes to respecting others’ boundaries.
And in addition to fostering stronger and healthier family ties, research shows that learning healthy conflict resolution strategies has tons of other benefits for kids. It helps them develop social skills, cope with stressful life events, build empathy, and promote creative problem-solving, cooperation, and self-control.
Transforming fights into learning opportunities
“Sibling rivalry is a wonderful opportunity for children to learn and practice the skills necessary to navigate these vital relationships,” Gregory says. Here’s how parents can support their kids:
Model healthy conflict. Gregory recommends working out what she calls “safe conflict” in front of your children. It’s good for them to watch parents work through disagreements, especially when you prioritize talking about the emotions that caused the conflict instead of simply solving the problem. This shows them that it’s important to be open and honest about your feelings, she says.
Encourage emotional expression. When Gregory asked the 10-year-old sister privately about why she was barging into her sister’s room, she revealed it was because she felt lonely. “She was trying to connect with her sister, but her behavior created a constant cycle of rejection,” Gregory says. The 13-year-old sister was angry, but when asked about her feelings, she also admitted to feeling lonely and missing her friends. This led her to feel empathy for her younger sister.
Lead with empathy. Johnson recommends acknowledging a child’s pain and perspective—even something small, like frustration over an older brother’s TV hogging. “This can go a long way in gaining trust and flexibility,” she says. She recommends avoiding sentences that offer a silver lining or start with “at least” (At least we have a TV in this family), which dismisses the child’s perspective and generates feelings of isolation in the child.
Listen to each other. Create a safe space for family members to share thoughts and feelings. Don’t interrupt each other or judge. “Try to do this in a distraction-free environment,” Johnson says. “Put those devices away and focus on one another.”
Focus on individual needs. For the sisters, identifying feelings made problem-solving easy. The family created a plan for the girls to spend time together doing activities they both enjoyed, such as bathing the family dog. It also included prioritizing plans for the 13-year-old to spend time with friends safely.
Reassert roles and boundaries. Establish household boundaries around physical aggression and yelling, or rules about entering others’ bedrooms. For example, when Gregory was counseling a 16-year-old boy during a confidential Zoom session, his 8-year-old brother was lurking behind him. The 16-year-old yelled for his brother to get out. “Especially for older kids, less privacy is really difficult.”
Manage your stress. Experts suggest that parents who better manage their own pandemic stress spread less of it to their children, which is important for kids’ mental health. When children fight, try to pause before reacting, or do a breathing exercise. “We are beginning to see the positive cognitive effects of mindfulness,” Johnson says, adding that it nurtures our brains and improves our connections to each other. “It’s a win-win for our brains and our families.”
Reward good behavior. Pile on the praise when your kids engage in positive interactions. Be specific about what went right. “I’ve seen family members really turn things around where the overall tension in the home decreases and the family begins to enjoy their time together,” says Ashley Butler, a licensed clinical psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital.
These conflict resolution skills that help kids practice problem-solving and develop empathy will last long after the pandemic is over. “Parents often emphasize their children’s academic success,” Gregory says, “but we need to put as much or more emphasis on their emotional success and their success in relationships.”