Navigating Sibling Disagreements

Our children, being humans with individual needs and preferences, disagree at times. I’m sure that this is something you have also experienced.

Before we can help our children process their motivations, we need to identify our own. Do sibling disagreements inspire a strong reaction in you? It is important to explore why so that you can dilute the conditioned response towards an intentional one. What is influencing how you feel? How is that influencing how you act? Does this actually align with your intentions? How can you remind yourself in the moment?

This is perhaps my biggest trigger in parenting, which I have traced back to a couple of sources.

Firstly, I do not have the relationship with my brother that I would prefer; we love each other, we are there for each other when we need but we aren’t exactly friends. As I wish we shared a closer bond, I can project that hope onto my children and their relationship which can make me feel desperate to smooth over any disagreement for fear of it compromising that outcome; recognising this was very helpful in quietening the pull. I cannot predict or control the dynamic of their relationship, even if they never disagreed they might not be close (my brother and I never really argued) and I can support them through the feelings that might eventuate from that reality should it occur.

Secondly, I have residual guilt over our decision to have only two children despite our children being in agreement with that choice currently. I know that feelings can change and as we are around so many lovely wonderful families, I can’t help but consider “what if” that was our life too, are my children missing out? To try and compensate for the lack of siblings they have, I can feel overly invested in the relationship between the one that they do have; again recognising this was very helpful in avoiding acting on that feeling. I cannot prevent my children from disappointment, even if they are close they could still feel that they have missed out and that is okay, I can support them through that feeling should it occur.

In reality, I do not want to control my children’s relationship, so what is it I actually hope to do? I want to support them in figuring out a resolution they both feel comfortable with. I often say that when we are faced with a conflict that we talk but what does that actually involve…


People ultimately want to be heard and understood. Empathy is a way of showing that this is occurring. What ever action a person is taking, the feelings behind it are valid and real. Recognising this helps a person to process what is motivating their decisions and be in a better position to reassess. Empathy should occur towards everybody within the situation; there is no need to take sides or make judgements about whose actions were appropriate or not. Empathy isn’t about agreeing with the choices, it is about acknowledging the feelings.

“It can be disappointing when somebody is using what we want to use”

“You seem concerned, are you worried something might happen to it if they use it?”

“You weren’t finished using that, that must feel upsetting”

“You’re asking a question and not getting an answer, that’s frustrating”

“Are you feeling angry that your way is blocked?”

“You’re concerned about what she’s doing, do you feel scared she might run into you?”

Remember not to rush through this. Empathy also involves listening! Just because the emotion has been identified, doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. Resolutions aren’t about how quickly we can return to equilibrium, it is about actually addressing and processing towards a place that feels more comfortable. That can take time. And often, once a feeling is acknowledged it is actually felt DEEPER; the person might respond by crying more intensely because they feel safer to actually feel the feelings completely. This is a positive thing; we don’t want to stop the emotions but create a secure space to feel and process them.

Exploring Needs

Once the emotions have been acknowledged, we can look at what need is driving them. What is the person hoping will happen? What are they trying to achieve? What are they wanting to do?

“You really want to run. You want to protect the toys you’ve set up”

“You need scissors to cut some string and you need scissors to cut the ponies hair, is that right?”

“You want to go out, is that so you can see your friends? You want to stay home, is that because you don’t feel finished colouring or is there something else you wanted to do?”

Remember that the need might be deeper than what is present on the surface. If a conflict continues, you might need to think further back or further down, perhaps there is something from the past that feels unresolved or a more generalised need such as to be heard and considered. If you’re feeling stuck on trying to identify the need, they might need more empathy before they feel safe to reveal their true motivations.

Meeting Needs

Now we can figure out a way to meet everybody’s needs that feels satisfactory to all. This can take some time as you offer alternative options.

“You really want to run, your sister wants to make sure what she’s set up isn’t trampled, is there somewhere else we could run?”

“You both need scissors, could we find another pair so you both have some?”

“Your sister feels it is really important to see her friends, they are the ones who have moved far from us so it isn’t often that we can, could we bring your colouring with us and we can colour while she plays?”

Remember that we aren’t working towards a universally correct outcome but towards a solution that works for the people involved. You do not need to think it is fair or right, the people involved need to feel content with the resolution. It isn’t about meeting objective expectations, it is about meeting subjective needs.

So yes, technically we literally just talk! But without expectations, without bias, without judgement; we talk not towards a specific goal but to ensure all of our needs are heard and met. We talk and importantly too, we listen.

If you’re looking to explore further the concept of conversing through conflict, I would recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s book “Nonviolent Communication”.

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