Why Fighting Siblings Are Like Lemonade

The sour and the sweet of sibling squabbles
siblings looking angrily away from one another
© Can Stock Photo / fizkes

When siblings are fighting, it’s frustrating. But take this analogy of lemons: When I’m sick, they’re my go-to, squeezed in my honey-laced peppermint tea. When I’m sampling the first fruits of summer’s harvest, a lemon vinaigrette highlights those herbaceous notes with a tart and tangy citrus explosion. And when I’m relaxing in the afternoon sun, a chilled glass of lemonade is the perfect accessory. Now, as much as I love lemons, their sourness can be unpalatable. But without them in the world, we’d lose all the amazingly delicious things that can be made when you add just a touch of sweetness. Just like lemons, sibling conflict is objectionable, but if you know the right secret ingredients to add to the mix, a pleasing outcome is possible!

Adaptation: the sweetest ingredient for growth

When siblings fight there exists the most perfect, natural opportunity for parents to prime the capacity for adaptation in their children. More than just getting used to something in life, adaptation is a key developmental process that plays out both neurologically and emotionally. Adaptation is when we encounter the things we cannot change and are able to move through that experience to a state of acceptance. With the practice of adapting to that which is unchangeable, we become more resilient, better able to figure out alternate paths, and better able to persist when the going gets rough. This is an essential part of growing up. Without this, our children can never fully emerge into the best version of themselves. Adaptation cannot be taught with logic and reason, rather it must be experienced in order to be integrated into the brain and into the psyche.

With the practice of adapting to that which is unchangeable, we become more resilient, better able to figure out alternate paths, and more able to persist when the going gets rough. This is an essential part of growing up.

Perhaps you’ve just had a second child and your older, previously only, child has had his whole world turned upside down. Or maybe you have two school-aged children who seem to constantly butt heads every time your back is turned. Or maybe it’s adolescent children who are having endless and exhausting arguments over who gets to drive the car and what you’re ordering for take-out that night. Right now, you’re sucking lemons. But what if instead of banishing the lemons altogether, you found a way to embrace the sourness of sibling squabbles and allowed it to work magic in the lives of your children?

I just recently had a conversation with a mom who is raising a beautiful, 9-year-old boy with autism. He is sensitive to noise, to people, to change, to everything, and when he is overwhelmed, his behaviour regresses to infantile levels, his already limited expressive language disappears entirely, and he sleeps constantly to escape the upset. When his little brother arrived a year ago, he had a lot to adapt to and the world as he knew it was turned completely upside down. As his mom reflected on all of the many challenges of this past year, she landed on something so wise and brilliant, saying, “Isn’t all of that absolutely perfect for my growing boy?”

What she meant was: what a fantastic, organic opportunity for a child with extra challenges to figure out adaptation and become the most amazing version of himself! Yes, it would have been much easier, both for him and for those in his life, to not have to figure out how to exist with a sibling. But easier doesn’t always mean better, because where there is no challenge, there can be no growth. Learning resilience is an important skill, after all! It is the context of the sibling dynamic that provides a natural opportunity to flex to the unchangeable and come out the other side resilient, and, as an added perk, with a life-long support system that grows with you. In fact, the sibling relationship may be the longest relationship our children have in their lifetime.

pouting child with mom looking concerned in the background
© Can Stock Photo / fizkes

Be the sommelier of sibling squabbles

As parents, being surrounded by constant sibling squabbling can leave you with the intense desire to squash it, shout it into submission, forbid its presentation, shame it, or make it wrong: all to make it stop. And yet, for resilience to really emerge out of this wonderful opportunity for adaptation, rather than making it stop, your job will be to prime it to fully run its course, to cultivate it so the result is more like wine than vinegar. Wait…what? Encourage the sibling squabble? Well, sort of.

Rather than encouraging sibling fighting per se, think of it instead as allowing your children’s emotions to run their full course, with your empathetic support guiding them through that experience. You want your kids to express all of their mad, all of their sad, and all of their hurt. It is only when the emotion is fully expressed that the child is able to completely harness the potential for growth. If the emotion gets stuffed in the service of the household rules, or shut down by a well-intentioned but frustrated parent, it doesn’t get to cycle through entirely. And as Freud said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth in uglier ways.” Better out than in. Emotions must be expressed for growth to occur. All of which means that the frustration your children encounter in figuring out how to exist alongside each other is necessary and beneficial; your kids need to fight with their siblings in order for this adaptation thing to work as nature intended.

Direct sibling fights by coming alongside

You can direct your children through this by coming alongside them, guiding them with empathy, and helping them move from mad to sad to calm. But it cannot be forced or hurried or demanded; rather, you show them the way through the situation by being the way through it. You don’t have to fix it, you just need to honour and contain it. When your child is raging at their younger sibling for wrecking the castle they’ve spent all afternoon building, you really see and understand their anger and can respond with compassion: “Of course you are angry, love! That is so disappointing for you! I would feel exactly the same way in your shoes!”

As your child feels you hearing him, the rage will move through to sadness: “That’s right mama, and I really loved that castle, and now I will never be able to build it the same way again.” This is where the gold is: right at the point of your child coming to a place of being sad. Once again, your role here is not to fix; rather it is to sit alongside them, and really see and hear them and let them cry all of their tears. And while those tears roll down their cheeks, and spill out of their hearts, be the understanding big person who is right there to collect all of them. (Read more on how to help your child work through their anger.)

This is also a perfect opportunity for the child who wrecked the castle to adapt and come to terms with what it is to exist in relationship, accept boundaries, and make sense of one’s feelings. Understand that this child also needs discipline through connection, a compassionate kind of presence from you to show them the way through. And alongside this compassion, a dose of firmness on how they are expected to treat their sibling: “Oh my love! You are having a difficult time! It is so hard sometimes to be a sibling isn’t it? And you stepped on brother’s castle, didn’t you? And now brother is sad. That must be hard for you too. I understand.” Allow this child both space and an invitation to feel all of his feelings—for they are no less valid or real than the other child’s feelings.

Once all of the feelings have been released and a sad softness has settled into place, you can step in with some firmness: “In our family we respect the people around us, including the things that they have created. It was not respectful to step on brother’s castle. That is not what we do in our family. Next time brother is building a castle, can I count on you to be very careful and very respectful of his creation?” This last part is key as it allows some closure to the circumstance for the child who messed up and also plants a beautiful seed of expectation and ability for them down the road.

From sibling strife to self-regulation

As this all plays out, neurological connections are actually blazing pathways in your child’s brain, setting them up to become more and more capable of holding onto their big feelings, of being self-regulated, and of knowing how to cope with the stresses, upsets, and disappointments of life.

And alongside all of this brain growth something else really amazing is happening in your child’s heart. You are showing them how to be human. You are showing them how to do relationship. You are showing them how to adapt. This will happen over and over again, multiple times a day, for the next several years. And while it may feel relentless, the results of this labour of love will be amazing. Consider how much brain and heart growth could happen over the course of a regular childhood, as your children fight with each other, and as you come alongside and support with compassion and swagger!

Now fast forward several years to the day that your grown child’s partner blows through the front door after work in a bad mood, taking out their bad day on anyone within range. The child who has learned to adapt will know how to come alongside their partner with understanding and compassion; without the skill of adaptation, they will be more apt to argue with reality, refuse to accept that which cannot be changed—which is that his partner is having a bad day—and throw gasoline on the fire by denying them compassion. Considering the potential number of your child’s future relationships, choosing to respond with compassion and understanding will add up to a much happier existence. That is the result of honouring the sibling fight—adults who are truly grown up and who know how to do relationship.

family having a pillow fight on the couch
© Can Stock Photo / fizkes

When fighting siblings become a recipe for disaster

Sometimes it may seem like all of the fighting has become too much to be good for anyone and you may discover your child has too much to adapt to and is sinking rather than swimming. If that sounds like your family’s circumstance, there are a few things to consider that might help you lay the foundation for a better “lemonade” business.

Find your own way to peace first: Tend to the tree

Ask yourself what is the sauce that your children are marinating in every day. Are you stressed about work? Is there significant tension in the marriage relationship? Is there some other stressor in your family’s environment that might be causing everyone to be a little more charged? Consider whether it is a situation you actually have control over. Even as a parent, finding your own way to peace in the face of things you cannot change often involves exactly the same kind of adaptation you are hoping to prime in your children. Check in and see if it might be time to support yourself by accepting your own frustration with the situation, understanding yourself with grace, finding your own sadness, and moving through it to a place of adaptation. As with your children, you may need to do this frequently with yourself.

Build one-on-one relationships: Gather the fruit

Consider the relationship you have with each of your children and how that might be contributing to the overall sibling dynamic. In her book, Peaceful Parent, Peaceful Siblings, Dr. Laura Markham reveals how sibling fighting is often more illustrative of the parent-child relationship than the sibling relationship. The idea is that when one of your children senses their vital connection with you is threatened or scarce, they will be moved to thrash it out with the competition (in this case, their siblings). If you feel this might be the case, take time to nurture the relationship you have with each of your children, rather than focusing directly on the sibling relationship.

Secure your parental role: Run the kitchen like a boss

Determine whether you are really in the lead of the sibling dynamic for your kids. If you are in a personal state of overwhelm and frustration, you will not be presenting with an in-charge and confident kind of energy. Rather than parenting with true power, you will have to resort to parenting with reactive force which will have you feeling decidedly not in the lead at all. Children need parents who are truly leading them and they quickly notice when their adults are not in charge, which causes anxiety. Just think: Lord of the Flies would have ended differently had there been capable adults standing by! If something is getting in the way of you being truly in the lead of your children, take time to work through that first. Once you do, you will be able to step in for your children, each of them, all at once. The in-the-lead parent understands that staying connected to more than one of their children, especially in the heated moment of sibling conflict, can be done by nurturing that connection through multiple channels. Use your eyes, your voice, your touch. Let everyone know you are there and you’ve got this.

Cater to connection: Try relational recipes

Think about how you are setting up the rhythm and routines in your home. Recall the last time you were feeling positively connected to your children: were you out on a family walk, or cooking a meal together? When connected, your children are probably less likely to kick up a fuss or succumb to the sibling dynamic. When your children feel connected to you, when your family life is full of routines and has a rhythm that caters to connection, and when you are present, stepping in, and providing, sibling fighting just won’t need to flare up as often as a means of your children getting what they need: attention from and connection with you.

Our families are our greatest classroom for learning how to get along with others. ~ Maggie Dent

Believe it or not, sibling fighting can be a fabulous part of having a family with more than one child. As parenting educator and author Maggie Dent said, “Our families are our greatest classroom for learning how to get along with others.” So next time you hear the telltale signs of a sibling squabble, do not despair. Instead, rub your hands together in delight at this perfect opportunity for growth. Don’t try to squash or fix it. Surrender to the idea that it needs to happen. Your only job is to step in and come alongside it. Squeeze all of the gorgeous sourness you can out of that circumstance, and then watch it be transformed into sweet adaptation and growth. Growth for your children, and maybe even growth for you.

Did you know? An estimated 15 to 20 percent of children in North America are sensitive. But what does it mean when we say a child is "sensitive" and how would you know if your child is among them?