Siblings can be the best of friends and the worst of friends.
But more often than not, they're the worst.
On average, siblings ages 2-4 get into arguments once every 9 1/2 minutes, according to a study from the University of Toronto, and siblings make 700 percent more negative and controlling comments to one another than they do to their friends, observational studies found.
Eirene Heidelberger, president and CEO of GITMOM (Get It Together Mom), a full service parent-coaching company, has three boys ages 4, 8 and 12, and she said she knows all about sibling rivalry.
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"Any time you have three, let alone two, things can quickly escalate out of control - you have three individual minds who are reasoning, and you have three agendas," says Heidelberger, whose children tend to argue about personal space and control.
But while it's easy to let things escalate, there are ways to manage the situation once you learn why the sibling rivalry is happening.
You're putting two or more young children together for many hours - sometimes all day and all night 0 and they're fighting over the same resources, including their parents' attention, said Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies and founding director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
These are also very safe relationships for children, so they feel they can argue and express their feelings without significant repercussions.
"Even if you have a knock-down fight the night before, they're still going to be there at the breakfast table, and they will still be there with you for life," Kramer said. "If it was with a friend or another peer, they wouldn't tolerate these things."
While most siblings tend to argue less frequently when they get older, Kramer said researchers don't really know the exact age when the arguments die down - so parents unfortunately can't look forward to a specific time in the future when there won't be as much bickering.
But once kids are in school and aren't together as much, they have fewer opportunities to argue, so there tends to be a reduction in conflicts, she said.
What can parents do?
"It's really all about whether children have the social and emotional competencies to be able to manage conflict," Kramer said.
So parents need to give them the skills to resolve these conflicts.
The worst thing a parent can do is let their kids argue without teaching them skills to resolve their differences, Kramer said.
Canadian researchers examined sibling pairs between ages 4 and 10, and found that when parents stepped in during a conflict, the negotiations went more smoothly, there were no physical fights and there was also more likely to be a resolution, compared with when kids were left alone to their own devices.
However, when siblings settled the problems themselves, they were more likely to find a lasting solution to their problem, and they were also more likely to come up with a rule that would help them not have the same fight again.
However, they had to be taught the skills to communicate effectively to be able to do this.
The biggest skill you can teach children is to help them learn how to talk through their problems on their own, said Jim Fay, a Golden, Colo.-based former school principal and co-author of "Parenting With Love and Logic."
But before adults do this, they need to abandon the idea that kids will give up arguing completely and give up the notion that parents can make it better on their own.
"But they can make it better; they can make it a lot better," Fay said.
When he was an elementary school principal, Fay used to tell his students that there were two ways to solve their arguments.
" 'My way is to suspend you from school. Or you can use my office and talk to each other. But there are two rules: You cannot tell the other person what's wrong with him, and you can't tell the other person what he has to do about it,' " Fay would tell his students.
One time, two second-graders who were arguing over a pair of sneakers left his office with one sneaker each. But the fight was resolved amicably.
"You want to raise kids who don't always need a third party to settle the disagreement," Fay said.
Adele Faber, co-author of "Siblings Without Rivalry," said that she tried to always step out of the argument after briefly moderating it. But there were times when adults are needed.
Fighting comes in levels, Faber said.
It's fine to completely ignore average, everyday bickering, so that children can learn conflict resolution.
Once the argument begins to heat up, it's time for an adult to step in - briefly, but simply to acknowledge the argument.
"Acknowledge both of their points of view: You two both want to hold the puppy, but I have confidence that once you put your heads together, you can figure out a solution that's fair to both of you," Faber said.
Then, the adult can step aside.
Only if this escalates to a physical fight should the adult step back in to break it up.
"When one kid is chasing another with a hot iron and a long kitchen knife, you would say, 'Whoa, I see two very angry children,' and you separate them immediately for a cooling-off period," Faber said.
In Heidelberger's house, she's initiated her own set of rules, which she said helps ease the arguments among her three sons.
"I'm Switzerland, and I stay calm," she said. But she tries to zap all arguments as quickly as possible, using short sentences and eye contact, cutting them off almost as soon as they start.
" 'No thank you,' " Heidelberger said she will say as soon as she hears anyone starting to fight, creating a no-tolerance zone in her home."
"We're overwhelmed with all the info that's coming in, so I make it short and sweet," she said.
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