How to Handle Sibling Rivalry During Quarantine



Mom outside playing with her children

All of your kiddos are home and under one roof for an uncertain amount of time. Social interaction outside of your tribe is limited, and everyone is feeling a tad crazy. If you find that your children are at each other’s throats more than usual these days, please know these two things:

1. You are not alone.

2. There are things we can do and say to help.

In the past few weeks of “staying at home” as a mom of three with kids all under the age of seven, I’ve noticed the sibling rivalries in our home escalating. To ease the tension for the sake of my children, and also for my own sanity, I dug out my notes from the positive parenting course I took last year. The instructor is a mom of four, and she shared a number of tips for managing sibling rivalry. Truth be told, there were many I had not yet used.  

Here is a shortlist of the to-do’s I found in my notes that made the biggest difference in our family. I’m sharing this list with you lest you are ready to pull out your hair as well.

Keep Going Mama written in chalk

Tools to tame sibling rivalries 

Regular Family Check-Ins

On a semi-regular basis, check-in with each family member and ask about their feelings surrounding the unique times and circumstances we are living in — social distancing, school closures, and ritual changes. Simply listening and validating each family member’s experience can go a long way to calming fears. Suppressed emotions put everyone on edge emotionally, where we are more easily primed to fight. Simply naming emotions helps to tame them. Said another way, our emotions need motion.

Get Outside

It seems so simple but getting outside and into nature is a huge reset button for all ages, including the family dog. Go on walks, do yard work, jump in the leaves, plant a garden, have a picnic, or simply run around and move your body. Research shows that fresh air and sunlight can boost the immune system, decrease stress, and increase our “happy hormone” called dopamine.

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Demonstrate Self-control and Relaxation Tools

I sat down with each of my children to teach them simple breathing techniques to help them shift during moments of big emotions. Some were more advanced than others, but there was one that they all loved called finger breathing. Here are the basic steps I used that you can use to teach this strategy to your kids, too:


  • Place the pointer finger of one hand at the bottom of your other hand’s thumb, and breathe in as you slide up.
  • Pause and hold your breath at the top of the thumb. 
  • Breathe out as you slide down the other side of the thumb.
  • Breathe in as you slide up your second finger, and breathe out as you slide down the second finger.
  • Keep going until you have finished tracing all five fingers. Yay, you have just taken five slow, deep and calming breaths. 🙂

When tensions start running high, I model these techniques, which has been helpful for me keeping my cool as well.

Be the “Guide by the Side”

For low-level arguments between your children, stay out of the fight. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but if you notice your kiddos are working it out on their own, let them work it out. Conflict resolution is actually a social skill, and if we want kids to learn this skill, they need space to practice it. When we jump in as the judge and the jury, kids learn to run to us and pull us into their chaos. Not only is this a big stressor for me, but it’s also the opposite of the skills I want to reinforce.

Now when one runs to me yelling, “Mom, so-and-so did this or that (in a whiney voice)…” I respond with, “Oh no, it sounds like you did not like that. What did you say/do?” And 9.9 out of 10 times, once they see I am not choosing sides, this child turns around, uses their words to express their displeasure and the issue begins to work itself out, without me being involved.

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Go into Siri Mode

Okay, this tip is HUGE. When arguments do require your intervention, before you jump in and start saying who is right and who is wrong and what needs to happen to right the wrong, PAUSE. Instead, simply describe what you see without judgment or opinion… and empathize.

This tip is gold. I noticed one day, that when I stopped taking sides as I have done a million times before, and put my children in the same boat, the arguments actually decreased. With practice, I trained myself to say out loud what I was seeing:

“I see ___ has the remote and ___ wants it.”

“I see ___ built a lego tower and ___ knocked it down and __ is feeling sad/mad.”

When being Siri, saying less is more. Cut to the chase and state what is without adding in the usual parent commentary or judgment.

Being Siri is not always easy, especially when one of my children is clearly offending the other (jumping on them, etc), but I have learned that, in these tense moments, my kids move into working things out for themselves much better when I am able to keep my judgments to myself. I do this by saying, “You two seem to be giving each other a hard time. Please go into separate rooms until you are ready to talk about it.” And WOW… this has been a game-changer.

Concentrate on Win/Win Negotiations

Once tempers have settled, this is my next go-to statement: “Let’s see what we can do to work this out by working together.” We then use “I statements” to state our feelings and take turns problem-solving. “What could we do so that everyone gets what they want?” Once we land on a solution, we put it into action.

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Act in an Unexpected Way

One final tip offered in class to dispel tension or a power struggle is to simply do something unexpected. For example, the other day I noticed my kids’ play had turned into a disagreement about a toy, which turned into them pulling on different ends. So, instead of breaking things up, I decided to join the tug-of-war. Before I knew it, we were all laughing and the tensions and upset had dissipated.

3 kids standing on a rock

Taming sibling rivalries really begins with me. If I am going to use these tools with my children, it is important for me to check in with my own feelings and “fill my cup” as much as humanly possible, even if that means just taking a few minutes to take an uninterrupted shower. When I am using my calming strategies, my kids do too.

Staying home with young kids in the age of coronavirus is just flat out hard. It’s hard on us as parents, and it’s hard on our kids. My goal is no longer to stop every argument before it happens but to roll with the punches (ok, not literally). By using positive parenting strategies when tensions run high, I’m hoping that my kids come out of this unique time of social distancing with all their limbs intact, having learned some new skills for managing conflict along the way.


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Time-in Toolkit in action

GENM's positive parenting course

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