An 11-year-old girl taunted her 8-year-old sister as they climbed the stairs in a bookstore. "I hate you!" she yelled. "I can't stand being with you! I just hate you!" Dr. Wyndol Furman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver who was in the bookstore at the time, said: "The younger girl was trying to ignore the older one. You could see the strain on her face."
There are times when the bond between siblings appears tenuous at best. Brothers and sisters who seemed to get along fine a day or even an hour earlier will suddenly act like worst enemies. They cannot play together without yelling, hitting or calling each other names.
Psychologists and others who study sibling rivalry have found several clear patterns that can help parents anticipate and handle such battles.
"We've found that the amount of conflict between children is not related to their affection for each other," said Furman, who added that name-calling alone is seldom a reason for worry. "I'd be more concerned if the children were very aggressive toward other kids outside the family, as well."
Periods of apparent animosity between siblings appear to help children with their social development. Children can take more risks with a brother or sister because they will not reject them the way friends might.
"These fights are a way for children to learn and practice the conflict resolution skills that they'll need when they get older," said Dr. Frances Fuchs Schachter, the supervising pediatric psychologist at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City and an associate professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College.
The squabbles appear to serve other purposes, as well. They are a way for children to establish that they are different from their brothers and sisters, which is why the fights are most intense when siblings are the same sex and very close in age.
They are also a release for some of the anger or frustration children may be feeling toward an adult whom they would not dare treat the way they would treat another child.
"Their behavior is often triggered by displaced anger toward the parents," said Dr. William Ayres, a child psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. "It's a lot safer to be angry at your sibling than at your mother or father."
Another predictor of increased fighting between siblings is when one child enters a new social group that puts a premium on more adult behavior. "It's common when the older sibling enters junior high school and doesn't want to be associated with the younger sibling," Furman said.
Fighting with a brother or sister can also be a way for children to try to determine the favored child in the family. Children who feel they are treated unequally or unfairly by their parents are more likely to fight with each other, according to Furman's research.
To adults, the fights can look and sound vicious and perhaps even dangerous, but appearances are almost always misleading.
"Pediatricians will tell you that there are very few injuries that occur in sibling fights," Ayres said. "They are more smoke than fire. A lot of the screaming is for the benefit of the parents and doesn't really reflect their real feelings about the sibling. When the parents are gone, the kids get along fine."
Often the intense rivalry that flourished when children were younger disappears when they reach adolescence. The change reflects their growing sophistication in two areas. Their increased ability to empathize makes them less likely to try to bully.
"They also learn the value of teaming up against their parents to get the privileges that they want," Ayres said.
But Mom, he started it!
Parents must consider a number of factors when deciding how to react to battles between siblings.
Remember that sibling rivalry is not only normal, but also adaptive.
"Let children settle their own arguments," advised Dr. Frances Fuchs Schachter, the supervising pediatric psychologist at Metropolitan Hospital in New York and an associate professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College. "If parents pay attention to the fighting, it tends to perpetuate the squabbles. If parents don't intervene in their children's conflicts, in a couple of minutes they'll probably be friends."
Note if any child is extremely aggressive, especially toward other children, as well. Extreme aggression is a sign that something more serious is going on and that the children would benefit from professional help.
Use fights between your children as a way to encourage them to try new ways to solve their problems.
"Pay as much attention to their skills at arguing as you do to the things they are arguing about," advised Dr. Kent Ravenscroft, a child psychiatrist and the associate director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington. Encourage them to empathize with the other person and to come up with alternative solutions to their difficulties.
When the noise level is too high, use the paradox of sibling rivalry to your advantage.
It would seem that two people who say they hate each other would want to be apart. But this is seldom the case with fighting siblings. Threatening to separate them if they cannot play quietly will often encourage them to cooperate.
Remember that children will often mirror your emotions, even when you are unaware of how you feel.
A sudden increase in the amount of fighting between siblings may reflect the children's way of coping with increased family tension. "When my wife or I are feeling angry or short with each other or with our son, we often see this in his behavior as well," Ravenscroft said.
Try to identify the situations that trigger the rivalry.
Some children fight with each other when they do household chores together. Others fight over who has the better job when they are assigned different tasks. Switching from one approach to the other will sometimes eliminate the problem.
When warring children come to you to settle a dispute, do not try to determine which child was at fault.
There is no way you can figure out who hit whom first. Even if you could, assigning blame to one child will only perpetuate the battles.
"Tell them that if they can't play quietly together, they'll both have to go to their rooms," said Dr. William Ayres, a child psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco.
"It's important that you discipline them equally. If you punish only one, you'll escalate the sibling rivalry."