Q: I have two daughters, 12 and eight. Both girls argue with each other several times a day. There has been competition between both of them for many years. My oldest tries to tell me that her sister is to blame for the arguments and vice versa. When I am not around and they fight, the younger calls me to tell me the whole story. It usually ends up that the older will call the younger "stupid" or another hurtful name which my youngest becomes very sensitive to. When I try to talk with both, they each blame the other. Neither will own up to starting the argument. I don't know where to go from here. This has gone on for at least two years and it just seems to be getting worse. I'm desperate.

Dr. Michael Tobin Responds:

You're right! Being the referee/jury/judge is exhausting! It's also futile, because no child ever seems to be satisfied with a parent's best efforts to settle arguments. Each of your daughters blames the other and expects you to "rule" in her favor. Unwittingly, you're forced to play the role of judge and jury between two litigants, each of whom is convinced that she is right and her sister is wrong. This is a no-win position that will only feed into further escalation.

First of all, to quote Ann Landers, "Run, don't walk to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish." You can find some very clear guidelines about relating to arguments between siblings in far more detail than I can explain in this answer.

In short, the first thing to do is to acknowledge the feelings of each girl. "Wow! You two sound really angry with each other!" Then, hear each side and reflect back to each girl what you heard. "So you were watching your favorite TV show and your sister changed the channel. That must have really bothered you."

To the other sister: "You've been waiting all week to see this movie and you wanted to check to see when it was coming on. This really is a difficult situation."

In other words, what you're doing at this stage is acknowledging each child's legitimate feelings. By doing so you are maximizing the chance that both sisters will feel that she is being heard. There are no guarantees, but in my experience as a parent and therapist I have found no better way to help a child feel understood.

Following the acknowledgement stage, you can express your confidence that the girls can find a solution that will be fair to both of them, and if they want, they can let you know what their solution is. Generally speaking children feel empowered when they feel a parent believes in them. You can also help them at this stage by offering them some tips on how to problem solve together. For example, a parent might say something like this: "I have an idea that might be helpful. Are you interested in hearing it?" (Most children respond affirmatively to that question. The guideline here is that before giving advice, be sure the child wants to hear it. Unsolicited advice is often rejected. By asking first if the child wishes to hear a suggestion, it enables the child to be more invested in the process.) Assuming the answer is yes, then you might suggest the following: "Without interruption from the other, each of you can take a minute or two to share your idea with your sister, and then after that, both of you can discuss a compromise solution that works for both of you."

Sometimes when the quarrel continues incessantly, the parent needs to step in and decide what the solution will be this time. When everyone is calm and has time, a problem-solving meeting can be held during which the parent can describe the problem again to the children and ask them to come up with solutions that can be implemented the next time a similar incident arises.

The goal of parents is to model and teach skills to children so that the children will learn effective and respectful ways of dealing with their differences and conflicts on their own, without needing parental intervention. Another important principle at work here is: "Less is more." Parents need to strive to keep their interventions at a minimum and help to foster their children's problem solving abilities, communication skills, and sense of responsibility.

I want to thank Shoshana Hayman, Parent Educator, for her input into this answer.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber Responds:

Sibling rivalry has been around since the very first set of siblings. Cain and Abel began a tradition that worked its way through the Bible with Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers and onward. It seems like wherever there were siblings there was fighting, jealousy and even violence.

Although your children are only eight and 12 they are not too young to be taught some very important lessons about how to live with each other and with other human beings. These lessons will carry them in to adulthood when they will have to live and work together with spouses, friends, employers and business associates. Here are a few:

  1. Teach them how to talk and argue respectably. Explain that name calling and shouting only serves to worsen their position. Yelling, for the moment, may intimidate the other party but after a very short time they bring the argument to an even lower level, to a war where everyone is a loser. I had a teacher who used to say, ‘strengthen your argument; not your voice.’
  2. The Talmudic sages taught: “Who is a strong man? One who can control his own behavior.” Teach your children who the real winner is. Teach them to be the one in control and that the winner is the one who doesn't resort to name calling.
  3. Teach them that to react and to let anyone else push their buttons is to become a slave to their opponent. By reacting rather than acting they are putting their sibling in charge of their emotions.
  4. When we blame we give away our power. Teach your children how to take at least some responsibility.
  5. Set a good example. The way you talk to your spouse and family is ultimately the way they will talk to each other. Be careful!
  6. Call a family meeting and explain: If we cannot love (get along with, share, talk nicely etc.) with our brothers and sisters who we live with and are closest to, it is not likely that we are able to properly love anyone outside our home. A family meeting is a very strong parenting tool. Agree as a family and make a commitment that as a family we were going to get rid of strife (fighting, unkind words, complaining etc) and we were going to learn to get along.
  7. Do not ignore good behavior. To attention-starved kids, negative attention is simply attention. Notice your children playing nicely together and reward them with praise. Be sure each child receives adequate parental interest and quality time.