Fights may seem a constant in most families. Siblings know they can call a parent into their battle if they scream loud enough for help.

But whenever you enter their battle, you’re upping the odds that they’ll keep fighting. When you intervene, you’re intensifying the rivalry between the children.

Here are a few guidelines:

A baby younger than 18 months needs your protection. Each time the older sibling endangers him, sit down with the older one and say, “I just can’t let you hurt him. You can resent him. You can tease him. You can get away from him. But you can’t hurt him. You and I would feel too awful if you did. I’ll stop you each time until you can stop yourself.”

When you give the older child permission to have such feelings, and show that you accept them, she will be less angry with everyone — you, her sibling, herself — and she will be less likely to hurt the younger sibling.

When all the children are old enough to protect themselves from being physically harmed by the others, you can make clear, “It’s your battle, not mine. You need to learn to settle your own battles without me.”

When you show them that you respect them by saying, “You can work this out yourselves,” they’ll be motivated to rise to the occasion.

If you must intervene because one child is out of control, be sure to comfort each of them — one for the frightening feeling of losing control, the other for needing more help in learning how to stand up for himself.

When an adult steps in, the implicit message is, “I can’t rely on you to stop yourself.” One child slugs another. The victim screams but doesn’t defend himself. The parent steps in, but in doing so may well be reinforcing a victim’s role for the second child. Parents will want to consider these risks as they assess whether it’s necessary to step in.

When you must intervene, it’s important to keep from giving the older or stronger child more to be angry about, more fuel for her fights.

Talk with that child about herself, not the other child: “When you get out of control like this, I’ll have to help you.” And to the victim: “You’re going to need to learn to protect yourself. You may have to learn how to get away from her for now. But you’ll soon be strong enough to take care of yourself, too.”

Both children need comforting. But the goal is to let one know that she can control herself and the other to learn ways to protect himself when others are out of control.


1. Look at your own responses to your children’s fights. Might you be reinforcing their anger with each other without knowing it, perhaps by comparing or criticizing?

2. Consider each child’s current situation. Are there reasons why a child might be filled with anger that overflows onto a brother or sister? Maybe he’s failing at school and feeling insecure, or he worries about parents’ fighting. These are things you may be able to address with each child.

3. In your attempt to adjust and balance, don’t get caught in a trap — as you try to support or protect one sibling, the others just grow angrier and intensify their attacks.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

[email protected]