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Helping Siblings Be Playmates

2020-04-07 by Dr. Jenny
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Parents, I hope you are hanging in there. My state just announced that our kids will be learning from home for the rest of the school year — 10 more weeks! As a healthcare provider, I’m relieved that social distancing will continue, to help our hospitals be less overwhelmed. But as a mother and Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, I know the stress this may cause for families. We’re going to keep sending out our “Stuck Inside Guide” as long as you need it!

One of the biggest sources of frustration I’m hearing from parents is the constant bickering, yelling, or aggression among siblings when they’re in each other’s space for too long. It’s the last thing we parents need when our emotional tank is getting low!


I have two sons, 6 and 10 years old. When they disagree, it gets LOUD. Elbows fly and shoves happen. During pretend play, they often default to roles that are against each other. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Harry Potter versus Voldemort. I love it when I find them working on something together, but it can be rare! Kids have difficulty seeing things from other people’s perspectives, and naturally assume that the world revolves around them. Some children — like those with ADHD or autism — need help thinking about each other’s minds, or how to coordinate their behaviors with someone else’s.

5 Ways to Deal With Sibling Squabbles

Here are some ideas for trying to set up kids for thinking collaboratively.

  1. Prompt them to be partners
    As they run outside or start to wrestle in the hallway, give them a hint of how they could play as a team. Think of characters they love — I’ll say, “Hey, you be Harry and you be Ron! Pretend you’re heading into the Forbidden Forest or something!” Or suggest one sibling be the teacher, one the student. One child could be the shopper, the other the check-out person. Make sure they switch roles after a while.


  2. Find a collaborative board game
    Look for games that encourage collaboration to solve the problem. Building activities, strategy games, and word searches or hidden picture games are great to do together.


  3. Try doing a silly turn-taking drawing
    Have one child draw something (“one day, an alligator woke up…”), and the other embellish it with something silly (“…and he put on roller skates…”), and so on. Tell a story piece by piece, and see where it goes, and how ridiculous you can make it.


  4. Use turn-taking timers
    If kids are fighting over a toy, try having them set a timer for taking turns. Let them decide whether it will be 5 minutes, 10, or more. Put them in charge of handing the toy over to their sibling when done — and praise them when they do!


  5. Have a kids versus grown-ups game
    It could be a board game, soccer, catch, or a scavenger hunt. And maybe consider letting the kids win sometimes.


If your kids do wind up arguing, talk to them about how they want to be broken up when things get heated. Where will their corners in your home be, to get a rest from each other? Or do they want parents to stay out of it, and promise that they will do their best to solve the problem together?

If you feel like you need major help with sibling conflict, I love the classic book Siblings Without Rivalry. See if you can find it as an e-book to borrow from your library.

Stay well and take care of each other!

Learn more about the Power of Play >

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.


This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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