As a Houston marriage counselor, I’ve talked a lot about what couples can do to fight fair and resolve arguments. One thing I haven’t addressed in as much detail, though, is what you can do when your children are the ones fighting.

Sibling rivalry certainly isn’t a rare phenomenon; if you grew up with siblings, you can probably remember plenty of instances when you felt like you were at war with your brothers or sisters. However, while some sibling rivalry is natural, letting your children’s fights escalate can lead to ongoing problems and put undue stress on you and your partner. Here are a few things you can try to prevent or defuse fights between your kids.

Tips for Coping with Sibling Rivalry

Don’t draw comparisons between children. One of the biggest causes of sibling rivalry is children feeling like they’re in competition for their parents’ affection. A younger sibling might feel like they have to live up to their older sibling, while an older sibling might feel like their younger sibling gets away with more. You should have separate expectations for each child and encourage them to set their own goals based on their strengths and interests.

Discourage negative actions, not emotions. Everyone gets angry sometimes—adults and children alike. If your son or daughter takes their anger out on their sibling, though, you should calmly explain to them that negative actions (such as hitting their sibling) are never appropriate. Help them discover healthy ways to calm down, like running around the backyard or petting the family dog.

Work out a ‘taking turns’ system. To ensure that one sibling doesn’t start thinking another is getting preferential treatment, trade off on chores (as long as they are age appropriate) and special privileges. For example, you might rotate who does the dishes on a weekly basis, or who gets to ride shotgun on the way to school (if this is something that your kids argue over).

Make positive and negative consequences clear. In order to ensure that you and your partner are being consistent in your treatment of sibling rivalry—and to make sure your kids know about the potential consequences they face—write down what actions (such as shouting or hitting) will lead to what negative actions (e.g. a time out, loss of TV time). Be sure that you also offer positive rewards (like a coveted snack) when the kids are getting along well.

While dealing with sibling rivalry can be stressful, finding a good way to work through it will help alleviate a lot of that stress for you and your partner—and it will help your kids develop interpersonal skills that will serve them well as adults. If sibling rivalry is causing stress in your marriage and you don’t know how to fix the problem, contact my Houston relationship counselor offices.