Sibling Conflict & Intense Gifted/2e Kids
Ideas to reduce conflict between intense gifted/2e kids and their siblings.
Sibling conflict can be one of the most stressful aspects of parenting an intense gifted/2e kid. It’s painful to see one of your children hurt, threaten, or criticize your other child. It’s also stressful to worry that you can’t give all your children the attention they need because your intense child requires so much energy.
In this article, I discuss some sources of sibling conflict for intense gifted/2e kids, then offer strategies to reduce conflict and its intensity.
Sources of sibling conflict for intense gifted/2e kids
Why do so many intense gifted/2e kids have a hard time getting along with their siblings?
Below I offer a few ideas - see if any of these resonate with your family situation.
Siblings compete for attention and regulation
Most kids like to have their parent’s attention, but intense gifted/2e kids seem to demand their parent’s attention more often and at a greater level of intensity/quality than most kids their age. Intense gifted/2e kids want parents to listen to their ideas, respond promptly, play imaginative games with them, show enthusiasm, and provide emotional presence and regulation.
This isn’t about greediness, though - these kids often rely on their parent’s presence and attention for their own emotional regulation.
It’s hard to meet an intense kid’s need for attention when you have one child, but the difficulty is obviously magnified when you have two or more children at home.
It’s impossible to give two or more children all your attention!
When kids compete for attention and regulation, they often end up fighting with one another, fighting with their parent, or having a meltdown because they are overwhelmed by the loss of connection they feel when their parent is engaged with their sibling.
🧡 🧡 Does your child get distressed when you give your attention to their sibling? (Or when you take a phone call, talk to your partner, or similar?) 🧡 🧡
Siblings interactions can trigger distress, even when there is nothing objectively “wrong”
As a parent, it can be confusing when an intense child or teen seems constantly upset with their sibling even though the sibling is not doing anything objectively “wrong.” In my experience, an intense child’s anger or “meanness” that seems to have no cause is often related to the intense child’s needs and sensitivities more than the sibling’s behavior per se.
Here are some examples:
If your child dislikes unexpected changes, they can feel distressed when their sibling laughs unexpectedly, asks to leave the house, tries to join your intense child’s play, or uses an object your intense child planned to use.
If your child is sensitive to feeling left out, they can feel threatened when a sibling plays with a parent, gets physical affection, or starts to talk during a family conversation.
If your intense gifted/2e teen likes to be left alone, they can find it stressful if a sibling tries to talk with them, knocks on their door, invites them to play, or tries to share something they’re excited about.
If your intense gifted/2e kid is sensitive to loud sounds, they may get stressed and overwhelmed by a sibling who speaks loudly or enjoys loud, rambunctious play. (Or the reverse can happen.)
In these examples, neither child is doing anything wrong - there is simply a mismatch between the intense child’s sensitivities or needs and their sibling’s preferences or needs.
🧡 🧡 Are you aware of some mismatches between your children’s needs, preferences, and sensitivities? 🧡 🧡
Siblings limit each other’s autonomy
Many intense gifted/2 kids crave autonomy and control. They like to do things their own way and they may feel threatened or stressed when told what to do.
In my parent coaching program, we talk about how parents can give their intense child(ren) more autonomy to ease power struggles and improve their child’s regulation and motivation.
But when two or more kids want things their own way, it may be impossible to provide a feeling of autonomy for both or all of them. If two kids want to choose their own favorite route to school, you can only honor one choice (unless you take two different vehicles!).
If your intense kid likes to do things a certain way, they may feel irritated when their sibling unintentionally disrupts their plans. You may hear things like “I was going to use that!” and “I need this space!” and “That’s not how we play this game!”
Some siblings deliberately try to control one another’s behavior, usually as a way to make the world more predictable and less distressing. But even without deliberate attempts to control one another, siblings naturally impinge upon each other’s autonomy because they impose constraints on the family unit as a whole and on each other individually.
“I know you want to stay and play with your friend longer, but we have to get to your sister’s karate class.” “We can’t go to the mall; the noise is too stressful for your brother.” “I hear that you want ice cream, but you know your sister’s allergic.”
In these examples, again, neither child is doing anything wrong or even being unreasonable - it’s just frustrating to have such limitations on autonomy.
🧡 🧡 Can you identify situations where sibling conflict may have been related to a perceived loss of autonomy? 🧡 🧡
Sibling interactions can drain a child’s capacity
In my parent coaching program and my workshops, I often talk about how important it is to consider our children’s capacity - what they can actually handle on a given day or in a given situation, without becoming overwhelmed.
Successful sibling interactions often require patience and collaboration, even when they’re going well.
For many intense gifted/2e kids, it requires a lot of energy to regulate their emotions and behavior during sibling interactions. Over the course of an interaction or a day, your intense gifted/2e kid may simply run out of energy to keep regulating themselves.
For example, let’s imagine that an intense gifted kid has a younger sibling who’s a toddler. The toddler loves to see what her older brother is doing - she tries to join him when he’s building with blocks, and at first he reminds her not to touch his buildings and holds her back gently. If she continues to approach his buildings, though, or accidentally knocks one over, he may run out of patience and emotional regulation capacity. When he’s past his max capacity, he may yell at her or push her back.
This brother doesn’t lack patience and understanding - the demands of the situation were just too much, over time.
🧡 🧡 Does your intense child get along with their sibling(s) sometimes, but other times seem to run out of patience or kindness? When they act with less control, is it possible they’ve exceeded their capacity? 🧡 🧡
Strategies to reduce sibling conflict for intense gifted/2e kids
It may not be possible to eliminate sibling conflict, but there are strategies you can try to make the conflict less frequent or less intense. Below I offer a few ideas, based on the concepts from last week's email.
Schedule time for 1:1 attention and regulation
Many gifted/2e kids crave high-quality parental attention or rely on their parents’ presence for emotional regulation. As I said last week, it’s impossible to give two kids all your attention! (In fact, it’s often impossible to give one kid all your attention!) 🙃
The strategy: Schedule time each week or each day when you can give your intense child(ren) your 1:1 high-quality attention.
If you can do 10 minutes, that’s great. If you can only manage 5 minutes, that’s still 5 minutes of emotional connection and regulation. Set a timer and let your child know that they’ll have you to themselves for that amount of time. To get the most benefit, let your child direct the activity during your time together. Avoid questions or instructions - instead, join them in play, an activity, or a conversation of their choice, depending on their age and preferences.
To make space for this in the schedule, you often have to get creative. Perhaps another parent, babysitter, or friend can watch the sibling(s). Perhaps the sibling(s) get screen time, and then you switch so it feels fair to everyone. Perhaps you have 1:1 time with the older child after their sibling(s) bedtime or with the younger child before everyone else wakes up.
Some families schedule a 1:1 outing once per week or once per month for each child. For many kids, more frequent and smaller amounts of time help the most with regulation because those experiences help “fill their cup” from day to day. You can experiment to see whether larger 1:1 experiences make a big difference (or are more fun for you!).
🧡 Is there a way to proactively give your child some devoted 1:1 attention during the day or during the week?
Create a compassionate story
The strategy: If some of the patterns in last week’s email resonated with you, try to create a compassionate story about sibling conflict that you can refer to when your kids are having a hard time.
For example, if you’re aware of some mismatches between your children’s needs, preferences, and sensitivities, try to name these differences so your children understand them. This helps them see that not all conflict comes from someone being "wrong" or "mean."
“It’s really important for you to feel connected to me and mama, so it can feel hard when we’re connecting with someone else like your brother or on the phone.”
“Your brother needs quiet time after school, so he can feel upset when you play loudly. It’s tricky because YOU really need to move your body and get your energy out after school.”
“You’re both so creative and independent - it’s really cool how you think of your own ways to do things. So it can be tricky when we can only choose one way - or when your ways are different and don’t work well together.”
🧡 What’s a clear, kind way to help your kids understand why certain sibling interactions are so distressing to them?
Validate distress, even when there is nothing objectively “wrong”
As I wrote about last week, many intense gifted/2e kids can feel distressed by their siblings’ behavior when there’s a mismatch between the intense child’s sensitivities or needs and their sibling’s preferences or needs.
The strategy: In these situations, validate your child’s distress instead of focusing on the fact that their sibling didn’t do anything “wrong.”
Validation is essential for intense gifted/2e kids. They often get the message that their intense feelings are overblown, illogical, or unacceptable. By validating their experience, you can help them feel seen and heard - and that’s regulating.
For example, if your child dislikes unexpected changes, they can feel distressed when their sibling uses an object they planned to use. Instead of trying to mediate or “fix” the situation, focus on validating both perspectives.
Instead of “But you haven’t been using that for 5 minutes; your brother can use it,” try something like, “You had something in mind for that toy. That’s really upsetting that your brother took it because he didn’t know.” If the sibling is upset, you can validate their experience too - “You didn’t know she wanted to use it. That was really surprising when she got upset.”
If your child says something hurtful about their sibling, you can validate their distress without agreeing with their hurtful comment. It’s common for an intense gifted/2e kid to say hurtful things when distressed. If their sibling startles them with a loud noise, they may cry, yell, and say they HATE their brother! You can validate by saying something like, “You HATE loud noises. That was so startling!” If they say, “No, I HATE my brother, not loud noises!” you can say something like, “You really hate your brother right now. That was so awful” or “I know, he really hurt your ears!” Try to validate without any explaining or lecturing - that kind of feedback usually isn’t helpful until a child is calmed down.
For more tips about how to validate intense feelings and when to offer feedback, check out this article about my 3-step VIEW framework for responding to gifted intensity.
🧡 How can you validate your child’s distress so they feel connected to you instead of in conflict with you?
Enhance autonomy by separating siblings during high-conflict times
Sometimes the best way to reduce sibling conflict is to eliminate the triggering situation in the first place. Many parents can predict specific times of day or specific situations that often lead to sibling conflict. For some, it’s during breakfast - one kid is irritable in the morning and criticizes the other. For others, it’s during the nighttime routine - the kids bicker constantly when they’re brushing teeth.
The strategy: If you know that your kids fight during a certain situation, try to separate them during that situation.
If your kids always fight during breakfast, consider serving them breakfast at different times or in different locations.
If your kids fight at the sink during the bedtime routine, have them use the bathroom at separate times.
If your kids fight in the car, consider offering them both screens so they can be distracted from one another during the ride.
If your kids fight at dinner, consider feeding them separately or independently for awhile. You could divide the kids into different dinner shifts, have them eat in different rooms, or allow them to eat while they play. Some families eliminate family dinner and focus on family connection at other times that are less stressful for their children.
Many parents are reluctant to use this strategy because they want their kids to learn to get along with people who are different and to practice compromise and flexibility. Don’t worry - your kids inevitably get plenty of practice compromising and being flexible with one another. If there’s a situation that regularly triggers conflict, it’s better to avoid that situation if possible. There is probably something about the situation that makes it extra hard for your kid to regulate during that time.
Depending on the severity of the conflict and the stress it causes the family, you may be willing to take more drastic measures to reduce it. For example, some families drive their kids to school separately for awhile because conflict in the car is too upsetting.
By avoiding regular conflict, you can reduce the overall stress in the sibling relationship and in the family as a whole. Many kids will start to get along better in other settings once their parents have reduced triggering situations because they’re able to save their capacity for other interactions.
🧡 What’s one situation that regularly leads to sibling conflict? Is there a way to separate your kids, offer distractions from one another, or otherwise avoid this tricky situation?
As a parent, you may feel extreme guilt and sadness when you're not able to meet the needs of all of your children because of sibling conflict or your children's conflicting needs.
I hope this article highlights the inherently difficult nature of your situation - when you're supporting multiple children, it's often impossible to meet all of their needs in the way you would like, particularly if any of the dynamics above resonate. I think it's critically important to validate and recognize how hard this situation can be, with no easy answers.
If you have frequent sibling conflicts or difficult sibling dynamics in your home, I’d love to hear if any of the above ideas resonate with you, or if you’ve identified other underlying causes of the sibling challenges. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to share.
If you know a friend who deals with sibling conflict with their intense gifted/2e kid, please consider sharing this article with them so they know they're not alone.
If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for supporting your intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kid.
In my parent coaching program, Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid, we focus on 4 main principles that you can apply to any tricky parenting situation with your intense gifted/2e kid - including sibling conflicts.
(1) We focus on understanding gifted/2e intensity, so you know what your child needs to thrive. Then, I help you (2) validate your child’s intensity (instead of fighting it), (3) expand strengths & interests (instead of over-focusing on challenges), and (4) consider capacity and provide supports as needed (so your child can manage situations with more ease).
Throughout the 8-week program, you get lots of help applying these principles to the situations you want the most help with - siblings, school problems, morning routines, or anything else that's hard for your family. If you’re interested, click on the button below to learn more and either register or get on the waitlist.