Siblings pillow-fighting

How To Know When Siblings Are Play-fighting Or Actual Fighting? – by Kate Strohm

All siblings fight from time to time; it’s a normal part of developing the sibling relationship, and often the first time we learn negotiation, problem-solving and conflict management skills. When we look at fighting between young siblings, there are two types of fighting, and it helps to know the difference between the two, especially when one child has a disability. First, rough and tumble play (sometimes called ‘play fighting’) between siblings is an important part of child development. It helps children give and take, learn their strengths, release built-up tension, and can promote conversation around boundaries and limits (‘when is enough, enough?’), but most of all it can be fun. For children with disabilities, there may need to be more caution, but this type of play between siblings can be beneficial not only for each sibling but for the relationship between them.

Many years ago, a sibling told me that she had a wonderful relationship with her brother, despite his severe disability. She credited her parents for allowing them to play freely, and sometimes roughly, as one factor in their close relationship. (As an aside, the other factor was their recognition of her need to have a safe space for her things, leading them to make her bedroom a no-go zone for her brother.)

So, what is ‘rough and tumble’ play? 

Rough and tumble play can include things like wrestling on the floor, tickling, pillow fighting, and specific games that involve physical interaction.

Sometimes it can appear aggressive and, of course, all rough play between siblings can lead to risks so there need to be some boundaries, to ensure safety. In safe play fighting, children want to be actively participating and there should be no intention to hurt anyone. Children generally laugh rather than getting angry or crying. They show willingness to be involved and there is a back and forth between them rather than one child being the dominant one. There can be some give and take, with more able children giving way to those who are younger or less able to fight back.

Siblings playing-fighting on ground

Are there benefits to play-fighting? 

This kind of play exercises the body and helps to develop a child’s social skills. It helps in learning problem-solving and resolving conflict. For example, children can learn that when the play changes to something else where the other child is not comfortable, they need to change what they are doing or how they are behaving. They can learn to show care for others in this situation. Such play can lead to bonding between siblings and can help to release tension.

Helping children understand the difference.

Make sure your children know the difference between real and pretend fighting – you could show them a video of puppies or kittens wrestling as a good example. Emphasise that there should be no hitting or punching, nothing that might deliberately hurt the other child. Once boundaries have been established ask the children “can you manage this?” to ensure they have both an understanding and responsibility to safe play.

Find safe spaces where they can ‘rough and tumble’, away from sharp edges, TVs or furniture. Try to avoid telling a sibling to ‘give in’ all the time to a child with a disability … try to balance the messages. Let them know you have the final say on the limits and the rules and that you will intervene if it appears someone is no longer enjoying the interaction.

Managing if things get more serious.

If the nature of play changes and one of the children is no longer having fun, if one child appears to be dominating the other, or if things get too physical and become dangerous, parents need to step in. A good first step once the play has ceased and everyone is safe, is to ask the question “what happened here?” or “what changed for you?” It is important to get the context of what happened from both children where possible. Try to avoid ‘taking sides’ with a child with a disability. It is easy to feel more protective of a child with disability, but a sibling may feel resentful if they feel that you never support them or understand their perspective on what happened. Let them know you understand, e.g., ‘I am sorry she hits you, but that is sometimes her way of showing her anger. What could you do when that happens, instead of hitting her back?’ Or, ‘I know it is frustrating for you but you know that doing that (whatever the sib is doing to annoy the child with disability) will just increase the chances of a meltdown, what else could you do instead?’ This helps a sibling feel seen by you, and that they have some choices.

Parent intervenes in sibling conflict

Finally, if the fighting escalates, it might be helpful to discuss with a behaviour support therapist to gain strategies to support both children to manage the conflict in more constructive ways. Sibling support groups (available for children and Teens) can provide the sibling child with skills to navigate situations like this in the future and assist with resilience building. Encourage organisations that support your child with disability to consider running a SibWorks program.

Further reading

Rough-and-tumble Play: A Guide | Raising Children Network

How We Play – National Institute for Play (nifplay.org)

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