Behavior & Discipline

How to Manage Sibling Arguments at Home—And a Bonus Tip to Use With Your Partner


In these long weeks of isolation to slow the global pandemic, does anyone else feel like it’s the fighting between your kids that might take you down first?  

We’ve certainly had our days over here at my house with my three boys, ages 6 and under.  We’ve also had some wonderful days full of play and brotherhood at its finest. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to know what to expect each day, not knowing if my boys will disappear into their imaginative worlds of magical play together or if they’ll be butting heads (literally) at every turn.

The reality is, there’s just going to be both when it comes to kids. I’m taking a moment to sit down and write out the techniques that I have used both in my practice as a therapist working with clients and as a day-to-day mom. Read on for my best tips. 


Reframe sibling fights as teaching opportunities instead of interruptions

Fights between my kids feel like an interruption to me—I’m guessing many of you can relate. 

Interruption rarely feels welcome, but it is especially difficult right now, with so many parents trying to meet work requirements from home, not to mention figure out new ways of getting the groceries you need, helping an older child with schoolwork, etc. We are pulled in every direction right now which is sort of ironic since we can’t actually go anywhere. All that to say, interruptions are difficult right now, but the hard truth is that resisting them won’t make them go away.  

When our kids are fighting, they’re usually not trying to interrupt us, they’re showing us that they are unskilled in conflict resolution. They need to be taught how to work through moments of conflict with a sibling, and they will only learn that when we take the time to teach them. Just like any other skill, it takes repetitive practice for them to internalize and learn these skills. For me, a huge part of dealing with sibling fights is coming to my own personal acceptance of the fact that this is a teaching opportunity, and then commit to repeatedly engage in the teaching process.

Here’s something to try:  If you commit to spending five minutes each time a fight breaks out to teach, coach, and guide your kids through the way to handle it, see how much further you are in a week than if you just shout at the interruptions.  



Take the role of mediator, not rescuer

While our kids need us to teach them how to handle conflict, we don’t want to create dependency by actually solving the conflicts for them. Honestly, sometimes it feels a lot faster to just swoop in and tell everyone what’s going to happen and get back to business. But the problem is that then the cycle just repeats, with “Mom!  Mom!  MOM!” on replay.

In the five minutes that you’re going to commit to each fight, try to think of yourself as a mediator. For children ages 4 and up, ask each child, “In your view, what is the problem?”  Let them each answer and say their piece. Then, get curious: “Hmmm, I hear you. That does sound like a problem. I wonder what you think would help solve this?”  Let each child have a chance to answer, and try to continue with facilitative comments like, “That’s an idea. It sounds like that would work,” or “I hear you, but that sounds like it wouldn’t be kind to your brother.” 

Of course, sometimes one or both children are unwilling to solve towards fair resolution, in which case I usually say, “Well, it sounds like you need to play by yourself right now until you’re ready to find a way to play together.” This is OK! Sometimes a five-minute break is enough to help them realize that playing with someone else is a privilege, not a right.


Use the language of “turns” instead of “sharing”

I have found that “You need to share! Please share!” is not very helpful with young children. Imagine it for a moment: the proclamation “share!” makes kids feel like anything can be ripped out of their hands at any time, either by another child or an adult and that feeling makes it hard for them to be able to sink into deep play. 

Instead, when one of your children begins to fight for something another child has, try, “You may have a turn when he’s done,” or “Look, he’s finished with it, it’s your turn now!”  When one of my children is being interrupted and grabbed at by another, I try to coach them to say, “I’m using this right now, but you may have a turn when I’m done.”


Preserve the goodness of each child

I learned the phrase “preserve the goodness of each child” from The Parenting Junkie, (a resource I highly recommend). The idea here is to be sure that in all the many fights you may have to deal with on the daily, be sure to preserve each child’s goodness and not get into labeling, like, “Why do you always have to be the one to start trouble?”

It’s very common to have one child who is more compliant and another who is more strong-willed, all in the same family. It can be very easy to view a child who doesn’t give in as easily as his brother, or who is more aggressive or insistent, as the one causing all the problems and to try to shame a child into the behavior you want. 

Shame does not correct behavior effectively, and you’re much better off to continue to work with each child on appropriate behaviors without labeling the child as bad or difficult. Try to catch your child in positive behaviors and talk about the times you’ve seen them make good choices, however small.



And when those arguments are between you and your partner

Lastly, as bonus material, let’s talk about when the conflict isn’t between the kids, but between you and your partner about the kids. In this time where many of us are sheltered-in-place with our families, there can be the added stress of parenting differently, all in the same space under the same roof … all of the time. There is a helpful communication tool that clinical psychology students are taught in one of our very first classes, and you can try it easily at home with your partner to resolve parenting differences—all you need is a pencil.


The Speaker-Listener Technique


On one of your free nights this week (any of the seven of them will do, ha!), schedule a time to sit down and discuss a parenting issue about which you are currently at odds.  When the date and time of your meeting arrives, sit down together with a pencil. The rule is that only the person holding the pencil can speak. When the pencil-holder is finished speaking, he/she hands the pencil to the other person.

The catch is, once you receive the pencil, you have to start by saying, “What I hear you saying is … (xyz). Is that right?”  If needed, you hand the pencil back to the other person to clarify what they were saying until you can reflect it back and they are able to nod, “Yes, that is what I am saying.” 

Once you’re there, you can keep the pencil and move on to, “The way I see it is …” Continue in this manner to take turns discussing what you want and what you think your child needs. It may seem tedious or silly at first, but it’s an incredibly effective communication technique for actually making headway in understanding differing points of view and coming to an agreement.


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