“Mom, he hit me!”
“Dad, she knocked over my blocks!”
“She’s calling me names.” “He’s sitting too close to me.” “She’s wearing my favorite shirt.”
The list of how siblings fight could go on. It’s one of the most grating sounds to a parent’s ear. And it’s ubiquitous. All siblings fight to some degree during their childhood.
Siblings fight for a host of reasons. The two that stand out the most are vying for a parent’s attention and lacking the skills to compromise, negotiate and manage conflict.
While hearing our kids fight can cause our tempers to accelerate from zero to 60 in a heartbeat, lessons can come from these tense situations. Research suggests that sibling conflicts can result in an increased ability to understand others, manage difficult emotions, negotiate and problem solve.
So what is a parent to do both proactively and in the moment of a knock-down-drag-out fight? Here are some ideas:
Stay calm: Children learn how to deal with their strong emotions from watching how their parents deal with their own strong emotions. Refereeing your kids’ fight with anger only teaches them to respond to conflict in the same way. Your calm presence helps them feel safe and keeps the focus on them, not on your anger. Take a deep breath and ask your children to do the same.
Observe and narrate: “I hear some angry voices. What’s going on?” Give your children a chance to calm down. Separate them if necessary. It’s hard for our kids to talk if they are in the reactive parts of their brain. Give each child a chance to say what was happening for him or her, uninterrupted by the other child. If they aren’t able to talk about what happened, narrate again. “Julie was playing with the blocks and then Alex came over and knocked them down. Julie got up and hit Alex.” Do this without judgment or emotion.
Understand both sides: It takes two to tango. Rather than taking sides and getting angry at the child you believe is the instigator, try empathizing with both kids. “Ouch, that really hurt when your brother hit you!” And to the brother you can say, “You must have been really angry to hit. Tell me what happened.” To both, “what can you both do to make things better?” Teaching children how to manage their strong emotions takes time. Younger children often don’t have the words to express their big feelings and often don’t have the impulse control not to lash out. In the beginning your children need your help to learn how to see the other’s perspective and then move toward finding a solution.
Punishment doesn’t solve the problem: Punishing our kids tells them they are bad for having strong emotions, trying to set boundaries or having differences of opinion. Of course we want to teach how to do this well and without hurting their siblings, but studies show that kids who are punished often fight more with each other. In her book “Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings,” psychologist Laura Markham explains: “the way you discipline your child becomes her model for working out interpersonal problems.”
Let the kids work it out themselves: Stay calm. Consider whether this is a time you really need to intervene. If the fight seems explosive or gets physical, perhaps you do, but if not, and especially if you have coached them as mentioned above, stay out of it. Often our kids are fighting to get our attention, and if we don’t give it to them the fighting might fade. Move to the other room or do something more interesting.
Create family agreements: Decide what works based on your family values. For example, “we treat each other with kindness and respect in our family. That means we don’t hurt others with our words or with our bodies.” It’s OK for each child to create reasonable limits around their own space, possessions (toys, clothes, books) or activities.
Notice the positive: Rather than directing all your attention to when your kids are fighting, start acknowledging the times you see them cooperating and getting along. Do this using specific examples. Start appreciating everyone in your family. Your children will follow your lead and begin appreciating each other.
Spend quality time with each child separately. Every child needs some one-on-one undistracted time with a parent to connect. Similarly, give your kids a break from each other from time to time.
Model, model, model: The most obvious and perhaps most difficult is to look at yourself and how you manage conflict in front of your children. We sometimes argue in front of our children, but we rarely resolve our disagreements in front of them. This doesn’t allow our kids the chance to see conflict resolution in action. Also consider how you treat others when there are differences and how critical you are of your partner, your children or others. The way our children see us in relationship serves as a blueprint for how to be in relationships themselves.
Children’s books about sibling rivalry don’t necessarily help: Books that portray sibling fighting emphasize the challenges and bad behavior. In their book “Nurture Shock,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss a study that showed that “sibling relationship quality had plummeted” after six weeks of children reading books and cartoons about managing sibling conflicts.
Ideally we want our kids to have the skills to move through their challenges on their own so that, as Vicki Hoefle describes, they can say “I’m mad because (let them state their reason). I’m going to take a breath and then get my blocks and build a tower in the other room.” In doing this the child learns to understand how they feel, why they feel that way, how to stay calm and take steps to solve the problem.
Sibling relationships also depend on temperaments, family dynamics and life experiences. As Markham says, not all siblings will be best friends, but they can learn how to treat each other with respect. Their relationship is the first in exposing them to social dynamics and getting along with others. Working to help them create these positive relationships can go a long way and for some, ultimately allow them to grow into great playmates and confidants.