Regardless of age, the sound of constant bickering, fighting and arguing is draining.
When I talk to parents, the one piece of advice they seem to receive often is to make sure they spend enough one-on-one time with each of their kids. This advice is fine. However, it’s not going to solve the problem of siblings fighting. It could help, but it could also prevent you from discovering the underlying issues behind the fighting.
Below are a few tips for handling fights between children of various ages.
Consider how you respond during a sibling battle. You want to be cognizant of being fair and consistent with your kids. We all know how different our children can be. As a parent, it’s always easier to manage the behavior of a child with a calm and mild temperament. Parenting a strong-willed child presents us with a much greater challenge.
What results is we often ask our passive child to make accommodations so that the stronger-willed child will stop challenging us. This is a quick fix, and it’s like putting a small Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Eventually it won’t work. It sends the message that whoever behaves in a louder way gets their needs met. It also fosters an environment of resentment, both for the child who is passive and the strong-willed child.
The passive child begins to think his needs are secondary to the needs of the stronger-willed sibling. The stronger-willed child feels the only way he’s heard is by yelling, shouting or screaming and perceives the passive child as more liked or favored.
For example, let’s say you have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. Your ability to communicate with the 4-year-old is easier since he is older and likely has more language. The 2-year-old is in the throes of the terrible 2’s, and tantrums are a daily occurrence.
A Common Example:
The 2-year-old walks over and takes a toy from the 4-year-old.
You tell the 2-year-old to give it back.
The tantrum begins.
Because the tantrum becomes intense, you kindly ask the 4-year-old to let her have the toy on the basis that the 2-year-old is younger and she doesn’t understand. You say, “As soon as she’s done she’ll give it back.”
The 4-year-old begrudgingly lets her have the toy, and you give him a ton of praise for being such a “great big brother.”
When we reflect on this event, we can see how confusing and problematic it is. The 4-year-old doesn’t know why he always need to make the accommodation, but he recognizes that he’s praised for doing so. The 2-year-old walks away knowing, “the more I yell and fight back, the more likely I am to get the thing I want.” In both cases we’re shaping a behavior that’s not desirable.
In this case, allow your 2-year-old to experience the tantrum. Over time if you remain consistent, the tantrums will subside. By creating boundaries and staying consistent you will reduce the fighting, and your kids will learn that fairness matters.
There are times when accommodations will need to be made. Let’s say you have a teething baby who’s requiring a fair amount of your attention. You can say to the older child, “Baby sister isn’t feeling well, and you went through the same thing when you were her age. I held you and comforted you just like I’m doing with her. She really needs us to help her today.” Notice I said, us and not me. Let the older child know that his actions will contribute to helping baby sister feel better. Thank him and let him know that you will spend some special time with him later in the day. In this instance, the one-on-one time is important.
Older Kids and Teen
With older children we have an opportunity to teach them how to disagree respectfully while actively listening. In our house we set up ground rules that have to be followed during an argument or disagreement.
No insults or name calling.
Don’t make it personal.
State how you’re feeling rather than tell the other person what they need to do.
It’s very tempting when older children fight to just say, “That’s enough, everyone stop!” You assign a space for each child to go to and everyone moves on. It’s OK to break it up, but you want to address the problem and come up with an agreed upon solution. Try not to do the talking. You should only guide the conversation and make sure the kids practice the rules.
Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to join the battle. I see parents do this all the time. The next thing you know everyone is shouting and no one is listening. Even worse, your children walk away from the event feeling unheard. We the parent pacify the event and say something like, “Ugh, teenagers. I’m sure I was this way too.” We move on without any efforts to remedy the problem or to contemplate what prompted the battle in the first place.
When I work with parents, each situation and sibling dynamic is unique, so we have to come up with a customized plan to implement. If done consistently, the takeaways are well worth it. Your children will learn how to communicate and disagree respectfully. They will also understand the importance of listening and considering how their actions impact another. It takes time, but stay the course.
Take Time to Reflect
Sibling battles evolve and change as kids grow. As hard as it is, take this opportunity to reflect and ask yourself some hard questions:
How do you navigate conflict? We are so uncomfortable with conflict that we lack the skills to walk our kids through it. If this is the case, recognize it and work on it. Tell your kids, this is something I am actively trying to get better at. They will appreciate your honesty, and you can explore this together. But avoid doing nothing under the guise “this too shall pass.”
How do you respond and cope with stress? Do you lash out? Are you more reactive? Arguments are often the result of feeling overwhelmed. Consider how this could be impacting your kids when they feel stressed. To avoid fighting try coming up with coping strategies.
You want to think about the bigger picture and what it teaches you, not just your kids. I have always said that parenting is an internal journey, exploring the areas within that still require healing. If we can adopt this mindset we will be more whole and better able to show up for our kids.