Families often report that one of the biggest challenges they have is parenting children who seem to constantly fight with one another. The offending topic can run the gamut, but typically fall into a couple of categories regardless of the children’s developmental stage: 1) access to material things or privileges (a big one that often leads to complaints about fairness), and 2) invasions of personal space and/or privacy.
Children implore their parents to referee the arguments, and sometimes parents feel the need to intervene simply because they are at their wit’s end. While this strategy can work in the moment, it doesn’t take parents long to realize that playing referee is not a practical arrangement for their children or themselves. We’ll be publishing two blog posts with tips in the coming weeks. So, if this sounds like your family, keep reading for the first set of recommended strategies.
Know when to Step in
From time to time, I’ve had conversations with parents about the possibility of letting the kids work it out on their own. Having your children work together to find solutions to problems is the larger goal, but you’ll have to lay the groundwork to make sure they have the right tools to do it. There can be power imbalances between siblings due to some combination of age, gender, size, and personality that leave one child vulnerable to being bullied or victimized by their brother or sister. This is one instance where an adult always needs to step in. It is our duty as parents to protect each of our children from physical or emotional assault, even if that means protecting one of our children from another. Assuming a parent has made expectations unambiguous (see below), any bullying should be dealt with one-on-one with the child (i.e., finding out why he/she is so angry with the sibling and providing feedback/consequences as needed)
This tip can be applied two ways. The first way to explain yourself is to make your expectations clear. Make sure your children understand that you will not tolerate meanness, and that family members are expected to treat one another with respect. Parents will probably need to give kids comprehensible examples of the types of behavior they have in mind, such as not yelling or calling names, asking before taking, not hitting/pinching/kicking. You will also need to be certain that you are setting a good example of these behaviors!
The second way to “explain yourself” applies is when you need to referee the argument. There is often no way to know who started the argument, or who wronged the other first, and the fight is likely to intensify if you take a side. When you invariably end the argument in a just and fair way, it is helpful to narrate this thought process to your children. For example, if your children both tell you that the other child pinched him or her first, you might tell them, “I didn’t see who started this fight, but it sounds like both of you were hurtful to your sibling. I understand you are both upset, and the only fair way I can help sort this out is to give you both a time-out.” Keep reading below for more examples of explaining yourself when addressing arguments between your children.
Hold Both Parties Responsible
As mentioned above, taking sides in an sibling argument often creates more difficulties than it solves. Generally speaking, the equitable way to end arguments is to remove the object or privilege from both kids. You might say something along the lines of, “Since you can’t think of a way to share the toy, the only fair solution is that neither of you can use it right now,” or, “Both of you seem really angry at each other, so now you need to take a time-out to cool down.” This holds both parties responsible for their behavior and over time will help your sweet squabblers realize that it would be mutually beneficial for them to solve the problem without parental input.
Further, once you’ve been working with your children to teach them compromise and negotiation skills, which we will talk about more in our next post, you can hold them accountable for generating fair solutions to conflicts. When they ask you to intervene, you can turn the question back to them, “What do you think would be a fair answer to this problem?” Many times, your children are capable of developing creative and just compromises, and will be more likely to follow their own rules, since they created them!
These are just the first of several strategies to help you feel better able to manage sibling arguments. I hope they’ve provided some clarity and reassurance for you as you navigate these tricky waters. In our next post, we’ll cover even more ideas for reducing fights at home. Stay tuned!