Dealing With Sibling Conflict

Siblings fight. It’s an almost unavoidable fact of life. At times, its actually impressive how much and just what they can fight over. Before I had children it had never crossed my mind that it was possible to fight over who “gets” to plunge a toilet, who is breathing too much air, who is in charge of the SpongeBob underwear and/or who has to have the excruciatingly painfully difficult task of shutting the car door after they get out. But alas, fight often and fight hard they do.

At times the bickering can simply be ignored and the parenting approach of “let them figure it out” can be employed. At other times, the times when the tears are flowing, the names are being called and the arms are being flailed, its time for some parental intervention – a task that is not always easy.

It can be hard for a rational adult to step into a battle over something trivial and find a way to navigate the fight respectfully. My own instinct is to point out how extremely illogical my offspring are being while providing a wordy lecture about how they can just walk away, let it go, how it doesn’t matter in the great scope of life.

While wonderfully profound, this tactic never works.

Other times, in my less peaceful parenting moments, I just want to yell at them to leave each other alone and inform them that they are being crazy.

Not a winning idea either.

What I and many other parents have instead found helpful is a more simple, direct approach of inserting yourself into the disagreement; empathetically listening to both sides, briefly and succinctly reflecting those feelings back to both parties, and then asking for a solution. No choosing sides, no placing blame, no lecturing; just hearing, acknowledging, and looking for a solution together.

“I see that you are mad at your sister for touching your toy and I see that you are hurt because she yelled at you about it.”

“Can you tell me why you touched her toy?”

“Why did that upset you?”

“What would you have liked to happen?”

“Is there a way you could have asked to touch the toy/not touch the toy more calmly? How can I help you two to make this better?”

By staying an impartial party in the fight you are keeping your power neutral and showing your children that they have the power to solve their situation. You are also helping them to see that their feelings are valid and understood, but that they don’t have to last forever. By modeling calmness and understanding while searching for a solution we are showing them that conflict is ok and a natural part of life, and also something that they can solve themselves.

This may seem like a big task for 2-5 year olds to accomplish, but you may be surprised when you put it into action. Children are often much more capable than we allow them to be and (with the right guidance and space to practice) can often help us to “parent” situations a bit less.

For our younger kiddos, a simplified, parent led version can be useful. You still insert yourself into the situation, lay down the boundary (I won’t let you hit/yell/take toys/etc), validate the feeling (I can see that you are very frustrated with the baby), ask for what they’d want (Is there something I can do to help you feel less frustrated?) and then work together toward a solution (since I won’t let you ____, what could we do instead when you’re feeling frustrated?)

Again, by taking a neutral stance and allowing for feelings –and not placing blame or shame—we are helping to navigate the tricky world of conflict, and teaching skills that they will carry throughout their lives.

Conflict is inevitable, but with some mindful planning we can all learn to navigate it more effectively…most of the time. It’s also important to be kind to yourself when things don’t go as smoothly. We all get overwhelmed and lose our cool at times. The key is to remember that there is great power in addressing a not so great situation later on, apologizing and stating what you wish you had done. Children learn from what we DO even more than from what we say, so take the opportunity to show that you too make mistakes while also showing them how to make up for them.

At the end of the day, even a day full of fighting, bickering and tears, take a moment to reflect on the good you see in your children’s relationship—the way your toddler brought the baby her favorite nuk; how your older child made sure to save a cookie for their little brother; how they squealed and laughed together in the bathtub—because these are the moments they will remember and the moments that make all the hard times much more tolerable.

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