When Siblings Fight

angerOf all the beautiful words in the English language, my favorite word is mom. It fits so nicely on a card. When called out like a question (mom?) as soon as a child enters the house, I run for the milk and cookies.

The same word can also be used as a powerful tool when two siblings fight (moooommmmm!!!) and just like that, the three letter word that took nine months to create loses its charm. Like nails on a chalkboard or a knife sawing through a cheap steak and finally reaching your plate with too much force and speed, it becomes cringe worthy. What do you do when your children fight? When do you let kids be kids and when do you intervene?

Most, if not all, siblings fight. Disagreements even have the potential to teach problem solving and compromising skills needed in preparation for working life and marriage. It’s healthy to express feelings, and a child should feel free to do so without it creating feelings of shame. Kids should also be allowed to develop this skill uninterrupted when possible. This doesn’t mean that you as a parent can leave two fighting siblings in a room and let them go at it. Conflict resolution takes practice and skill. If taught how, children can learn a lesson that will serve them well for life, and make your home life much more peaceful.

When to Step In

So while the average bickering might best be seen as a way to practice getting along, it’s important for a parent to pay attention to how siblings fight. Are they able to focus on the problem (“I don’t like when you use my stuff without asking”)? If so, skip ahead to the last section. If, on the other hand, they feel the need to get personal (as in: “you’re the worst, ugliest sister ever, and I wish you lived somewhere else”) then you need to step in.

Needless to say, fights that end in physical altercations should never be tolerated. Today, mental health workers are paying closer attention to bullying, including bullying among siblings and step children. Abusive behavior (mental or physical) inside the home is no longer accepted as being part of growing up. In my opinion sibling abuse is even more harmful than abuse suffered outside the home.

How to Stop a Fight

So how does a parent best arbitrate a sibling fight? If it becomes physical, separate the two, ask them to retreat to their own private spaces and return to discuss the matter once their brains are up and running.

If your child comes to you for help, if you’ve had enough of them arguing, or if you don’t like the way they are fighting, intervene but give them a chance to solve the problem on their own first. One way to do this is to place an egg timer in their room. Set it for ten minutes, and tell your kids that when the time is up, you will help them. Make sure to add that they might not like your solution so it’s to their benefit to work things out. Leave the room and return promptly after ten minutes to see if they need more time or if they’re at a deadlock. Let both take turns to tell their side, and help them brainstorm and come up with a solution,

This works when you’re at home, but there are times when fighting has to be stopped at once and you don’t have time to go through the steps I just mentioned.. I personally couldn’t accept any kind of fighting while driving. If a fight broke out, I simply pulled over, turned off the engine, and started (fake) reading a magazine without saying a word. When the kids wondered what the heck was going on, I informed them that the car was unable to move forward as long as they were fighting.

If a fight broke out in a restaurant or in a store, I warned them once, and if they continued, we left. Once home, I asked them if they wanted to continue their discussion. At the time it seemed like a high price to pay but the action paved the way for better days ahead.

A lot of times squabbles seem to occur in waves. As kids develop and change, so does their relationship. During these growth periods, fights often become more frequent. If the age difference between the siblings is large, or if they’re at different developmental stages, you, as a parent, might have to step in more frequently. It’s important to make sure the younger sibling doesn’t get verbally bulldozed or that the older one doesn’t get blamed automatically because he’s older.

Still Fighting? Pull the Emergency Brake

If the bickering continues or if new fights erupt like wildfires for a day or two, you might have to do something that has more of a lasting effect. One method is to separate the two for a day. Explain that they need a vacation from each other in order to appreciate one another again.

When you tell them to stay in separate areas for the rest of the day, act as though you understand how difficult it must be for them to constantly have to be around each other. This is not a punishment for bad behavior. It’s a vacation–a chance to be alone for a day.

When you separate siblings they usually come up with very creative ways of communicating without being in each other’s immediate space. This is fine, but if you catch them playing together, separate the two and gently remind them about the vacation.I know it might sound insane to separate two kids when they get along but this is one of those times when you have to stick to the plan in order to get your point across. If you give in too soon, the fighting is likely to resume, and you’ll lose credibility as a trusted enforcer of rules and keeper of promises.

The Very Important Last Step

Once all is calm, give your children a chance to build on their relationship by practicing saying I’m sorry, hugging each other, and (depending on how big the argument was) having them do something nice for each other. This very important step helps alleviate feelings of guilt and gives children a sense of closure. Although a parent might have to suggest that a peace offering is made, it’s up to the kids (or the one considered at fault) to come up with the specifics. Something as simple as “sorry– I’ll help you clean up your room to make you feel better” is all that’s needed. This isn’t a good time for a twenty minute parental sermon. You’re not handing out punishments—the siblings are giving each other a gift.

The more conflict resolution tools you and your kids have, the less heated and less frequent arguments become. Slowly your kids will grow to appreciate each other. Don’t believe me? Just look at the huge assortment of touching greeting cards out there dedicated to brothers and sisters. Those cards are there for a reason. People buy them. So will your kids one day.