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Sibling rivalry:

What to do when your kids are fighting?


What are the first things parents do when kids begin to fight?

Usually, they step in, break it up, and find out who started it.


I would like to explain why I think there is a more effective way to deal with sibling fights.

Children need to learn how to “do” conflict. If they get the message that “we don’t do conflict at home,” they will learn it at school. Wouldn’t it be better for them to figure it out at home where you get to make sure there are no broken bones, and you get to use it as a teaching experience?


I would like to break fighting down into two categories, verbal and physical.


Verbal fights: Let them figure it out. As a parent, you can say, “Sounds like you two have to work some things out. Well I’m in the kitchen cooking right now. Feel free to work it out in any other room in the house.” Or you can remove yourself. “Sounds like you have some things to work out. I’m going to go read in the other room.”


This sends the message that they are smart enough to figure it out. It also models taking care of yourself as a witness to the fight. You get to set boundaries around what you are willing to hear when you are not involved in the fight.


This strategy also helps when parents are fighting. The message still remains that conflict is OK and that parents just have to work some things out. Kids will learn to take care of themselves and remove themselves from the situation if they need to.


Physical fighting: Ok so what do you do when siblings are physically attacking one another and it looks like one may end up with a broken bone?


Obviously there is imminent danger here and you need to step in. You can say something like, “We are all going to take some space” and get the siblings into two different rooms of the house. You may have to physically remove them but see if you can refrain from sending the message that they did something wrong.


Now you can use this as a teaching moment for your kids.


Go work with both of them separately and start with the one who got picked on. Let me explain this. A fight is a dynamic. The kids both found themselves in the situation for a reason. The one who was picked on is feeling disempowered in some way and may not have the skills needed to stand up for him or herself. Telling the "aggressor" to stop is usually not effective, and the “victim” may attract a bully at school if his or her pattern is to shut down and cry.


So with curiosity, start with the kid that seemed less empowered in the fight. Name what you saw and ask questions: “I saw you shut down and cry when… What was going on for you in that moment?” And after your kid feels heard, "Can we try that again?”


Then go to the aggressor, while still staying in the place of curiosity. Ask about the experience as well as, “What could making repair or repairing the relationship look like?” 


Afterwards, they can come back and try again or create some type of gesture to come back into relationship, which can look as simple as, “Do you want a bite of my popsicle?”


The practice of making kids say they are sorry often doesn’t solve the conflict and doesn't necessarily teach kids how to be in real relationships when they get older. 


The next part is not about sibling rivalry, but I also think it's important:


Imagine that your child just told you that he or she hates you. What do you do as a parent? You can say, “Don’t speak to me that way! I am going to take away your iPad for 30 minutes.”


Now fast forward to when your kid is 30 and says, "I hate you," to someone. I doubt the partner, friend, or perhaps boss would say, “Ok that's it! I am taking away your iPad!” Instead, your son or daughter would have to learn how to admit that the fight sucked, figure out how to try that again or make repair, and come back into relationship.


So going back to the scenario where one of your kids tells you, “I hate you!” You can say, “Ouch. That hurts. I need some space right now.” If the kid comes back in 10 minutes, has completely forgotten about what was said, and wants to play, you can say, “I’m still a little hurt, and I’m not ready to come back into relationship yet.” This is an actual, real life, grown up relationship consequence.


Conflict between siblings, and in general, is not something to stop or avoid or fix. Instead it is an opportunity for your kids to learn how to "do" conflict and begin to navigate the complexity of relationships.

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