I have three sons and the fights they have with each other are part of our everyday life. All three can quickly become involved in pushing and teasing each other. Because it seems that mediation of verbal and physical conflicts between my children will be part of my life for the next decade, I decided to study this issue from different points of view.
All children fight no matter their age or gender. (I remember my own childhood fights with my younger sister). This is simply a fact and we have to accept it, and in fact conflict is a very important part of inter-human relationships. It's necessary for personal development, establishing relationships, setting boundaries and for an understanding of the inner world of emotions such as annoyance, anger and rage - just as important as an understanding of joy and happiness. As parents, however, we do need to do everything we can to make sure that fights between kids don’t become too violent with bullying of siblings or the suppression of one child by another. It's important for us to understand where the line lies between innocent pushing between siblings and the development of unhealthy relationships with one child forever the victim and the other always the abuser.
Why Do Siblings Fight
There are very many reasons why brothers and sisters fight with each other: To gain the attention of parents: “Why is Daddy playing football with my brother when I want to play cars with him?” To win at any cost: “I need to fight back. No one likes wimpy kids”. Feeling upset and not knowing how to deal with it: “He is calling me names so I will kick him”. Fighting for justice as they see it: “That’s so unfair - he always gets the first slice of cake”. Sometimes there are fights simply because the kids are bored and don’t know what else to do. And then, of course, there is the classic - where the younger sibling annoys the elder one who puts up with it for a loooong time and then ....! So, there are many reasons for fighting that’s for sure.
Often, when parents interfere, things only get worse as we tend to take sides. We label kids - “Come on, you are older”. “You are a big boy and she is small”. “You should be the smart one” .... and so on. Then, without fully appreciating a situation, we punish the kids “Go to your room and think about your behaviour”. “I'm not interested in your reasons. You're grounded for a week”. “No iPad until Christmas”. But what if we look at things from a different point of view and try to get our kids to hear each other, to develop their emotional intelligence skills and behaviour and to look for compromise and conflict resolution? Here are some thoughts on how to handle sibling fights:
1. Stay Neutral
The relative ages of your kids doesn’t matter - don’t take sides. Even when it is clear who is right and wrong don’t just side with the victim. All you will do is confirm the obvious and it's unlikely that you will resolve the problem.
2. Stay Calm
Stay calm outside, even if you are angry inside. Breathe out and speak calmly. This is usually much more effective than shouting.
3. Physically Remove Kids From Each Other
Physically remove kids from each other, but not necessarily to different rooms - just create distance and, again, stay neutral while doing it even if a much younger sibling is involved. Take his/her hand and say to them in front of their elder brother or sister “We are going to sit down on the couch now and calm down”. Then ask the elder sibling to calm down also and to sit in the chair. Once kids are treated equally there will be no victim or bully.
4. Remove The Object of the Fight
If kids are fighting over a toy or gadget just calmly take it away. Promise to return it once they have agreed on how they will share it or take turns.
5. Pay Calm Attention
Sometimes kids like having a fight in front of their parents. They may be hoping for tacit acceptance of such behaviour and they could be seeking to impress you with their strength and fighting ability. If the situation is contained and it's more play fighting than anything violent and potentially nasty then don’t interfere. Just stay nearby and express your full awareness that they seem able to resolve their differences without you. After a while you can safely leave the room knowing that the fighting will end quickly - they will see no point in performing without an audience.
6. It Is Just a Game
Sometimes fighting is necessary if just simply as a release of energy, especially for boys. So if you are sure they are having fun and are just practicing their skills and that no siblings or family china are in danger then just let them be.
7. Make Them Think
If the fight is getting out of control, pull them apart and tell them they are now responsible for each other and have to stay seated until the other one allows him/ her to continue. This will encourage them to seek an agreement rather than carry on fighting. Alternatively, you could send them both to another room and tell them they can come out once they have reached an agreement.
8. Activities and Sports
Kids are full of energy so the busier they are with other physical and mental activities the less time they have to fight with each other. Offer encouragement and also participate in alternative fitness fun activities “Let’s all do 15 press-ups and see if we can make it 20 by the end of the week”.
Then once the conflict has passed and you are sitting together, perhaps at dinner, talk about feelings. Tell them how sad it makes you feel when they are fighting with each other and how good it would be to find mutually acceptable ways of preventing conflict in the future. Express your readiness to listen to both sides, to stay neutral and to brainstorm possible solutions. You can even write a ‘conflict resolution plan’ together and put it up on the wall. Then the next time a situation threatens to develop you can raise an eyebrow and point to the plan that they helped create. And, once again, stay neutral and don’t compare kids. When we compare, label and take sides we encourage competition and conflict and create a ‘victim/ bully’ relationship that in the long-run simply won’t work.