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How to stop siblings fighting?

Dear Dr. Laura,
I can't take it anymore. My kids (girl age 8.5 and boy age 6.5) are constantly fighting and arguing. One minute they're best buds and the next they're screaming at each other. My dd is sometimes physically abusive (pinching, scratching and punching) and dh and I just don't know what to do anymore. We separate them when it gets out of hand and then they both beg us to let them play together.

We just don't know what the appropriate discipline should be. I remember when my brother and I fought my mom would make us sit on the couch and hold hands and "be friends". I hated that and my brother and I would hold hands and scratch and pinch each other anyway, lol!

Any advice and suggestions would be appreciated.
Tracy

Dear Tracy,
I know, when your kids fight it can drive you completely crazy. And of course when you separate them and they beg to play together again, it makes the whole situation more baffling.

You are not alone in this. Most parents rank kids’ fighting with each other as the parenting issue that most bothers them, and that they feel least able to prevent.

You may be wondering whether you should let your kids work out their own battles, as many experts advise. It's true that  intervening as the judge actually causes more fighting. It’s almost impossible to figure out who “started” a conflict, and which provocations led to which retaliations. If you take sides, you increase the resentments.

However, I have also seen many situations in which the kids did not work it out. Instead, one child was bullying another and was allowed to get away with it. I would not allow that kind of behavior, obviously, and would intervene as actively as necessary to prevent it. Every child has the right to be safe in his own home.

So my approach is to remember that all kids need help learning social skills for handling conflict, which is an important part of their EQ, or Emotional Intelligence Quotient. We can't expect them to know these skills if we don't teach them. 

The fact that your kids beg to play together when they're separated is your biggest asset in solving this challenge. Clearly they WANT to play together, they just get stuck in conflicts they don't know how to resolve.

First, let's talk about some principles and practices to lessen sibling rivalry and squabbling. Then, we'll talk about how to intervene in a fight.

Preventing Kids' Fighting:

1. Don't ever compare your kids to each other or to any other child.

2. Do give lots of individual attention. Kids who feel loved and accepted for who they are will be less likely to fight. I have seen sibling rivalry dramatically diminish in most households where parents commit to "special time" with each child.

3. Do intervene to keep kids occupied before they get bored and a fight erupts. Give attention BEFORE they fight.

4. Do make sure your kids each get enough personal space. Kids should not have to share everything, or even most things. If they share a room, see if there is a way to change that. If not, paint a line down the middle of the floor, and set the furniture up to define two separate spaces.

5. Keep tired and hungry kids away from each other and avoid situations that create fights. For instance, separate kids in the car as much as possible. If they do have to sit in adjacent seats, give them separate tape players or IPODs.  See if you can help them work together(“It can be hard to sit in a car for so long, and when you get grumpy, it would be easy to take it out on the other people in the car. But let's see if we can do this in a happier way. Can you two be a team?  You can work together to come up with ways to make everyone in the car feel happy!") 

6. Don't give your older child responsibility for the younger one. Don't make her "watch" him or play with him. If she tries to enforce family rules say "Thanks, Sweetheart. I'm glad you know the family rules and are so good at following them, but it's the parents' job to be in charge."

7. Teach your kids basic negotiation and problem-solving skills guided by the concept of win/win: Taking turns, Dividing a treat (one person does the dividing, the other picks the first piece), Trading, Sweetening the deal (“We play your game first and then my game for longer”).

8. Enforce standards of respect in your home: "We don't call people names or tolerate meanness in this house. We treat each other with respect." Set up an expectation that if anyone forgets themselves and calls a name or is disrespectful (this includes adults!), they need to “Repair” the damage they've done to that relationship. (Do a favor, help rebuild the tower you knocked down, make a card.) This doesn't mean your kids can't disagree. It means that there is always a way to stay respectful, even if we're angry.

9. Help them be a team. I'm not a fan of rewards in general, but I do look for every opportunity to reward teamwork between siblings. You might try to make your kids partners in avoiding fights with each other by setting up a Cooperation jar and putting a coin in it every time you observe the kids being nice to each other, including playing without fighting. Take one or more coins out whenever the kids fight. (If they express feelings in an appropriate, respectful way, they gain coins, especially since that is so hard for kids.) The kids get to decide (together) how to spend the money.

10. Set a good example. That means treating everyone, including your kids, respectfully. No fuming because someone cuts you off in traffic, no demeaning asides about your spouse, no yelling at the kids.

11. Never physically punish your kids. In fact, stay away from any kind of yelling, threatening or retaliatory punishment, which teaches kids that coercion is a way of getting what you want. Studies show that kids who are punished are more angry, more likely to fight with each other, and more likely to repeat misbehaviors. Instead, use positive discipline, which strengthens your relationship with your kids so they want to behave, and sets a good example of how to handle anger.

12. Empathize with your kids' feelings about each other, but set definite limits on their actions. Kids are entitled to their feelings, which have a way of showing up in human beings, like our arms and legs. But all humans, even little ones, should be held responsible for what they do with their arms and legs and feelings. "When your brother messes with your things you get really angry. You can tell him how it makes you feel in words. We don't hit." "You wish you could stay up a half an hour later, like your sister. When you're in third grade, you'll be able to also. In the meantime, you can tell me if you're jealous of your sister, but you can't mess up her room."

13. Teach both kids healthy self-management techniques, which can be a challenge. Most of us never learned to regulate our own emotions as kids, so these are skills we don't necessarily model so well.  Sometime when they're calm, make a game out of working with your kids on a list of healthy ways to handle anger. "Play the drums." "Write in your journal about how angry you are." “Dig a hole in the back yard and bury your angries.” “Breathe and count backwards from 10.” “Get a grownup.” "Put on headphones and dance to loud music." "Kick the soccerball." Be clear in that discussion that hitting, scratching, and pinching are never appropriate things to do to other people. Post the list on the fridge, and refer to it when you’re mad, in front of them, to model using it.

14. Labeling emotion is the first step in managing it. As you go through daily life, notice your kids’ emotions and comment non-judgmentally on them. “It’s so frustrating when you work hard on something and it collapses like that. No wonder you're angry.” “I wonder if you were jealous when your friend went off with that other child.” Don’t feel like you need to solve their problems or talk them out of their feelings, just acknowledge the feelings so they will too.

15. Teach your kids that anger is a reaction to hurt or fear.  Acknowledging the underlying feelings is always more effective to diffuse anger than simply labeling the anger, which just seems to reinforce it. “I hear you’re very angry at Jimmy. I wonder if you’re hurt that he told you your idea was stupid.”

This is even more important when kids say "I hate her!," because hate is not a feeling; it's a stance.  "You feel so angry at your sister right now that you feel like you hate her. Sometimes when we are very, very angry, we feel that way, even toward people we love. Let's go tell your sister how hurt you are that she punched you, and how angry that makes you feel, so you don't even want to play with her."

16. Cultivate empathy in your kids. Comment on other kids’ feelings: "Look at Michael. He's crying. I think his feelings are hurt.” “That little girl is sure mad. I wonder why?" "Neela hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?" Most important, offer your kids empathy for their own feelings, which is the foundation of their developing empathy for each other.

17. Brainstorm with your kids on how to diffuse anger in others to resolve conflicts peacefully: “Acknowledge their point of view.” “Express your needs without attacking them.” “Stay respectful.” “Stay in the current issue, don’t bring up past conflicts.” Post that list on the fridge also.

18. Talk with your "hitter" privately about what is making her so angry at her brother that she is hurting him. Is she afraid that he's loved more? Or does she just want her way, and the consequences for hitting her brother have so far not dissuaded her? An 8 year old is old enough to control her temper, but on the other hand, kids do often hit siblings at this age, even when they would never hit  someone else.  Give your daughter help in learning to handle her anger appropriately. Reflect her feelings and empathize with her, but also remind her that she is older, and just as older kids get extra privileges like staying up later, they also have the extra responsibility of never, ever hitting a younger kid. Point out that she can call you if she needs your assistance in resolving a problem with her brother, and tell her calmly but firmly that you expect her to control her emotions, use her words and NOT touch her brother in anger.

19. Model conflict resolution with your spouse and other adults, as well as your kids. Contrary to popular myth, “fighting” never works things out constructively. Instead, take a “cool-off” period and then come back determined to stay calm, acknowledge the other person’s view, express your own needs, and talk things out.

20. Work to create an atmosphere of appreciation in your house. Every night at dinner, have each person find at least one specific thing to "appreciate" about each other person: "I appreciate that Jillian helped me with my homework." "I appreciate that Mommy played my game with me." "I appreciate that Daddy made my favorite dinner." "I appreciate that Danny didn't bother us when my friends came over to play."

21. Remember they're kids. Just because she punches her brother doesn't mean she'll be an axe-murderer. It's important not to permit bad behavior toward others, but that doesn't mean you don't offer understanding -- and the confidence that your child will learn. "All kids get mad at their siblings sometimes. It will be easier, as you get older, to remember how to control yourself when you get mad, so you can work things out." She needs to to hear from you that she isn’t a bad person, just young.

Intervening in Fighting

1. Stay Calm. Research shows that one of the most important things parents can do to help kids learn to manage their emotions is to stay calm themselves. Kids need to experience their parents as a "holding environment" -- a safe harbor in the storm of their turbulent feelings. If you can stay calm and soothe your children, they will eventually learn to stay calm themselves, which is the first step in learning to manage their feelings.

2. Don't take sides or worry about who started the fight. Treat them the same when you intervene.

3. Model civility. Say "The rule in our house is that we treat each other with kindness and respect. I hear screaming and hurting. That is not respectful, and it isn't allowed. Can you two work this out now, or do you need time to cool off?"

4. Create ground-rules. If they beg to continue to play, warn them that if you have to intervene again, they will be separated for a “cool-off” period.

5. Teach negotiation skills. Your kids DO want to play together, they just don't know how to work out conflicts. (I know a lot of married couples who have the same problem.) Your job is to teach them. So if they aren't too upset, move right in and model conflict resolution: How To Intervene In a Sibling Fight

6. If either child is too upset to work things out at the moment, separate them. It's better, if you can, to listen to each child with the other one present. But if one child is too angry and is saying mean things about the other, it is best to separate them temporarily.

Some moms send them to their rooms, but many kids have a hard time with that kind of banishment.  If you do need one child behind a door that is shut, go with him to his room to "listen" to his upset.

If they beg to be together during this time, say: "We all need 15 minutes to calm down. When you get mad, your body gets ready to fight or run, and we need to let our bodies calm down so we’re ready to work things out. After this cool off period, once we have a peaceful house again, you two will be ready to work this out respectfully.”

7. If someone is actually hurt, attend to their wounds with empathy ("Ouch, that must hurt.") but don't pass judgment on who was wrong. Resist the impulse to angrily attack the aggressor, just ignore her. If you are in private, for instance putting on a band aid in the bathroom, it is fine to let the wounded child blow off steam and empathize: “She really hurt your feelings, and your body. You are pretty angry.”

8. If one or both kids is too mad to sit calmly during the cool-off period, suggest an alternative method – away from the sibling – of working out his or her anger: "I know you're mad, but we don't hit. Use your words. You can use this marker and paper and draw me a picture of how mad you are. You can go in the bathroom and shut the door and scream about how mad you are. You can throw pillows at the couch as hard as you want. But no hitting and no hurting.”

9. Once everyone is calm, call the kids together. Help them each express their feelings: "So you were really mad when Jaden wanted to play a different game."  Use this script as a guide to help them talk: How To Intervene In a Sibling Fight . Teach empathy by asking each child how he thinks his sibling felt during the fight. Help them state their feelings and needs, listen to each other, and find a win/win resolution.

Over time, your kids will be able to talk and work it out themselves. Ask them to come to you with a description of what happened ("We wanted to play different games") and a plan for what they will do differently next time ("We will flip a coin" or "We'll play each game for half an hour.")

Finally, I have three fantastic books to recommend to you:
Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish's Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too
Nancy Samalin's Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings
Laura Fox's I Am So Angry, I Could Scream : Helping Children Deal With Anger .

Good luck, and I wish you a peaceful home.
Dr. Laura

My girls used to fight ALL the time. They do share a room, and we have no choice about that. So we painted a line down the floor, LOL, and we put a two bookcases in the middle of the room back to back to make (sort of) two rooms out of their space. Things did get better after that. Now they are 17 and 16 and they mostly get along and even share clothes. It helps that they are in different schools now. But i also read the Siblings without Rivalry book and I realized that I could be a better parent so I think I changed after that too. -- Lisa

Dr. Laura,
Thank you very much for your response. I will read it over again (and again and again) and have my dh read it too. Thank you for the links too! We need all the help we can get!
Tracy

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Cecilia commented on 01-May-2010 02:23 PM
Dr. Laura, thanks for your tips and comments. It is very inspiring. I have those problems and very often i make the mistake of taking part, i try not to but it is a challenge. I ll do my best Thanks
Anonymous commented on 22-Jul-2010 06:34 PM
I have a little sister that is 12 years old, i am 13. She keeps on hurting me and calling me names. People say that i should do the same thing back but she still is not learning. I do addmit, i am a push over, and i am a push over, but i dont deserve this. What should i do to make her stop hurting me physically and emotionally?
Anonymous commented on 04-Mar-2012 10:07 AM
My 14 yo son and 9 yo daughter don't ever get along. It has gotten so volitile that if my son crosses in front of the tv that daughter is watching, she'll lash out by yelling, "Get out of the way!" He'll respond with his typical 'right fighting' approach.
Sometimes, it ends in daughter throwing something at her brother. She hits him and fortunately he only retaliates with words. By the time I intervine, they are both trying to tell me their side. I don't care what the fight is about! They both are so unreasonable,
I have no other option but to separate them. I've taken things away, I've been positive, I've tried all the tips in parenting magazines. My hope is that they just grow out of it. I'm a single mom that works full time and goes to school. Many times these fights
happen when I'm not home. I'm totally at a loss.

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