Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Should You Intervene in a Sibling Fight?

"When your son and daughter are fighting with each other, you want them to learn to resolve their differences successfully, but you may have never learned to successfully work through conflicts yourself. Before you can teach your kids to listen, identify the problem, express their feelings, generate solutions, and find common ground, you have to learn those problem-solving skills yourself."- Laura Davis & Janis Keyser

Should you intervene in a sibling fight?  If they're working it out well themselves, No. And often, children do. They're endlessly creative. Conflict is actually good for them, because it teaches them how to work things out with other people. As Pamela Dugdale says, “Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way.” 

So remind yourself that a certain amount sibling squabbling is not only normal, but necessary.  If "peace" depends on kids being forced to swallow their needs to accommodate siblings on a regular basis, it isn't good for either of them. Your children need to develop their voices, learn how to express their needs, try out strategies to meet their goals.

But they also need to learn to listen to each other, empathize, and regulate their anger rather than dumping on others. And while our modeling helps with these skills, most kids need some targeted coaching to use them, at least when emotions are running hot.

So when you hear your children beginning to fight, don't rush in. Instead, listen. Watch. If your kids seem stuck, or the anger is escalating, they might need your support to learn some new skills. Don't try to figure out who started it, who provoked who, or who hit who back first.  Not only does that never work, it sets kids up to be victims and bullies. Instead, see yourself as a conflict resolution coach. For instance:

Charley:  "Jane, did you play with my Pokemon cards?  You did!  You messed them all up!"

Jane: "I didn't hurt your stupid cards."

Charley: "They are not stupid, you're stupid!"

Jane: "Get out of my room!"

Charley:  "You're not the boss of me!"

Jane:  "I'm the boss of my room! Get out!"

Charley: "You messed up my cards!  I'll mess up your room!"  (CRASH!)

Jane:  "I hate you, Charley! MOM!!"

What should Mom do? 

Mom:  (Thinking)  Hmm...should I get involved?  I'm busy cooking dinner, and sometimes, they work it out.  But in this case, it sounds explosive.  Maybe this is a good chance to teach them better skills to work things out together.

(Turns off the stove, takes a deep breath and reminds herself to 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 we can stay calm and create a sense of safety when tempers flare, our children will eventually learn to stay calm themselves. That's the first step in learning to manage their feelings.)

Mom: (Speaking as she enters Jane's bedroom) "I hear some loud, angry voices. What's going on?"

Charley:  "Jane messed up my Pokemon cards!" 

Jane: "Charley wrecked the animal zoo I built!"

Notice that Mom doesn't start yelling at each child for their "offenses." She doesn't even try to decide who is right, or to dispense "justice," because she knows that this argument is part of a larger tapestry, and she can't possibly see the whole picture. Besides, siding with one child inevitably increases sibling fighting. That will only backfire. Instead, she refuses to take sides, but acknowledges both children.

Mom: (empathizing with both kids)  "You two are really upset!

Jane: "I hate you, Charley!"

Charley: "I hate you more, Jane!"

Mom: (Taking a deep breath to stay calm, and setting a limit.) "The rule in our house is that we treat each other with kindness and respect. I hear screaming and hurtful language.  Let's all sit down.  Come on Charley, sit down right here next to me.  Jane, right here on my other side.  Now, let's everyone take three deep breaths so we can calm down and listen to each other......one....two.....three.  Ok, I want to hear what's upsetting each of you so much.  One at a time.  Last time, Charley went first.  This time, Jane goes first.  Jane, what happened?"

Jane:  "Charley knocked down my animal zoo.  I worked so hard on that with Sophie.  We were going to play with it again tomorrow."

Mom:  "Charley knocked down your zoo and you're really mad, huh?  I see all the blocks and animals all over.......Jane, anything else happen?" 

Jane: "I told him to get out of my room and he wouldn't.  Isn't that the rule?  That he has to get out?"

Mom:  "You want Charley to leave your room when you tell him to.  That is our family agreement, you're right......Charley, can you tell us what happened from your perspective?"

Charley:  "Jane messed up my pokemon cards! She''s not allowed to touch them. She went into my room to get them.  She broke the rule too!"

Mom:  "So you're mad that Jane went in your room and messed up your Pokemon cards.  And you came into her room to tell her?"

Jane: "But he came in and wouldn't get out, and he wrecked my zoo!"

Mom: "One at a time.  Jane, it's Charley's turn to talk now.  You'll get your turn in a moment.  Charley?"

Charley: "Ok, I knocked over the zoo, but that was because she called my cards stupid! "

Mom: "Let me see if I've got this right.  Charley, you were very angry that Jane went into your room and played with your cards.  Then she called them stupid and hurt your feelings.  Then she told you to get out of her room.  Is that right?"

Charley: "Yes!"  

Mom:  "And you were so mad, you knocked down her zoo?"

Charley:  "Yes!"

Mom:  "Ok, thank you for telling us.  I see you are working hard to stay calm so we can work this out.  Jane, let me see if I understand.  You were playing and Charley came in very angry and you told him to leave, right?"  

Jane:  "Yes."

Mom: "And he was so mad, he knocked over your zoo?"

Jane: "Yes, and now I'm more mad!  The whole elephant house is wrecked."

Why go through this? 

1. So each child will feel heard.

2. So each child will get a chance to reflect and to see how their actions got them into this situation.

3. So each child will hear each others' side of the story, to develop empathy and social intelligence about the motivations of others. 


Mom:  (Empathizing and describing.)  "So we have two very angry kids here.  You are both very upset.  Jane's animal zoo is wrecked and Charley's pokemon cards are messed up. And you two are shouting hurtful things at each other, so both of you are hurting in your hearts, and your relationship is hurting right now, too.

Mom:  (Helping kids to reflect on what the other child felt and how they contributed to the problem.) "Now I want each of you to imagine what the other one was feeling during the fight.  Jane, what do you think Charley was feeling when he came in your room?"

Jane:  "He was mad."

Mom:  "Yes....and when he talked to you, did that make him feel better?"

Jane: "Well....I guess not."

Charley: "You know you were trying to make me feel worse!"

Mom: "Charley, Jane is talking now, and you and I are listening and breathing so we can stay calm....Jane, what do you think happened inside Charley when he came into your room?"

Jane: "I called his cards stupid....and he got madder...and I told him to leave....and he got madder....."

Mom: "Hmmm....Do you think there was anything different you could have done?"

Jane: "All right, I know.  I could have apologized for playing with his cards.  I know.  But he plays with my things too."

Mom:  "Right now we're talking about what just happened. Is there anything you could have done to make things go differently?"

Jane: "Well, he's the one who knocked down my zoo!"

Mom: "Yes, he did.  But right now I'm wondering if you see anything you had the power to do that would have made things unfold differently."

Jane:  "I could have been nicer and apologized.  I didn't have to call his cards stupid."

Mom: "So you think that if you had apologized when he first came in, he might not have gotten so mad?.....Charley, if Jane had done that, would that have changed how you felt?"

Charley: "I would still have been mad that she messed up my cards.  But I wouldn't have knocked down her zoo."

Mom:  "So Charley, what do you think Jane was feeling during your fight?  And what could you have done differently?"

You can see where Mom is going here.  Next, she'll ask each child if there is anything they can do to repair things with the other child.  By the end of the conversation, it might even work out that Charley and Jane will work together to rebuild the zoo. 

Of course, you can't do this every night.  Mom is way behind on getting dinner on the table.  But the good news is, you don't have to.  If you do this for awhile, your children will begin to learn the skills you're teaching.  And you'll be amazed to see your children beginning to work things out without your intervention. 

You'll probably even find that everyone in your family is calmer, and a better listener, once you get this habit going.  Even you!


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