Bickering is not yet a full-fledged fight, but it could become one. Or it could just go on all day long until it drives you crazy. Some amount of bickering is normal, since kids are still learning how to express their needs appropriately. But bickering is always a sign that something is less than optimal. You can think of it like a light on your car dashboard saying you need an oil change. The first time it flickers, you don’t have to take action. But if you ignore it repeatedly, the light will become constant, and at some point your car will break down.
How should you intervene?
- Calm yourself
- Describe the problem with empathy, without blame or judgment.
- Set limits on meanness by restating family rules about kindness.
- Coach each child to express their feelings and needs without attacking the other.
- Coach kids to problem-solve as necessary.
Here are some examples of how to put it all together, depending on the reason for the bickering. In each of these cases, notice that the parent could have jumped in and shut down the child who was needling the other. But that would just have led to hard feelings and more bickering in the future...and probably even in the next few minutes!
Instead, notice how in each case the parent responds to the bickering by realizing that the children have legitimate needs that they need the parents' help to express to their sibling. With a little coaching from parents, the kids are able to resolve their differences in ways that bring them closer, instead of making them more resentful of each other.
A temporary conflict of needs
Kids can often work this out themselves if the parent provides a little momentum.
Emma: “Move over! You don’t own the couch!”
Mason: “I was here first.”
Mom: “I hear two kids who both want one couch. This is a tough situation, because we aren’t getting another couch! What can you do to work this out?”
Mason: “I was here first. It’s still my turn.”
Emma: “I don’t like watching scary movies from the floor. The couch feels safer. Can we share it?”
Mason: “Only if you don’t touch me, and you don’t scream at the scary parts.”
Emma: “Okay. How about we put this pillow between us so I don’t accidentally touch you?”
Mason: “Okay. But don’t scream!”
A difference in temperament that grates on one or both
Your children need your help to learn to live with each other, which means articulating what each one needs and helping them figure out how both kids can get their needs met.
Leonardo: “Shut up! I can’t even think!”
Sofia: “I’m just singing.”
Leonardo: “You’re always singing!”
Mom: “I hear some loud voices. Sofia, I hear you singing with such joy. Leonardo, I hear you saying it’s too loud for you. We need a solution here. What can we do?”
Leonardo: “I just want some peace and quiet for once!”
Sofia: “I have a right to sing!”
Mom: “Sofia, you certainly do have a right to sing, and I love to hear you sing. And I hear Leonardo saying that right now he needs some quiet. What can we do so you both get what you need?”
Sofia: “Leonardo can go to his room.”
Leonardo: “I need to stay here to build my Legos! You could go to your room, too!”
Sofia: “I want to stay here where the music is!”
Mom: “Hmm…so one solution is that you could be in separate rooms. But it sounds like both of you want to stay in the family room with the music and Legos. Are there any other solutions?” Both kids look at her blankly.
Mom: “Well, for instance, Sofia could take the music with her into another part of the house….Or Leonardo could take the Legos somewhere else…Or maybe Leonardo could wear my headphones – they block out sound.”
Leonardo: “I want the headphones! I call a long turn!”
Mom: “You can use the headphones for as long as you need them to have quiet.”
State the problem, restate family rules, and redirect.
Noah: “Dad, Abigail is pestering me.”
Abigail: “I am not! I’m trying to tell you something!”
Dad: “Hmm…sounds to me like Abigail wants to connect with you, Noah.”
Noah: “Well, I don’t want to connect with her!”
Dad: “That’s okay—you don’t have to play with her if you don’t want to right now. But you do have to treat her with respect. Those words can hurt. Can you find a different way to tell her that you’re busy right now?”
Noah: “Abigail, I’m busy making my paper airplane. You can play with me later.”
Abigail: “But I don’t have anything to do! What can I do?”
Dad: “Abigail, I hear you’re wondering what to do with yourself. And Noah is saying that he’s not ready to play right now; he wants to play with you later. Why don’t you come outside and help me wash the car? You always have fun with the hose.”
Grumpiness or irritability
Intervene to help the child who is attacking with whatever feelings are making him so unhappy.
Luis: “Your picture is ugly.”
Maya: “You’re a meany, Luis!”
Mom: “I’m hearing some hurtful words. Luis, it sounds like you’re trying to hurt your sister’s feelings…And it sounds like it worked! Are you feeling angry with her, or are you just having a hard time in general?”
Luis: “I hate everything!”
Mom: “Wow! You ARE having a hard time. Come be with me on the couch, and tell me what’s so rotten.”
Jostling for power, respect or status
Teach values, meet their need for respect, find healthy ways for kids to compete, and be sure you’re role-modeling appropriate use of power.
Alexander: “I won! I got inside first!”
Matias: “It’s not fair! You’re always first.”
Alexander: “That’s because I’m fastest.”
Matias: “You are not! You’re meanest. You push me out of the way.”
Alexander: “I can’t help it if you aren’t as fast and tough as me. I’m a manly man.”
Matias: “I’m manly too!”
Dad: “Sounds to me like you two both want to be manly. Me too! But what does it mean to be manly?”
Alexander: “It means you win, and you’re tough, and you’re fast, and nobody pushes you around.”
Dad: “Hmm….Does that mean that a manly man pushes other people around?”
Dad: “Do you think a manly man cares how other people feel? Do you think a manly man takes turns being first?”
Matias: “Yeah! And he doesn’t push people. And he doesn’t do a happy dance when someone else loses.”
Dad: (teaching values)“I think it can be confusing sometimes—what does it mean to be manly? But I know that both of you boys care about other people. I know that neither of you would put someone else down to build yourself up. That’s the kind of man I try to be.”
Alexander and Matias together: “Me too!”
Dad: (not taking sides, even though Alexander usually does the shoving.)“It sounds to me like both of you like being the first one in the door. But then you end up shoving and someone always feels bad. Is there a way to solve this?”
Matias: “We could take turns.”
Alexander: “But I LIKE being first!”
Dad: “I hear you. I think most people like being first. But do you want to be the kind of person who always has to get what he wants, even if it makes other people feel bad…even if you have to push other people out of the way?”
Dad: (finding healthy ways for Alexander to compete) “I wonder if there are other things you can compete in, to be your personal best and be first. How about running track? Do you think you’d like to run your fastest and try to be first in a race?”
Matias: “But coming home isn’t a race."
Dad: “That’s right, coming home isn’t a race. So how can you two handle coming home so it feels fair to both of you?”
Alexander: “All right, we’ll take turns. But Dad, can we see how I can start to run track?”
Dad: “We sure can. Just as soon as you and Matias come up with an agreement about who comes in the door first tomorrow.”
Time consuming for the parent? Yes. But you're teaching skills and you're teaching values. Over time, this kind of coaching helps children identify and articulate their own needs, so they can problem-solve with each other without your intervention. They do less bickering and settle fights before they even get started. And you get to listen from the other room. Smiling.
This article was excerpted from "10 Reasons children bicker, and how to resolve them" in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, published by Perigee/Penguin.
“Whether you are just beginning to contemplate having a second child or you are already frustrated by nonstop sibling fighting, this book is for you. I marveled at the amount of wisdom, compassion, and practical ideas packed into its pages. The wisdom begins with her gentle reminder that we have to start with ourselves if we want to make meaningful changes in our children’s relationships with each other. The compassion is in Dr. Laura’s empathy for everyone in the mix—including angry and worried parents. And the ideas aren’t just practical and usable—many of them are downright fun. You’ll laugh out loud just reading them, and everyone will laugh when you try them out. Wouldn’t that be a nice change from bickering and clobbering?” --Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, author of Playful Parenting