What to Do About Sibling Squabbles

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My kids aren’t fighters by nature. They both dislike the feeling of conflict. One has a tendency to avoid it while the other immediately shifts into problem-solving mode. He’s even known to do that in the classroom. If two friends are arguing, he helps them work through it.

That said, they are siblings and they do argue at times. More often that not, they argue over what to play or taking turns with their ideas. One likes to practice assertiveness skills on the other, while the other likes to practice conflict resolution skills. Either way, they do learn from their small sibling squabbles.

While the sound of raised voices can be unsettling and the urge to end the debate might be strong, siblings actually learn a lot about conflict resolution, empathy, listening, and compromise when they fight. The trick is … you have to teach them how to fight fair.

Kids don’t enter this world with sophisticated conflict resolution skills. They learn how to handle arguments and hurt feelings by watching their parents and other people around them.

(Yes, that pesky “modeling healthy behavior” thing comes up yet again when it comes to teaching kids how to work through conflict.) 

There are some who say that the best strategy is to let them fight it out until the argument comes to an end. I disagree. After years of teaching kids how to handle conflict in a peaceful manner, I can tell you that giving kids the tools they need to solve problems helps them learn to manage stress, anger, and other negative emotions as they grow.

Try these strategies to get started:

Zero tolerance for physical fighting.

Violence doesn’t solve problems; it causes more problems. While I know that many will argue that boys use their hands to settle disputes, I would love to bury that folklore. Kids use their hands and their physical strength when they don’t know what else to do. It shouldn’t come to that.

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All families have expectations, and a zero tolerance policy for physical fighting removes this aggressive conflict resolution style from the mix.

Teach the stoplight.

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a heated debate that you can’t seem to leave? This happens to kids a lot. Adults know that sometimes you have to walk away and collect your thoughts before solving the problem, but kids tend to keep yelling (louder!) until someone cries.

The stoplight is a great metaphor for dealing with heated emotions.

  • RED: Stop Take three deep breaths.
  • YELLOW: Think Consider the options.
  • GREEN: Choose Pick a peaceful strategy and go with it.

When kids learn to calm their frustration and think through the possibilities (we can keep fighting, we can take turns choosing what to play, we can ask for help), they practice making positive choices.

“I feel” statements.

Kids tend to be blamers when the going gets tough. I’m mad and it’s your fault because you did this, this, and this. This, of course, only intensifies the issue.

{ MORE: Positive Parenting Strategies for the Toddler Years }

Teach your kids to verbalize their feelings using “I statements” (I feel frustrated because I really want to play this game) that focus on the facts. Blame rarely resolves a conflict, but working through the triggers (I feel hurt when other people don’t like my ideas) together teaches kids to tap into empathy and think about how the other person feels.

Use the whiteboard.

You can give me all the gadgets in the world and I’ll still rely on my whiteboard to help kids learn new skills.

It might be tempting to jump in and fix the problem or hand out consequences to end a squabble, but the best thing we can do for our kids is empathize and model. When we model adaptive problem-solving skills, kids learn how to work through arguments.

Grab a whiteboard and divide it in half. Ask each child to take three deep breaths. Ask one child to state how he feels and what might be causing that feeling. Write “feeling” and “triggers” on the board and put the answers in the appropriate place. Take a moment to empathize with those feelings. Share a story about a time when you felt that way. Move on to the other child and follow the same steps. Empathize again.

{ MORE: Encouraging Kindness to Younger Siblings }

Once the kids are calm and have had a chance to speak, ask them to come up with two solutions each. Add those to a “strategies” category. When the kids have theirs, add two of your own. Talk through all of the strategies listed by identifying the pros and cons of each. Vote on one to try and one for a backup. Back away and let the kids know you are available if they need more help.

I know. this sounds time-intensive, but it works. Taking the time to model adaptive skills and work through a squabble with your kids helps your kids internalize new skills. Soon enough, you’ll hear them using those skills without your help.

What do you do about sibling squabbles?

What do you think?

What to Do About Sibling Squabbles

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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