Coping with Sibling Conflict

My two kids, aged 4 and 7, fight constantly. Not only does the noise and tension bother me, but it bothers me to see how vicious they can be. I’ve tried time-out, separating them, and redirecting their energy, but nothing seems to work. The constant bickering is wearing me down. How can I break this cycle of never-ending sibling rivalry?

Understanding Sibling Fights

1. Every child is egocentric – that is, s/he inevitably sees things from only his or her own point of view. This is how a child’s brain works; it is not “selfishness.” Don’t blame or label the child for being like this.
2. Social skills have to be learned, like any other skills. Mistakes are made during the learning. In social skills, kids learn by getting hurt! We can’t entirely protect them from this. Better they learn at home than out in the world.
3. Kids get hurt and bear grudges just like adults do. Their hurt and anger is often valid.
4. Older kids don’t understand why younger kids aren’t as mature as them.
5. Kids develop their identities as “good” or “bad” within the family; a child often initiates a fight in order to get a parent to judge and select them as the “good” child. Often the younger or apparently weaker child is the instigator, but the parent only comes in after the instigation, when the older child is striking back. Therefore it’s important not to act as the judge, and not to protect the apparently weaker child, except for stopping any physical violence.

Helping Kids Learn To Resolve Conflicts

All the techniques you have used (time out, separating the children, and redirecting their energy) are good ones to stop a particular conflict. You do have a right to some peace and quiet! Barbara Coloroso’s “If you hit, you sit” is also useful. What all these techniques don’t do is teach the children how to resolve conflict themselves. When I was a child I just didn’t know what to do when my younger siblings “bugged” me to the point of explosion. Here are some suggestions to help kids learn how to work things out :

1. Establish boundaries around family members’ space, possessions, and time. Each child’s bedroom (or half bedroom) should be his or her own private space, where no one else can enter without permission, and where that child can go whenever he or she needs “time out” from conflict with anyone else. Each child’s possessions should be clearly his or her own, and not available to anyone else without the child granting permission. There should be clear guidelines about sharing common toys or activities (e.g. TV, video games, Lego) so that a child knows how when or how long he or she may use these before having to turn it over to another family member.
2. Teach your children to tell but don’t tattle. If it gets someone else into trouble, it’s tattling. If it gets them out of trouble, it’s telling.
3. Conflict resolution involves a very complicated set of skills. Children (and adults) need to learn about attacking the problem rather than the person, being assertive rather than building up grudges, making I-statements rather than name-calling, making requests instead of complaints, taking time out instead of venting anger, apologizing, and making compromises. Learn these skills yourself! The first step in teaching conflict resolution is demonstrating the skills yourself (modeling) as you work out conflicts with your spouse and with your children.
4. Now assist your children in using conflict resolution skills by helping them work things through. You may want to write out some simple guidelines like the following :
1. Take time out if you’re mad.
2. People’s space and possessions are their own.
3. Tell but don’t tattle.
4. Attack the problem, not the person.
5. Say what you feel.
6. Say what you want.

Then assist them to work through each conflict, applying these guidelines to the way they deal with the problem. If they are too mad, give them time to cool off first. You may have a child write out the agreements they have reached, if the situation is a recurring one. You may also coach them individually at other times when you see they are upset about the problem, giving suggestions for how to handle it, without judging them or their sibling.
5. The final step in conflict resolution is allowing the children to work things out on their own, only calling upon you if they really can’t do it. You may then express appreciation and admiration for the way they are able to do this.