I’m a stay-at-home mom of two rambunctious boys, aged 5 and 3. lately, I feel like all they do is fight, fight, fight! (“I want the blue car” – “Me, me” – you get the picture!) How can I make it stop?
Thanks, A Frazzled Mom
Dear Frazzled Mom,
You may find comfort in the knowledge that fighting between siblings ranks very high in most people’s parental pet peeves. It’s loud, it’s intense, and sometimes it seems it will never go away. Before we tackle the question of to do about kids’ fighting, it’s important to step back and consider the large picture of what it is we’d like to accomplish when we intervene. You may be groaning and rolling your eyes. “I just want it stopped!” But let’s take a closer look at some vital lessons we can impart to our children along the way.
You have identified conflicts between young children: “You stole my stickers!” “Stop looking at me!” and the like. These conflicts will evolve into more complex conflicts throughout every age of childhood and the teenage years. In its various forms, conflict is inevitable. So the bad news is, your children probably won’t grow out of this anytime soon
But don’t despair. Before we resign ourselves to constant bickering, let’s take a look at the necessity of these conflicts and the opportunities they offer us as parents.
The possibility of conflict between two parties is present and unavoidable in every form of human interaction. People have needs, and these needs may conflict with those of another person. We know all about conflicts between siblings, but it isn’t difficult to identify conflict at every level: between neighbors (“He keeps blocking my driveway!”), in the workplace (“I put in all this work and she takes the credit!”), and even on global levels (“They stole our land!”).
Now let’s revisit the issue of fighting between siblings. When we widen our lens to take in the larger picture, the bickering takes on a new importance – a new potential. Fighting between siblings becomes a unique opportunity for children to learn conflict resolution skills in a supportive atmosphere. We offer them a virtual social laboratory, enabling them to learn these skills at their own pace, with plenty of opportunities to practice! Here, they learn to navigate the complex maze of human relationships. Here is a safe environment where they can utilize their unique endowment of strengths to build rewarding relationships while ensuring each party’s satisfaction. We can guide them in learning to get their needs met without impinging on someone else’s and how to be assertive and proactive without resorting to aggression or submission.
So next time the inevitable, “He kicked me!” is heard in your home, view it as a unique teaching opportunity. And have no fear: if you botched it the first time, rest assured you’ll have many additional opportunities at your disposal!
Firstly, whenever possible, ignore bickering. The guiding principle here, and among many other areas of parenting, is to foster responsibility among your children. Try to let the kids resolve these mini-conflicts; intervening should be done minimally and as a last resort so as not leave the children feeling as if they can’t handle it alone.
Sometimes you’ll hear the arguing beginning to escalate, and your intervention may be helpful. Not to judge or serve as a referee, but rather to help dispel the tension and allow the children to actually hear each others’ needs. Think of your role as that of a translator: your job is to translate each child’s screaming, name-calling, and even physical aggression, into a language the other child can hear and accept, while preserving the intensity and feeling and the needs communicated by the first child.
When you hear: “You’re such a disgusting slob! I can’t stand living with you! I spend hours cleaning up and you’ve wrecked it gain- now I have nowhere to hang out with my friends!”
You as translator can interject: “Whoa! You’re really mad. You’ve worked so hard and it’s frustrating to see all that work go to waste. And it’ll be embarrassing for to bring friends here…” This allows the children to deal with actual feelings and needs, without getting stuck in blaming and name-calling.
Finally, if fighting gets to a point where parental intervention is inescapable, try to use it as an opportunity to impart a bite-sized lesson of the values in your home (while physically restraining, if necessary.) “Stop! I see two children about to really hurt each other! You must be really mad! But in our house, we use our mouth to show each other we’re angry… Ben- you go to your room. Amy- to yours. When you’ve calmed down enough to talk it out, come out and work it through!”
Sibling conflicts can be an opportunity to teach our children some of our deepest values about respect, relationships, and communication. Seize the opportunity to share these lessons, and with time, you’ll begin to see your children mirror these values in their own relationships.
Margo Sasson is a family therapist specializing in work with children and their families, as well as an instructor of undergraduate psychology. She is married and a mother of three children.