Conflict Resolution

Dear RaisingSmallSouls,

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.


  1. The title of this article really caught my eye. While most of my kids are already out of their teenage years, it reminded me of a game they used to play. It was a game from when I was a kid, and involved removing different sized wooden disks from a wooden tray while trying not to make the wooden piece holding it move. Its real name was “Chicks and something or other” but we called it ‘Peace and Harmony’ because that was MY goal for the game playing time; to preserve a congenial family atmosphere. It worked!

  2. Harry Swardling says:

    Great advice. I only wish I knew about this column when my own 4 lovable “vilde chayes” were growing up. Somehow they turned out great, each and every one, despite my parental ineptitude.

  3. thanks a lot for this…very enligthening…

  4. I do another stage that I find extremely helpful for teaching my three boys to resolve conflicts. Before my intervention is really needed, I stick my head in and just remind them that they know how to work this out. That usually switches them from a fighting mode into a resolution mode. It shows them they have the tools they need to live peacefully.

    • I agree, Raysa, that children have the tools to get along with each other, but we need to coach and remind them to access those tools deep within their hearts!

    • I have twin boys and I made them go outside when the fighting got loud or unruly. Usually the change in environment solved the problem (wide open spaces). Their “fighting” was often physical as their dad is a wrestling coach. They never hurt each other – they would “tap out” if something was hurting but they did solve a lot of their conflicts this way. They are now healthy, employed adults who still like to wrestle each other.

  5. Thank you. Your answer certainly supports children in learning how to resolve conflicts on their own and that is the most important thing.
    When my child, Grace, age 5, came to me and said, “Luke kicked me!”
    My response was, “Did you like it?”
    The answer, of course was, “No.”
    Then I said, “Did you tell him?”
    And her answer was, “No.”
    “Please go tell him. You can tell him that you didn’t like it and please don’t do it again. I will stand behind you if you want me to.”
    It was here that I coached Luke, age 7, to apologize. When Gracie said, “That’s okay,” I coached her with,
    “It’s NOT okay. Tell him ‘I accept your apology. Please don’t do it again.’
    Grace said that and Luke got it.
    After the first few times of modeling this behavior, the siblings were tooled with the responses, and the two began respecting each others’ personal space.
    Highest regards,

  6. Thanks for the great advice.. sometimes i just want to shout

  7. Lilly Hern says:

    Thank you for this encouraging advice! I now feel more confident when handling my young ones’ fighting.

  8. Thank you! I just emailed this article to my husband.

    I feel that this viewpoint, regarding seeing ourselves as translators and as people-skill-teachers in a supportive environment, can truly change the dynamic of our home.


    Nikki, proud mom of four precious small souls

  9. Susie’s game “Hens & Chicks” is also known as “Mikado”, “Booby Trap” and “Squeezed Out” depending on the manufacturer.

  10. This is one time where I am not on board with the advice. Allowing children to yell, scream and hit each other is not something I view as a learning tool. I’ve always taught my children that hurting someone (in any way) is one of the worst things you can do and if it ever happens, even accidently, you are to apologise and put it right as soon as possible. My first son was a very gentle, sensitive soul so this rule worked well. When other children came over they were given the three rules – 1. No screaming, fighting or throwing things.
    2. If you need anything (snack, phone) just let me know
    3. Have as much fun as you can while here.
    We never had an occasion where visiting children didn’t stick to the rules. Once over at a twin’s house we were amazed how they spent the time really pounding each other. When I told the mother I had never seen them act this way, she was amazed (‘they fight all the time, I’ve quit trying to stop them and leave them to sort it out themselves now’). When questioned, the boys said it was because we lived in a ‘peaceful’ home and they know that I don’t like fighting. I have seem homes where younger children are afraid of older siblings because they allow conflicts to escalate into violence. I firmly believe we have to step in and give guidance before it gets to this point. Being allowed to physically hurt another should never happen, at any age.
    When my daughter was born, she was completely different and as a toddler would scream at us, and bite and pinch and behave in a way that was scary. Gentle persuasion didn’t work and we had to be really firm with lots of time outs and removing privileges for this anti-social behaviour to change. If we had let it continue, as an adult, her life would have been very difficult (and lonely!). But at 10 yrs now, she is a sweetheart. She still sometimes loses her temper but instead of lashing out, she takes herself to her room and puts on her audio books and starts modelling with her beeswax (it relaxes her). Her friends have even told me that she tries to break up other children fighting when she is in a group, and that she never says mean things even when someone says something mean to her. I am so proud of her.
    If we want a peaceful world, it has to start with raising peaceful children in a home where violence and abuse (in any form) has no place.

    • I agree with Jane. I ran a dayhome when my child was 5 months to 5 years and physical aggression was just not an option. I spent much of my day intervening before kids got physical and helping them use words to express themselves and problem solve. So the dishes got piled in the sink, and the laundry got behind (and the vacuuming too!) I didn’t care because I was spending my time doing something much more valuable – teaching the children how to deal with conflicting needs and desires. My 6 year old always talks things out with his friends and really doesn’t like when kids get physical to solve problems.