Tired of the constant squabbles between your kids? Learn how to deal with sibling rivalry and teach conflict resolution for kids instead.
No parent escapes sibling rivalry.
Some days my boys seem to intentionally choose to fight. Even if we offered two of the same fire trucks, one would still want the truck that the other one had. And just when I’d finally convinced one child to play with the “less desirable” truck, the other would grab it, too.
Let’s not forget the hitting, the “mine!” and the “being annoying on purpose.” It’s easy to become referees in our own homes.
When my husband and I were expecting for the second time, we wanted out kids to get along, right from the start. We knew they’d fight, but we wanted to teach them how to resolve conflict on their own.
Conflict resolution for kids
I don’t believe siblings are destined to fight all the time, or that all kids go through major sibling rivalry until they move out. A peaceful house where the kids get along is possible.
Still, conflict is inevitable, even among siblings who are best of friends. What are some tips on how to deal with sibling rivalry?
Don’t resolve your children’s conflict
What’s your first reaction when your kids fight? Do you barge in, hoping to put an end to the fighting as soon as possible?
Even if you mean well, solving your children’s conflict can actually backfire. You’re not giving them the chance to experience the discomfort of fighting, or to come up with their own solutions. They’re unable to show empathy or see how their words and actions affect others.
The worst part? They grow used to needing an adult to resolve their conflict each time they fight, rather than learn to work on it themselves.
As uncomfortable as it is watching children struggle, hold back for as long as you can. Describe what happened, and what each child must be feeling as a way to acknowledge both their emotions.
Then, ask what they can do to resolve the conflict in a way they’re both happy about. Offer your own suggestions if they can’t come up any, and guide them to speak and interact peacefully with one another.
Don’t see yourself as the only person who can put a stop to the fighting. Instead, think of yourself as a coach, guiding them to figure out for themselves the best ways to solve their problem.
Show empathy to both children
Children, regardless of who did what, need to feel heard. Describe and narrate what’s happening and how each child feels, no matter who instigated the argument. Both children have valid feelings they need acknowledged and expressed.
After all, even the child who “started it” did so for a reason. Acknowledge this reason without judging either child. No matter how wrong your child’s actions may be, he still feels like an injustice has been done to him.
You might say, “You’re fighting over the car. Theo, you’re upset because Alex is playing with the car you were playing with earlier. And Alex, you’re upset because Theo got up to play with something else, so you thought you could play with the car now.”
Notice that nothing in that statement includes instructions on what they should do. Instead, you’re describing what happened and acknowledging what each child feels. You’re validating their emotions by saying what they’re likely thinking or feeling.
The best part? You’re modeling what peaceful conflict resolution for kids looks like. You’re not resorting to anger or losing your temper right along with them. Instead, you’re showing your kids how to find a solution in a calm way.
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Suggest turn-taking, sharing or dividing the items
Turn-taking is my go-to move when the kids are fighting over the same thing. For example, I explain to one child that he’ll have a chance to play with the train for a few minutes before he hands it to his brother. Then the same applies to his brother. Back and forth.
We’ve even had luck with extended turn-taking. My eldest was wearing swim goggles, but his little brother wanted to wear it as well. I explained, “It’s brother’s turn right now. When he’s done, he’ll give it to you.”
Then I addressed my five-year-old, “When you’re done, make sure to give the goggles to him.” When he forgets, I remind him to hand the goggles to his brother so both know I mean my word.
You can even take it further and set a timer. If both kids want to ride the scooter, set a timer on your phone for five minutes, at which point the scooter gets passed to the child who was waiting.
Foster playing together and sharing
Rather than focusing on how to divide the item or separate your kids, do the opposite and encourage them to play and share together.
Let’s say your older child is playing with a guitar than your younger one now has his eye on. Understandably, your older child doesn’t want his brother clamoring for the guitar. But instead of shooing his brother away or diving deeper into more conflict, explain to your older child that his brother wants to learn from him.
You might say, “He likes the guitar you’re playing with. Can you show him how it works? He doesn’t know yet how to play it.”
He’s in teacher mode instead of a whiny, “get my brother out of here” mode. I’ve seen an instant switch when I do this with my kids, and it’s pretty awesome to see their interaction change. You can also have them point out the cool features of a toy, or read a book to the other one.
Don’t make the older child in charge of the younger one
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“You’re their brother, not their parent,” we’ll tell our eldest. While being the older sibling does have its roles, he isn’t “in charge” the way parents are.
Your older child isn’t responsible for enforcing rules and responsibilities. Your children are equals, and no child should have more or less authority when it comes to discipline.
Don’t make her “watch” him or play with him. If she tries to enforce family rules say “Thanks, Sweetheart. I’m glad you know the family rules and are so good at following them, but it’s the parents’ job to be in charge.”
Don’t take sides
Another common parenting mistake? Focusing on who started it or who made the worse offense.
It doesn’t matter who started it. Neither of your kids are the “victim” or “perpetrator” in sibling rivalry. Both have valid reasons to address.
Let’s say one child hit the other. Don’t assume the one who was hit is all in the clear—he may have been annoying his brother so much that his brother felt compelled to hit him. Hitting isn’t the right answer and should be addressed, but so too should the other child’s behavior.
Separate your kids if needed
Your kids will want to hit each other in the faces, or cry and cry with no end in sight. In cases like these, separate them so they avoid hurting each other. They’ll also have a much-needed cool-down time apart.
No point trying to make this a teachable moment when your kids are too upset to listen. Focus on calming them down first, sending them their separate ways if they need the physical space.
Encourage, don’t force, your kids to say sorry
Toward the end, encourage your kids to say sorry or even give each other a hug. Explain that apologizing makes the other person feel better. Often, both kids need to apologize, and not just the offender. Apologizing gives kids the closure they need and is the cue that says things can go back to normal.
However, don’t force them to say sorry. You’ll get a lazy or even sarcastic apology with no genuine intent. Your child might even throw a tantrum because he doesn’t feel compelled to apologize. Worse, they’ll be less likely to say it on their own in the future.
Nothing zaps our days more than siblings fighting, but at least now we have the tools to help them get along.
Listen to their emotions and empathize with all children, regardless of who instigated the conflict. Teach them how to express frustration and resolve conflicts through negotiation, turn-taking and playing as a team. And do as much as you can to prevent sibling rivalry to begin with.
All sibling relationships will have conflict, but we can do our best to teach our kids how to resolve them peacefully.
Get more tips about conflict resolution for kids:
- How to Encourage Siblings to Get Along — Even from a Young Age
- 7 Ways to Teach Your Toddler to Share
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
- How to Stop Your Toddler from Hitting
Tell me in the comments: What are your tips on conflict resolution for kids?