Is There a Right Way to Solve Sibling Squabbles?

Ever since my middle child turned two, my two oldest kids have been spending a ton of time together. It’s great, really. When it was just my oldest and I at home everyday, it meant I was in charge of keeping her entertained all of the time. And then when my second arrived, I was juggling a newborn and trying to keep a toddler busy. It was a lot to manage.

Now, since my two year old talks well and can handle most of the activities my four year old loves, they play together a lot. In fact, they keep each other occupied for most of the day. As you might expect, they also fight a lot.

I know that this is a normal part of their development. Siblings often fight or get into disagreements because they are trying to establish their individuality in the family, according to the University of Michigan. Additionally, sibling disagreements teach children conflict resolution strategies they will need when they’re younger, according to Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, psychologist, speaker, and author of The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children.

Even though sibling disagreements are to be expected, they are hard to deal with day after day.

This is a whole new phase of life for me. I’ve never had to referee two people, to teach them how to talk out their feelings instead of screaming or hitting each other. Honestly, I often find myself wondering if I am doing it right, if I have been responding to my kids’ fights in a healthy way or if I am only making it worse.

When parents model healthy mediation of conflict in front of their kids, by helping siblings in conflict talk about their emotions and make plans for resolution, children are more likely to adopt these social skills and use them in the future. In theory, that sounds easy enough, but in practice it isn’t so simple. When my kids are fighting to the death over a blue crayon, I need to know how to respond in the heat of the moment. I need to know when I should intervene, how I should intervene (and honestly, how I can get them to stop fighting).

According to Dr. Hammond, parents shouldn’t be so quick to split up every disagreement.

“Of course, if the child is becoming physically aggressive towards their sibling, themselves, or property, it’s important to stop the altercation for safety reasons,” Dr. Hammond explained. “But sometimes siblings have to learn to work out their differences.  When siblings practice their communication skills, they are in essence preparing for future real world experiences.”

When parents do step in to mediate between siblings, they should be less concerned with making the fighting stop and more focused on teaching their kids the skills they need to resolve conflicts in the future.

“Parents should remember to restate the rules of ‘fighting fair’,” said Dr. Hammond. “Siblings should be encouraged to share their experience of the conflict, using ‘I’ statements rather than blaming the other child.  It’s also crucial that as a parent you show them you are actively listening to both sides, as well as brainstorming solutions together.”

Of course, there are some mistakes that should be avoided when helping to solve sibling squabbles. Specifically, parents should avoid playing favorites or comparing their kids to own another, as this can only cause further animosity between children.

“Comparing siblings is not helpful when siblings already naturally compare themselves to each other and want to compete for their parent’s attention. Instead, try to point out each child’s strengths and how they could complement each other.”

Lastly, Dr. Hammond encouraged parents to be proactive, working to strengthen sibling bonds by encouraging them to choose activities they both like. The goal is to remind children that they have fun spending time with each other and to build memories that will last them into adulthood.

I’m definitely no master at resolving conflict, but with Dr. Hammond’s advice, I feel like I am better equipped to know when I should step in to break up a disagreement between kids and how to best mediate the conflict. Like most aspects of being a mom, it’s going to take me some time to teach them to be kinder with each other and a healthy way to work out their differences, but I know it’s worth the work.