Many of us dread sibling conflicts, but try this mental exercise for a moment: Imagine every time your kids bicker, tease, or fight with each other, it’s an opportunity. Sibling conflict is a chance to help kids learn conflict resolution, just like any other skill set. In fact, it may be one of the most useful skill sets we can teach them, and this practice can start much younger than most people think. Flip your thinking from: Here we go again. How can I make this stop? to What are my kids telling each other right now? How can I help them listen to each other and communicate their ideas?
Kids can get very good at this, but they may need a lot of help at first. As they get better and better, you can fade your help over time. If we always hover or overcontrol, we leave little space for kids to practice their natural empathy and problem-solving skills. When you swoop in with a judgment or solution to a conflict, one or both kids often feels resentful as a result. Watch and listen. See where you can help with a few words or a question, and then step aside when you can.
You can use the A-L-P model to help kids resolve conflicts: Attune, Limit Set, Problem solve.
Let your kids know you see their struggle and you understand, or at least you’re trying to understand. Allow them to be mad at each other without judging or trying to convince them otherwise.
Wow, you sound really furious.
I see. It hurt your feelings when he closed the door and said he didn’t want to play. I get that. I know what you mean.
Staying neutral as much as possible will help kids not feel unfairly blamed. For example, one sibling may be more physically aggressive, so she may be the one who gets blamed for doing something wrong. But was she provoked by her sister’s verbal aggression? Some kids are adept at mentally provoking their siblings, causing the siblings to act out in a more obvious way. Do your best to approach each situation with an open mind. This is something we practice in all of our relationships and it can be most challenging when faced with a sibling spat.
Wow, you both sound super upset. Let’s see how we can understand this better.
Tool #1: Help Siblings Set Limits with Each Other
Teaching children to stand up for what they think and want, and to have clear boundaries is an incredibly helpful skill. It also turns around the bickering, whining, and complaining a lot of parents witness between siblings.
WHEN YOU SAY . . .
Okay, now tell her what you DO want.
Let him know what you’re thinking.
What are you trying to tell him? Did you have a different idea—what was it?
Let’s ask him what he wanted.
IT WILL HELP THEM SAY TO EACH OTHER . . .
I’m not okay with that game.
This is too rough!
Your body is too close to me. I need space.
I was working with that and I’m not done.
I don’t like that—please stop.
I want to play my own game for a while, then we can play together.
Tool #2: Use the “I Know You Guys Know This, But . . .” Tone
State the family agreements and rules with an “I know you guys totally know this rule already” tone of voice. We believe in our kids and want to interact with them assuming the best—assuming they have good intentions, know the rules, and will follow them (they just need help navigating and reminders).
You guys know that hitting is never okay.
Tell her how you feel with words.
Right, and we know we don’t throw toys, so . . .
Well, and since we park our toys and screens while we’re eating . . .
Tool #1: Invite Suggestions with “Can You Come Up with a Plan?”
Prompt your kids to problem solve with each other. Say something like,
Okay, so what plan could you guys have?
I bet you guys will figure out what to do next. I’m here if you get stuck.
As long as the plans and ideas your kids come up with are safe and everyone agrees, follow their lead and let them be the ones to own the plan. Often little kids move on and drop the toy they were playing with or forget about the dilemma altogether. That’s okay, it’s the precedent of sharing ideas and problem solving in the moment that is important.
Tool #2: Checking in Instead of Saying Sorry
Saying sorry is just fine, but there are more helpful ways to support empathy and help your kids reconnect with each other. Say something that directs one child’s attention to the other’s thoughts and feelings or suggests a way to help the other person.
Check in with Mary. I see she’s looking sad.
Ask him if he needs anything.
Come with me and we’ll get an ice pack for Henry.
When your body is feeling calmer, check in with your sister.
Let’s take a typical sibling clash: Julia and Colin are playing in their bedroom. All of a sudden, the mom hears a thump, and one kid starts to cry. The mom runs in to see Julia standing there holding a toy phone and Colin holding his head and crying. When they see their mom, Julia starts to cry and drops the phone, and Colin cries even harder.
What should the mom do? She’d be pretty justified in assuming Julia smacked her brother over the head with the phone, so we wouldn’t be surprised if she said something like, Julia, what did you do? No hitting your brother!
Instead, she takes a different approach. She goes over to both kids, gets on their level, and holds Colin in her arm while touching Julia with her other hand. Whoa, are you okay? Let me see your head, she says to Colin as she makes sure he’s okay. What happened? she says to both kids, while still touching them and being on their level.
Her body language and touch make Julia feel like she isn’t shaming or judging her, so she shares information. He wasn’t playing my game, says Julia. Ah, you wanted to play a certain game, and Colin had a different idea? You got frustrated and hit him with the phone? (Good waiter). Now the mom has more facts. I see. Remember our family rule about being safe with each other’s bodies, she says. When you’re ready, check in with Colin and let’s see if he needs an ice pack.
Excerpted from Now Say This: The right words to solve every parenting dilemma (Tarcher Perigee/Penguin RandomHouse, 2018) by Heather Turgeon, MFT and Julie Wright, MFT. Heather and Julie are psychotherapists based in LA and NYC. They offer parenting consultations and sleep consultations to families all over the world.