Let Them Fight: Teaching Siblings to Work It Out

Parents have a rough job. Not only do they have to keep their kids healthy, fed, clothed, and sheltered they also have to teach them to be good people. If you have more than one child you know that often times some of your greatest tests of patience and use of parenting skills are used when your children are squabbling with one another.

A parent’s first instinct when they hear their children arguing in another room is to run in and help resolve the issue. However, research shows that allowing your children time and space to work out their own compromise is beneficial in many different ways as long as they have been taught the skills. Parents need to play both an active and passive role when it comes to disagreements between siblings – help them work through issues and show conflict resolution, but then step back and let them do it themselves once they have the knowledge base. 

The Struggle is Real 

According to Laurie Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois who has been studying sibling relationships for the past 20 years, there are four kinds of ways parents deal with conflict

  1. Authoritarian – “You better stop fighting right now!”
  2. Passive – “They’ll figure it out.”
  3. Collaborative – “Let’s see how we might be able to figure this out together.”
  4. Model/Reward – “You two are playing so nicely together! I love it.”

Many parents tend to utilize the first two types of conflict resolution tactics – authoritarian and passive – but resolving conflicts is the last thing they actually do. Children have to be taught how to compromise and talk through issues. If parents assume they will “figure it out eventually” they are wrong. All that will happen is that conflict will continue to arise and neither child will learn how to effectively solve issues with their peers in the future. 

Kramer notes that the most effective form of conflict resolution among children are the collaborative and the model/reward systems. But these ways of parenting arguing children means that you have to stop what you’re doing and interact with them. And let’s be honest – no one wants to get in the middle of a heated argument about who had the Barbie first or why the toddler is taking the green truck from his older brother. It’s much easier to yell at them to stop from a different room or ignore them.

Unfortunately for us parents, research shows that taking an active role in helping your children learn how to resolve issues is beneficial – to everyone. For your children, it helps them to develop positive relationships with one another as well as help them to initiate play together. Siblings also begin to see each other as someone with whom they can engage, have fun, and trust when it comes to play. In the end, this also helps to foster a positive climate within your home relieving parents of the known stressors resulting in sibling squabbles. 

Breaking Up the Fight

The dynamics between siblings is different than that of school friends because oftentimes (unless you have twins or multiples) the siblings are different ages, and therefore, are not equally capable of resolving issues due to language development, cognitive understanding, and physical size. With this, it can sometimes be difficult in teaching your children how to resolve a conflict since one may be aware of the situation that is procuring while the other just wants the dang train. 

Even with different ages it is important to make sure that each of your children understand basic principles of conflict resolution even if they cannot cognitively understand or adequately express their thoughts and feelings on the issue. With young children parents can reinforce personal space (i.e., no hitting, biting, pushing, etc.) and that no items are ever taken from someone while they are playing with it. For older children who may be playing with their younger sibling, minor arguments are great opportunities to teach them about understanding, empathy, and the power of redirection when it comes to their younger brother or sister. Below are some things you can do to help your older child deal with a younger sibling:

  • “I can see you are upset that Charlotte took one of your blocks. Remember that she is young and she doesn’t understand that you were using all of these. How about we give her a few to play with on her own?”
  • “I know you would love to have a turn on the scooter, but right now Michael is using it. He feels really sad when you take things from him, just like you feel sad when he takes things from you. Let’s give him a few more minutes and I will let you know when he’s done.”
  • “I can see you both want that baby doll. Let’s try to give her this one and see if that helps. If it doesn’t, do you think you could give her the one you have and you use the other one? That’s what being a big sister is all about.”

However, if you have children who are both able to understand and communicate effectively with one another then there are a number of strategies you can use to help them work towards a solution to their problem:

  • Take a Deep Breath – If you can see that the argument is getting heated, remind your children to stop and take a deep breath. Allow them both to gain their composure so that they can talk through the issue more effectively.
  • State the Problem – So that all parties are understanding of the situation, let each child tell you what the issue is while the other sibling listens. Try to have them make it brief, and simply state the issue at hand, and then relay it back to them. For example:
    • “Tommy has been playing with the Wii for awhile now, and now you would like to play. You asked Tommy but he said no because he is still playing. Now you are mad because he won’t give you a turn. Is that right?”
  • Put Yourself in Their Shoes – Suggest to your children to look at the situation from their sibling’s point of view. For example:
    • “Tommy has been playing with the Wii for awhile now. I understand that you want to play but he is in the middle of this round so making him stop might make him feel resentful. Tommy, Billy has been waiting patiently to play the Wii and at this point he is getting frustrated with the fact that you won’t share like we have agreed.”
  • Coming to a Compromise/Set Expectation – Given the stated problem and taking in the other person’s perspective, discuss a compromise to the situation. For example:
    • “Tommy, how about you finish this round and then you let Billy have a turn. I will set the timer for 20 minutes, and when it goes off you can switch turns. When it is dinner time, no matter who is playing and how many turns each person had, it is time to turn it off.”

There are countless situations and countless arguments that are going to arise in your home between siblings. You will no doubt hear screaming, crying, and yelling and like every other parent you will want to ignore it. Making your child understand how to effectively resolve conflict will not happen overnight, and you may spend many hours sitting down with your children trying to come up with a solution to who gets to use the computer next. In fact, a study done by the University of Illinois shows that sibling argue up to FOUR TIMES per hour. That’s quite a bit of time acting as mediator as a parent. But being an active role model in how to combat those conflicts can help your children develop better relationships with one another, create a positive climate in your home, and teach them conflict resolution tactics for the future. 

And perhaps teaching active resolution between siblings today will help develop solutions for larger problems in society tomorrow. 

For more ways to talk to your kids about tough issues, check out Teaching Our Daughters to Be Assertive here on Daily Mom!

Resources: Quartz, Perfect Parenting Press

Photo credits: Lou Lou Photography, Memoirs of MeganLauren Lomsdale

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Lauren Lomsdale

Lauren is a full-time mom of three girls and a military spouse. She loves to write, run, yoga-it-out, and keep fit. She runs her own business for busy entrepreneurs to help them manage their business and create their brand at Lauren Lomsdale Creative Studios. She also is one half of the YouTube channel, The Dependas, where the craziness of military life is discussed in a funny way.

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