Stepping back rather than stepping in may be right move for sibling squabbles

July 13, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

We love that we have the opportunity to spend more time together as family during the summer. What we don’t love is the increased opportunity for sibling squabbles.

It’s a fact of life: Kids don’t always get along. As much as we’d like to step in and wave our magic wand to stop the arguments, we realize our children need to learn how to resolve conflicts on their own. Plus, if we allow ourselves to serve as judge and jury for every skirmish, we’re setting ourselves up for a no-win situation. In our effort to be fair, we may be missing key details.

Even if we’ve been witness to an incident, we may not have observed the flick that resulted in the shove, or the whispered insult that prompted the yelling. Suddenly, not only are our children arguing, but they think we are taking sides and playing favorites. (There are times when we do believe in stepping in; but here, we’re talking about your average, everyday skirmish.)

We can’t force our children to love – or even like – each other, no matter how many impassioned speeches we make about the importance of family. They have a right to their own feelings, and we cannot control those. What we can do is help them understand emotions (both theirs and others), set expectations about behavior and provide alternatives to arguing.

Understanding emotions

Help children identify emotions. Use words that name feelings associated with conflict, such as: mad, sad, scared, angry, worried, confused, embarrassed, frightened, anxious, frustrated and lonely. Pairing words with facial expressions can help a young child understand the emotion. Eventually, they will learn to express their emotions to a sibling using words: “I am frustrated because you took the ball I was playing with. Please ask me next time.”

Children need to learn to balance their personal rights, needs and wants with those of others. Being able to interpret emotions in other people helps children develop useful social skills. Help your child interpret another’s feelings by explaining what is going on: “That girl is upset because someone ran ahead of her to the swings, and now she doesn’t have one.” Ask your child what the girl could say so she will have a turn to swing.

Set expectations

However our children feel at any given moment, they must respect and tolerate each other. Identify behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable. For example: “Bullying, cruel teasing and physical aggression are not allowed.” Give examples of each so your child better understands your expectations.

Also, lead by example – if you don’t want your child to yell, belittle others and participate in name-calling, make sure you follow the same rules.

Provide alternatives

Rather than forbid negative behaviors, provide alternatives. If both children want the same toy, ask them how they can work it out. They will eventually (we hope) come up with the idea of taking turns.

Encourage your child to use words to express their wants and needs, rather than squawking and pointing. For example, say: “Tell me if you would like me to get puzzles out for you to play with.”

And finally…

Encourage your children’s individuality. Even if your children are close in age, allow them to foster their own friendships and interests. Forcing them to always be together may build resentment. You may be surprised at the bond they forge when they are encouraged to be themselves. Perhaps they’ll even realize they have interests in common.

Love the individual child. Be sure your words and actions celebrate who they are as an individual by not comparing them to a sibling or other children.

Kids are bound to have conflicts – both at home and beyond. By giving them tools they can use to resolve those conflicts, you’re providing them with skills that will be useful for many years to come.


Here are some links to resources we found useful:

“Teaching Children to Resolve Conflict Respectfully” from Parenting Exchange.

“Activities to help children learn to resolve conflict.” National Association of School Psychologists

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