Sibling Squabbles: To Intervene? Or Not Intervene?

...THAT is the question

They’re at it again. You can hear them in the next room and you want it to stop. Now. Your children are having a heated debate that seems to be escalating by the minute. Should you intervene or should you let them fight it out?

As parents we all long for our kids to get along and be friends, but their fighting can seem to be a constant negative and never-ending cycle. In our decades of coaching and teaching parents (and raising our own squabbling crew!), we have found a few guiding principles to help you as you steer your kids towards peace and connection at home.   

Only intervene when it is obviously necessary.

The temptation for many parents, when they hear their children in conflict, is to intervene quickly and make it stop. You want quiet. You want peace. You have things to do and you don’t have time for this! However – when we intervene too soon or too often we are cheating our children out of a great opportunity to learn lifelong negotiation and peacemaking skills. These clashes when they are young help equip our kids with the necessary skills they will need to use in the future when they disagree with a co-worker or friend or are engaged in what seems like the hundredth “debate” they are having with a spouse.

WHEN, then, is it “obviously necessary”?

There will be times when intervening is unavoidable. Here are some of our ideas for when you SHOULD intervene:

  • If there is a physical altercation.  Say, “Looks like you need a little break. When you are ready to use your words and not your hands you can try again to work this out.”
  • If there is verbal abuse or harmful statements that assign value to someone.  Are you hearing things like: “You’re an idiot.”  “No one likes you because you’re stupid.” “You’re a terrible basketball player anyway!”  “You’re such a loser!” If so, this needs to be addressed. 
  • If there is a regular pattern of dominance and submission. This teaches unhelpful patterns that can extend well into adult relationships. Because this is so important and potentially most damaging, we’ll unpack this a bit more. (below)

HOW to intervene in the middle of the squabble

Once you have made the decision that you need to step in, refrain from barging into the room with the assumption that one child is always the offender. Instead, take a long, deep breath and enter the room with composed authority. In a calm but strong voice ask questions like:  “Wow- you guys are really frustrated! Would you like some help here or can you work it out?” “What kind of help do you all need right now?” Kids are much more receptive in the moment if we lead them with questions instead of commands. (Of course if one is on top of the other or fists are flying you may need to physically separate them first.)

Balancing patterns of dominance and submission

Often when children are engaged in a dispute one may appear more dominant than the other.  These patterns can play out for a lifetime if they don’t get addressed with an eye for the future.  

For the more dominant child find a time to talk with him or her in a way that addresses their higher calling. Find the gift that is in their dominance and help them use it for good! Ask questions like, “When you two disagree how can we find solutions where everyone feels cared about?”  Introduce the concept of compromise and win-win through practicing and giving them their own script to use. “What skills do you think you have that can help this situation? How can we make sure you both feel good about how you solved your problem?”

The more submissive child might feel “stuck” and need guidance to learn the skills they need to speak up. When this happens it is helpful to give that child a boost to equip them to find their voice.  In a moment alone with them try a role play or give them a script to teach them to stand up for themselves. Ask questions that can help them think through what they want to say. Examples might be “How does it feel when your sister always gets what she wants when you are fighting?” “What do you think you would like to say to your sister, if you had a chance, about how you’re feeling?”

Once you’ve worked through some of the answers to these questions you can help encourage a quiet and safe atmosphere for the two of them to talk when they are both calm. (If your child is believing some of the hurtful things that are said during arguments you can also offer strategies for sorting through some of the hurtful words that are said to them.) Build the values and skills kids need to speak up for themselves in a way in which everyone feels cared about.

Train kids for conflict…outside of conflict.

Our kids don’t usually “hear” us well when they are in the midst of conflict.  Their adrenaline is up and they are seeking to win whatever battle they are fighting. Carve out time when your kids are well-rested and well-fed to teach them how to resolve conflict.

  • Get creative by trying role plays and give them scripts to follow.
  • Teach them to ask you for help when they need it, instead of just tattling.  
  • If an interaction ended poorly, you can use do-overs to re-do it in a way that ends well. This will allow the more dominant child to feel like a hero and the more submissive child to feel well cared for and heard.

Our kids’ fighting is fertile training ground for future relationships!  Once we learn to accept that fact, we can help them cultivate their gifts and find their voice to speak up for what they believe in.  Who knows? You might have the next great peacemaker right under your own roof!

In our online course Sibling Conflict: From Bickering to Bonding we teach parents how to teach kids The Peace Process. This process equips kids to work through their own arguments without your constant supervision and referring skills. Join us today!