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Sibling Squabbles: How to Stop Kids Fighting By Intervening Wisely

sibling squabbles

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 in sibling squabbles? Or should you let them fight it out?

As parents we hope for our children 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 steer your kids towards peace and connection at home.   

Only intervene in sibling squabbles 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 peace and quiet. You have things to do and you don’t have time for this! 

Maybe you can relate to Michelle in the story we share below. She had all those feelings when her two kids started fighting. Her 4-year-old daughter had interrupted her 6-year-old son, who was working on a project.

When you see your kids fighting, there is a very real temptation to hush them up, send them to their rooms until they say sorry, and get on with the day. At best, your kids learn compliance. At worst, they will learn to lie to get out of trouble. Either way, they will likely be at it again in no time. 

You know what they won’t learn? How to resolve conflict with others in a healthy way.

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. 

Michelle let her kids decide whether or not she should intervene

So instead, Michelle invited her kids to understand each other. “How are you each feeling right now?” 

They answered, “Mad!” “Sad!” 

She asked, “And do you want some help solving this, or can you solve it on your own?” 

Because she had already done some training with them about how to understand and make things right with each other, they were prepared. The kids looked at each other, looked at the project they were squabbling about, and smiled back at Michelle. The 4-year-old announced, “We’ll solve it! 

She promptly looked at her older brother and said, “I’m sorry!” 

He smiled, “I forgive you!” and they went on playing well together. 

Can this actually happen? YES! This is a true story from one of our coaching clients. This can happen for you when you train your kids with the necessary skills to equip them for a lifetime of conflict resolution. This will come in handy when they disagree with classmates, friends, co-workers, and spouses. 

HOW to intervene when it is “obviously necessary”

On the way to helping your kids learn constructive conflict management there will likely be times when intervening is unavoidable. 

Once you have made the decision that you need to step in to a sibling squabble, take a long, deep breath and enter the room with composed authority. Don’t judge who is the victim or perpetrator. 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?” or “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.)

Here are three typical sibling squabble situations when you SHOULD intervene:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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. 
  3. If there is a regular pattern of dominance and submission. This teaches unhelpful patterns that can extend well into adult relationships. 

1.) If a sibling squabble becomes physical

Let’s face it. Sometimes sibling squabbles gets physical. Kids hit. Kids bite. Kids push. Kids kick. When this happens it is important to intervene quickly and calmly. 

A mom in the Connected Families community tells this story:

“The other day my girls were playing legos for quite awhile. Quietly and without conflict. It was lovely! All of a sudden I realized there was a pretty physical confrontation going on. What amazed me is how quiet it was. There was no shouting or arguing. Just both girls standing, locked in combat and scratching, kicking, and pushing each other. And quietly saying terrible things to each other.

At first I panicked. I quickly and calmly walked over to where they were and separated them. I didn’t take sides and didn’t ask questions. Just firmly said, without yelling, ‘We cannot use our hands when we are frustrated.’ I had them both go away from the legos and into different rooms to settle down. I remembered The Peace Process and how both parties need to be calm before discussing a conflict. Later on in the day they were able to talk about it and come to a better understanding of where the other one was coming from.” 

As the parent it is important to remain steady and firm when intervening in all sibling squabbles. But definitely during physical altercations. Try not to yell or take sides. The overarching goal is to separate and, when things are more peaceful, facilitate reconciliation. 

2.) If there is verbal abuse or harmful statements during a sibling squabble

Name-calling between children is a challenge for many families. Once kids get on a roll of slinging names back and forth it can seem like an express train to a sibling meltdown. It’s tempting to just say, “Tell him you’re sorry. That is not okay!” But forcing an apology does not teach true reconciliation skills. 

Here are some ideas for how to intervene when verbal mud is being slung:

  • Enter with empathy and a curiosity to understand what is going on. “Wow, those are some strong words! You must be really frustrated! How can I help?”
  • Try to avoid taking sides. Sometimes you don’t know what happened before you entered the scene. 
  • Work to find a calming activity or distraction for everyone involved. Avoid trying to force reconciliation in the heat of the moment. Once kids are more peaceful they are better able to make their words right.
  • Some families find it helpful to implement four kind and true statements toward the person they had wronged. Clarify (with your words and your warm tone of voice) that it isn’t meant to be punitive, but to encourage restored relationships.
  • Encourage an activity they can do together once they have made things right with each other. When a sibling squabbles is resolved, celebrate! This could be a hug, a high-five, or even a special snack.

Download our FREE ebook “Consequences That Actually Work” to learn how to implement a restitution consequence.

The reality is this: Verbal abuse is as hurtful to the one speaking as it is to the one receiving. Often the one calling names is feeling frustrated and discouraged about their own identity and takes that out on someone else. 

As a follower of Christ, it is vital to teach your kids (outside the “heat of the moment”) that their true identity can be found in their relationship with God.  As kids receive your graceful encouragement and begin to believe their identity, they will be more open to make things right when they have verbally hurt someone. 

(You may even want to play this song on repeat!)

sibling squabbles

3.) Balancing patterns of dominance and submission in sibling squabbles

Often when children are engaged in a dispute one may appear more dominant than the other.  Unfortunately, these patterns can repeat throughout someone’s lifetime if they aren’t addressed with an eye for the future.  

The more dominant child

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 for?”  Encourage their strong will and leadership while teaching the concept of compromise and win-win. You can even practice with them by doing role plays to help them come up with their own script they can use to defuse tense situations.

The more submissive child

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 role play by being the dominant sibling and brainstorm scripts they can use to stand up for themselves. Ask questions to get the conversation started. Examples might be, “How does it feel when your sister always gets what she wants when you are fighting?” or “What do you think you would like to say to your sister, if you had a chance, about how you’re feeling?”

Whether your child is more dominant, or more submissive, ask them both separately,  “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?”

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 for.

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.

  • Allow them to role play and use the scripts they brainstormed with you earlier. 
  • Teach them to ask you for help when they need it, instead of just tattling  
  • If an interaction ends poorly, you can use do-overs to re-do the conflict in a way that ends well. This can help the more dominant child to feel respectful and the more submissive child to feel well cared for and heard.

Our kids’ fighting is a 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 refereeing. Join us today so your kids can begin building the relationships you always imagined.

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Jim and Lynne Jackson
Jim and Lynne Jackson
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