Battlefield: home

Figuring out how and when to break up sibling fights

If you are a parent of more than one kid, likely there are days you feel like an officer of the law, minus the uniform and whistle. Sibling fights happen, but they don’t have to bring down the house. The trick is figuring out when to step in and break it up and when to let your kids practice working it out. Here are some ideas, along with thoughts on how to avoid regular battles in the first place.

When to step in
Kids will fight. Not allowing kids to fight is doing them a disservice. Arguments and disagreements help them learn how to resolve conflict, negotiate, be assertive and solve issues.

“For parents, the trick is deciding when to step in and when to let them solve their own problems,” says Andrea Holt, Marriage and Family Therapist with UCHealth’s Family Medicine Center in Fort Collins.  

She recommends using the idea of a bell curve to help you weigh your decisions on when to intervene: “In that chunky middle part that makes up most of the bell, let them work it out. On the extreme left end where there is mild disagreements try not to intervene and on the right end, where there’s hitting, kicking, or safety concerns parents need to intervene,” she says. 

Know that you’ll never get it right every time. You will make the wrong call, and when you do, fess up. That’s a lesson in itself.

“After its over sit them down and say, ‘I waited too long to step in on that one and next time I’ll watch more closely;’ or say, ‘Shoot, I should have waited and let you two work that one out. I don’t want to be solving your problems,’” Holt adds.

Of course there shouldn’t be any hesitation to step in when fists fly and there are safety concerns: “When it gets intense or unsafe, your intervention can be as sharp as it needs to be,” she advises.

After the fight, initiate a brief discussion with both kids asking them what worked, what didn’t, and what they could do differently next time.  

Rules to live by
Households run better when parents use a few well-oiled rules. For example, no hitting, no pushing, no hair pulling, no throwing things—in short, no physical violence.  Doing so earns instant consequences like time outs or loss of privileges. 

“These behaviors, along with name calling and bullying are problematic between adults so it’s our job as parents to help kids learn early on not to develop these habits when in a conflict. It’s important they learn to express emotions without belittling or degrading the other person,” Holt says.

Consider the top five behaviors you simply will not tolerate and draw a line in the sand. Keep it black and white. If they break one, that’s it. No negotiation. They sit, they spend time alone, they earn a chore, they can’t ride their bike to their friend’s house, they lose the car –whatever fits the crime best.

“With young kids, I like to say, ‘When you hit (kick, bite, lie), people don’t like to be around you.’ Then I instantly remove them from the social situation. It’s a real lesson on how the world works,” she states.

Avoid sibling rivalry in the first place 
Of course your kids will fight, but there are ways to minimize battles. One is fostering respect for differences. If they have different personalities and like opposite things, take turns letting them share their individual worlds with their siblings. Maybe it’s playing legos, looking through hairstyle magazines or going fishing. Each gets their own time to shine and show the others something that makes them tick. Give it a name like “What I Like” and keep it fairly short and simple to promote success.

 “Another trick is banning the word ‘always.’ Because it’s rarely really always,” Holt suggests.

Saying those dreaded words, ’You should be more like your sister (or brother),’ is a major set up for sibling rivalry and negative competition. It breeds the idea of favoritism.

“A better way to say the same thing is, ‘I would like to see you make better choices.’ I think that’s what parents are going for when they say that anyways. What they really want is an improved behavior,” she says.

Saying what you want in a positive way empowers kids rather than making them feel bad. For example, if your child is getting poor grades, you can say: “I know you can do better in math.” Or if they make a poor decision, say: ‘I see you make good choices all day long but this time you didn’t. I’d like to see you do better next time, and I know you can.’ 

If you hear things like, ‘you like him better!’ or ‘you don’t love me,’ check it out. Send the message that it’s not a matter of better or worse, it’s just that they are different kids.

“Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, one child may demand more time and attention. Be sure to counter that with special attention to the child who isn’t demanding it. In general, it’s really important for parents to spend individual time with each child,” Holt says.

When fighting and rivalry seem constant and deep-seeded rather than sporadic and acute, it may be time to seek professional help.

Keep it positive
A key way to keep fighting to a minimum is to praise your kids when they resolve conflicts well. If you see them getting along, point it out. If you witness your daughters resolve a disagreement, tell them what they did right as in, ‘You did a great job telling your sister your feelings and she did a great job apologizing. Well done!’

“Building on success is so much easier than disciplining and continually correcting. Praise leaves them with a good feeling—and lets them understand the positive outcomes of their efforts—making them want to do the same thing again next time,” Holt concludes.

UCHealth sponsored this article.


When anger strikes

When our kids explode we may not know how to react in the moment, or how to best help them manage their anger. Here are some ideas:

Help kids identify their emotions

Sometimes kids are frustrated, sometimes they are insulted and sometimes they are all out angry. Helping them identify their feelings helps them figure solutions and calm down. A great way to do this is to reflect back to your child what you are seeing. If he’s jamming his pencil in his paper you can say, ‘Gosh it looks to me like you are frustrated. Do you know what that means? It means something isn’t going your way and you are not happy about it. Is that right?’ 

“Be careful not to label the emotion for them, instead come from a curious stance and point out the observable behavior,” Holt advises. She also suggests having your child rate his anger from 1 to 10 or labeling it as a color (with red or black often indicating extremely angry).

Create a Mad Box

When younger kids get angry, Holt likes to use a Mad Box to help them purge their emotions. She suggests filling a box with items that can be physically manipulated, like play doh, cush balls, silly putty, finger paint, broken crayons for hard scribbling, paper to shred and bubble wrap to pop. “It gives them a satisfying, productive outlet for their anger. Basically it’s getting them out of their head and into their body so they can purge their intense emotions in a healthy way,” she adds.

Get active

For older kids, getting active can help release anger. Going for a run, exercising, dropping and doing 20 push-ups all work. “Any physical activity that gets out the anger in a non-threatening way is good. Even taking a shower helps to metaphorically wash off what’s making them angry,” Holt says. Playing loud music, pounding on drums, drawing and journaling also work.

Craig McFadden, a licensed behavioral health specialist with Mountain Crest Behavioral Health Center in Fort Collins, also recommends teens practice deep breathing techniques. “Or, have them simply splash cold water on their face. It creates an autonomic response that literally relaxes the nervous system and shocks them into calming down.”

Take some time

If your child is really angry, have them spend time alone in a safe, calming place like the hammock in the back yard, a rocking chair or on the front porch swing. If it’s a heated situation, you might also need a time out.

“If inside you are feeling angry and have the urge to win, get even or say something you might regret, take a break.  Walk away and come back together when you both are ready,” McFadden concludes.