Siblings love each other—but they can also clash pretty hard.
Picture this: I hear a headache-inducing sound from across the house. “Moooommm, Jude won’t share his Magna-Tiles with me.”
It’s not the first time today my kids have had a conflict; before this, they argued about the swing at the park, the coziest seat on the couch, and the Nintendo Switch. Every day, there’s something (multiple things, actually). Maybe you’ve also noticed more tension than usual between siblings. For sanity’s sake, there has to be a way to establish and keep peace.
Build a “Team Mindset” to Ease Sibling Conflict
Beth Lewis, owner of Beth Lewis Therapy Group in Fort Worth, is a licensed professional counselor with a master’s degree in family counseling. She says that while fighting between siblings might be hard on parental ears, it can serve a purpose—after all, it’s good for kids to learn to manage disagreements.
“If we reframe it, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. It is up to the family dynamic how sibling rivalry unfolds or plays out,” Lewis shares. “Can it actually take a healthy path or does it have to be derogatory?”
To get to that healthier place, parents need to nurture a team mindset, one that helps children see their siblings as allies and not foes.
“Whether they are close in age or far in age, they’re on the same team, even though they might not feel it sometimes,” says Patty Gobin, a family therapist at Beckloff Behavioral Center in Dallas. “It’s not that we’re trying to pit our family against the world, but they are there to support each other. They know each other better than anyone else.”
Parents can encourage kids to understand that everyone is different, and that’s a good thing. “[Perhaps] your brother is a really fast runner and that frustrates you because you want to be a fast runner,” Lewis says as an example.
Parents can emphasize “how exciting [it is] to have a fast runner on your team … You can learn and share ideas and help each other. While he’s a fast runner, you know how to write your name and write words so well that he now gets to learn from you. It’s just the framing of how cool is it that we have all these great teachers in our house.”
Daily Strategies for Dealing with Sibling Disagreements
That’s a great approach, of course; we want our kids to feel pride in their siblings’ talents and abilities. But getting there might take some time. So what do we do in the moment, when things come to a head and your kids are screaming, fussing or fighting? Do we step in? Do we let the argument run its course?
Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer, because it truly depends. If the disagreement gets physical—and it’s not “fun” wrestling, and the kids are pummeling each other—it’s time to act. “Obviously, when kids are shoving and punching, we don’t want that. Redirect it and give them a second … to breathe,” Lewis suggests.
Of course, some verbal fights get out of control, too. Whatever kind of conflict you’re trying to break up, Lewis says parents should be very aware of how they speak to their children in the heat of the moment.
Use productive words instead of simply telling children what they’re not supposed to do. “Try to stay away from, ‘Stop that!’ and instead direct them towards what they can do,” Lewis says. For example, you could say “Lower your voice and talk to your brother. I think he’ll hear you better if you’re talking instead of yelling.”
You want the kids to know that you, as the parent, hear them as well. In fact, when siblings are at odds with one another, a big peacekeeping tool is validation: letting children know that you get what they are saying and feeling.
“If we say, ‘Oh, my gosh, you are so mad. I want to hear it. I want to hear why’—really giving validity to why they’re mad, and [giving them] the ability to breathe and compose their thoughts about why they are angry is a powerful life skill,” says Lewis. “If we teach children at a young age that having big feelings is OK, and give them the tools to process and verbalize those feelings in a productive way, that is developing emotional maturity.”
Parents can also encourage peace by positioning the family home as a “safe place.” “I think home needs to be a place where we can come and be safe and be built up, [a place where] speaking negatively about one another wouldn’t be allowed,” Gobin says.
That may mean developing house rules that encourage positive talk about oneself and each other. “I think for siblings, if they are getting angry or they say something negative about their sibling, I would have a rule that they would have to say four or five things that they like about their sibling,” Gobin says.
Those rules should be based on clear boundaries for how family members treat one another. “Say statements like, ‘In our home, we build up each other,’ or ‘In our home, we don’t hurt each other with our hands,’” Gobin recommends, “so that children know what is not up for discussion.”
Strive for Good Family Moments During COVID Togetherness
If you too have dealt with increased sibling conflict, consider it one more thing to blame on COVID. School schedules and activities are disrupted. Children’s worlds have been turned upside down, just as ours have. Many are taking out that stress on their siblings.
“There’s more conflict right now because all of us are doing something that’s a little bit unhealthy, which is being together 24/7,” Lewis notes. “It breeds arguments and irritability, and a desire to isolate and get away.”
Parents can take steps to give kids some breathing room—even if they’re really close together. “Being able to honor space within the same room, being able to say, “Hey, I’m going to put my headphones on and zone out for a bit’ can really help everyone’s mindset,” Lewis notes.
Through all the tension and raised voices, Gobin recommends that families remember that this is an extraordinary time. “We all need to take into account what we’re going through,” she points out.
That means having realistic expectations of how family members will interact and taking the victories where you can. As far as your approach to daily life, “I think just getting a couple of good family times in, knowing ahead of time that not every day is going to be great, [is important],” Gobin adds. “It’s not always going to be smooth. But bottom line, what are they going to remember that they can tell their own children—because this is history in the making.”
Image courtesy of iStock.