Fights between siblings can be a source of stress for parents. Thankfully, there is a great deal parents can do to teach their children how to manage problems with their siblings. Communication, patience, and emotion control help families have disagreements instead of battles.
I had the fortune of speaking with Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings about strategies parents can use to reduce sibling conflict in their house. Here's the video of our talk:
Dr. Markham had great suggestions for how parents can take their referee jersey off, step out of the judge role, and become a communication skills facilitator.
As much as we’d like our children to stop fighting NOW, it will take time for everyone to learn the words to reduce fighting and increase problem solving. Please be patient as the family members figure out how to speak rather than react.
When our children are upset, they are in the fight-flight-or-freeze (Triple F) zone of their brains. This is the part that rules the reaction to defend and attack. In this part of the mind, your child’s brother or sister looks like the enemy. For parents, hearing yelling or physical attacks happening usually gets us all revved up, and our Triple F takes over, too! If everyone is in defensive mode, rational thinking and problem solving just aren’t going to happen.
Calmly walk over to where your children are instead of shouting your instructions. Although, if there is violence happening, rush over, and step between your children.
I recommend having a family calm-down plan, where you decide ahead of time what steps are helpful for you to clear your mind and calm the aggressive actions that might be building in your voice, hands or feet. Calming puts you in the part of your mind where you can make good decisions.
Rather than being a referee where you judge who is right or wrong, put yourself into coaching mode. You likely don’t have the full picture of what has happened between your children so taking sides is likely to actually increase the conflict. One child might look at the other as the bad guy and harbor resentment.
Approach your children with an attitude of “You two are having a hard time—I wonder what we can do,” instead of “He or she is the problem.”
As the facilitator, your main goal is to help your child know what words to use to explain his/her upset. In order to help everyone shift out of defensive thinking into helpful thoughts, start by making sure everyone feels heard. Dr. Markham suggests saying something like, “You want ____ and you want ____. Do I have that right?”
Show your children that you understand the missing need and that there is a way to address it. Once children feel heard, they will be able to see solutions.
Once everyone is calm and feels validated, you can start facilitating a conversation between the siblings.
“Tell your brother in words…” is a great way to get children to consider how to attune to what he or she is feelings and express that effectively to another person.
Speak with your children about the options they have available to them, and which ones seem do-able. You might have to help identify those choices while your children learn how to focus on solutions.
Once a solution is agreed upon, walk through the action steps, and remember to use encouraging words like, “You had a problem and now you have both decided how to solve it,” to further fill your child’s sense of feeling understood.
Dr Markham walks through a variety of different scenarios in her Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings book, providing specific scripts to try with your children. I like that she included suggestions for when a new baby is brought into the house. If you have any questions, you are welcome to post those in the comments here or over on my Facebook page, where I will do my best to answer them.