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When to Intervene During Sibling Fights

Photograph by Twenty20

I field a lot of calls about sibling fighting. Although arguments among siblings are a fairly common occurrence in families, they can send even the most calm among us running for cover, particularly during the long winter months when days are cold and darkness sets in before the homework is even started.

The two questions that parents ask me time and time again are "When do I intervene?" and "Is sending them to separate rooms really the best solution?"

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Moment of truth: I never send my kids to separate rooms when they're having a hard time. I get it. Sometimes it feels like the fastest route to peace and quiet is to separate the kids and let them take a moment. While this practice does create quiet, it doesn't necessarily result in peace.

The truth is that kids tend to fight when they're in a compromised state. Sure, they might report that they're arguing over something as meaningless as a sticker, but there is always something beneath the surface that triggered the argument. Sending them off to perseverate in a state of anger doesn't address the hidden problem.

Before deciding on your strategy, it helps to consider why siblings argue. All kids are different, and all families face unique stressors, but there are a few common triggers that are always worth considering:

  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Jealousy
  • Opposite temperaments
  • Hunger
  • Boredom
  • Control
  • Poor problem-solving skills
  • Low self-esteem
  • Learned behavior

Some experts caution that parents should not intervene at all when siblings fight. Arguments between the kids might be painful to listen to, but they are good practice for working things out. To that end, I do agree. When siblings argue, they learn how to fight fair. Sort of.

An even better way to handle sibling arguments is to provide support. No, you can't solve the problem for your kids. Micromanaging the argument backfires in the long run, because your kids don't have the opportunity to practice problem-solving skills. Providing support and guidance, however, helps your kids learn to work through an argument without deliberately hurting each other's feelings.

There is no "best" time to intervene but, in general, if the argument escalates quickly or there is any physical altercation, get in there to help. Better yet, take a proactive approach to teaching problem-solving skills, so that your kids don't need your help when disagreements arise.

Some kids need more quiet time or more emotional space than others. Some kids like to share everything while others hold certain things close. It's OK to have individual needs within a family.

Here's how:

1. Stop before it starts

Most young children don't understand their own anger cues. When I'm upset, I tense my neck and shoulder muscles, and my heart rate increases. When those two things happen, I know that I need to use my relaxation strategies.

Teach your kids to understand their anger cues by talking about what anger actually feels like. Some kids feel tense when they're angry, while other kids feel like they need to stomp their feet.

A great family activity is to conduct a "feelings, thoughts and needs inventory." Have each person draw a face to represent anger. Under the face, answer the following questions: How does my body feel when I'm angry? What does my brain think when I'm angry? What do I need to calm down?

Share your answers so that you all understand your ownand each other's—anger cues. When your kids learn to spot the cues in themselves and one another, they can work together to solve a problem before it escalates.

2. Set clear boundaries

My son needs a lot of downtime after school. He enjoys getting lost in solitary play, and this helps him regroup after a busy school day. My daughter has very different needs. She needs to talk, engage and play together. The solution? We set very clear boundaries. She asks him when he'll be ready to play, and he gives her a timeframe. He gets his downtime, and she moves on.

Some kids need more quiet time or more emotional space than others. Some kids like to share everything while others hold certain things close. It's OK to have individual needs within a family. Setting clear boundaries helps establish a zone of respect and eliminates some of the testing that can lead to arguments.

3. Promote teamwork

"We're in this together" is the motto in our house. If someone is sad, someone else can be a listener or a happy maker. If someone is frustrated, someone else can help problem solve to reduce that frustration. In our family, we work together for the common good.

When we empower kids to work together, they learn to assess the needs of others instead of simply focusing on their own wants and needs. They develop empathy and understanding, which results in increased patience and better problem-solving skills.

When tension does rise, I like to ask one simple question: "Who can be a change-maker right now?" More often than not, we all find a way to solve the problem together.

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4. Model fair fighting

If your tendency is to yell or snap the moment your kids test your boundaries, your kids will do the same. If you stomp off and slam doors when things get tense with your spouse, your kids will do that. Kids learn how to act and react by watching us.

Arguments happen. People disagree. Working through a disagreement together shows your kids that problems can be solved peacefully. Take a moment to evaluate your own anger and fighting style. Consider the messages you might have sent in the past and find a way to model healthier coping strategies in the future.

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