Kids fighting? Want to bury your head under a pillow until they stop? I get it. But here’s why you need to intervene in kids’ fighting and how to do so effectively.

Last week we talked about how Special Time can be a transformative tool to reduce sibling fighting. Special Time (one-on-one time immersed in your child’s world of play) gets to the root cause of what’s causing the fighting. It gives children the attention from you they crave and lets them know you could never love anyone more than you love them.

That doesn’t mean that your kids will magically stop fighting!

You will still need to deal with the fights. And by deal with, I mean help them out by intervening when they need you.

Some people will tell you to ignore siblings who are fighting or to let them work it out themselves.

This is problematic because children don’t know HOW to work it out. This leads to either

  • lots of screaming and possibly physical altercations and/or
  • the dominant sibling always winning while the less dominant sibling never learns to stand up for him/herself.

Yuck.

As parents we need to intervene in sibling fights. If we do it effectively we can teach our children conflict negotiation skills they will use for the rest of their lives. As they learn how to work it out, they will need us to intervene less and less.

Most well meaning parents wade in, try to suss out the situation as best they can, and then announce the solution.

“Okay I see you guys are fighting over that toy. Brother #1, you’ve had it long enough. Give your brother a turn.”

Sounds fine, right? Actually there are a lot of problems with this approach:

  • You’ve just ruled against Brother #1 and he is seething with resentment. Sibling rivalry goes up and fighting increases! Even if you carefully side with one sibling 50% of the time and the other 50% of the time, you will be perceived as playing favourites. (Even if you’re right! Even if you’re being fair!)
  • Forced sharing doesn’t encourage generosity. Kids who are forced to share want to hold on to stuff even harder.
  • Nobody learns anything about solving a problem. They lose the opportunity to build an important life skill.
  • You will always be called on to referee their fights! If they get accustomed to you solving problems, they will always need you.

The number one thing to remember when intervening in a sibling fight? Be Switzerland. Switzerland is the famously neutral country and that is what you need to be: neutral.

So even if you think you know what’s going on- don’t take sides. Don’t suggest a solution.

You are the mediator between the two sides, NOT the negotiator.

As a mediator you give each side a chance to tell their story and say their piece. The two (or more!) parties get an UNINTERRUPTED chance to talk. Everyone gets a chance. The idea is to make sure each child feels heard and understood. Your only role in the process is to facilitate it. (Make sure you tell the children beforehand that this is what you’ll be doing. Assure them that with this new approach you will listen to everyone!)

You are Switzerland, not the international court of law.

What does this look like in practice?

You hear fighting from the other room- it sounds serious.

Parent goes in and sees two brothers fighting over a Lego guy.

Parent: (In an urgent but not angry voice.) “Whoa whoa whoa! What’s going on? I see two boys who have a problem. Tell me about it.”

Brother #1: “I wasn’t done playing with that guy! I put him down for a minute to find a piece and he took it!”

Brother #2: “He wasn’t playing with it and I want it!”

Parent: Acknowledge that there is a problem but that you’ll be able to work it out.

“Wow. That is a problem. Don’t worry. We can work this out. In our family we always work things out.”

Parent: Restate each child’s position so that they feel heard and understood (and to make sure you actually know what the problem is.)

“Brother #1, you put down the guy but you weren’t done with it yet. Brother #2, you thought he was done and YOU want to play with it.”

Parent: Ask if both children feel heard and if you understand the situation properly.

“Do I have that right?”

(Children will either correct you or agree. If they need to correct you, start a fresh round of listening and restating.)

You are Switzerland! Completely neutral, not adding any editorial (about whose guy it is, who should have it, or what’s fair.)

As we saw in the first post in this series, when you intervene in favour of one sibling (even if you’re right! even if you’re fair!) it increases sibling rivalry which increases sibling fighting. “Dad loves me best!/Dad loves him best!”

You are the mediator: helping your children state their positions, and feel heard and understood by each other.

You are NOT the negotiator: you are not going to solve their problems. We want them to learn to do this for themselves! It takes time (and patience!). But with your help and lots of practice it is completely possible.

Get into this frame of mind before you tackle Part 2 of how to intervene in a sibling fight: Find WIn/Win Solutions.

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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 10, 13, and 16). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com

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