A Strategy For When Siblings Argue

June 28, 2012

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According to my daughter, when you are performing a magic trick,  it is NOT cool for your little brother to tell the audience exactly how the trick is happening.

  (She speaks from experience.)

On the other hand and according to my son, it is NOT cool for your big sister to launch into an over-emotional tirade just because her  “trick” received a little extra commentary surrounding its execution.

By anyone’s standards, there are valid issues with both kids’ responses.  No one enjoys refereeing a fight between two children (young or old!), but since we’ve been unable to become the first parents in the history of child-rearing to bear conflict-free siblings, we’ve tried developing a strategy for dealing with our kid’s disagreements. Our goals for the kids are simple (though not easy).  We want them to:

  1. Own their individual parts of the problem
  2. Visualize a different outcome
  3. Make a plan for the next conflict

At this parenting stage, with a 9 and 7-year-old, we do well to hit JUST the first goal, but we’re still working on all three.  The strategy unfolds in seconds, usually in the heat of a disagreement, so it’s important to internalize the order.  I like to think of the approach in three phases:

Phase One – Triage

Disagreements are not all created equally. Before deciding what to do, we ask ourselves three questions:

Can they resolve the issue without help?  Everyone has to learn how to navigate conflict to be healthy adults. Sibling relationships are important training grounds for learning how to work things out.  If you hear your kids working on a solution, let them be (if possible).  The sooner they learn to self-navigate the waters of conflict, the better.  Obviously, this means giving the conflict a few moments to develop and see if it seems to be resolving or spiraling downward.  (Hint: If kids begin scanning the room for weapons or bowing out of each others future weddings, that could be a clue that they might need a nudge in a more positive direction).

Is there a quick, immediate solution?  Often, arguments start not because the sibling is simply annoying (as is often accused), but because of an outside factor.  When attitudes start falling apart easily, look past the content of the argument to see if a “root problem” needs to be addressed.  Around our house, a disagreement might mean that someone’s attitude is in the tank because he or she is hungry (aka “hangry“) and the best response is to get some food in them ASAP.  If one is tired, get thee to bed!  Some times, one child wants (or needs) alone-time and the other wants to connect.  Nobody is at fault there, but the needs just aren’t going to align.  If a child is over-stimulated, changing environments to some place calm helps.

Is there a character issue at play?  Much of the time when kids fight, they do so because they aren’t getting their way (isn’t that why everyone fights?).  This is a character issue that has to be addressed and is the root of the bad behavior.  The specific behavior that spawns arguments could be an uncontrolled temper, selfishness, moodiness, a sassy mouth (my personal pet peeve), a disrespectful attitude, or disobedience.   You know the list, all of the obvious stuff!  Identifying the character challenge will set the path of conversation on how to deal with it well.  This is best done by stopping what you’re doing and focusing on the conversation with your child.  (Note: The biggest challenge will be stopping what you are doing. Focus.  Pay attention. Eye-to-eye, down-on-their-level conversations don’t always come easy in a chaotic world.  Having the ability to put our busy-ness aside for a moment to help is a “must do” in helping our kids through conflict).  The approach to this chat leads you to Phase Two.

Phase Two – Question

Nobody likes to be lectured – not kids or grown ups.  Save your breath in lecturing your kids when they are mad.  Instead, spend your time asking questions of them.  I think that we (as parents) often default to an over-emphasis on giving instruction and an under-emphasis on asking questions.  Talking simply makes a point that may or may not find fertile ground.  Asking questions tills the soil so that kids can investigate, think, and discover on their own…so that it fully grows change in their lives.  It is the reason that we try to ask good questions.  In the face of conflict, we try to step our kids through their behaviors and ask “non yes-or-no” questions such as:

  • How were YOU part of the problem?
  • If it’s all your brother/sister’s fault (which is usually the accusation), why do they think it’s all your fault?
  • What could YOU have done differently?
  • What drove YOU to respond the way you did?
  • What made you think hitting/yelling/etc. would help?
  • Did your approach to the problem make it better or worse?

Spend as much time as necessary in this conversation phase (which means asking AND listening); help them understand that almost 100% of all arguments contains faults from both parties.  The idea of being part of the problem will come as a shock (SHOCK!) to most kids, so patiently asking questions will help them discover and own their part in the problem.  Be sure to focus the discussion for each part on themselves … rather than on the other person (which is always easier to do). When they finally acknowledge their role, you can move to phase three.

Phase Three – Plan

This phase is rooted in the kids answering one final question: “What can YOU do differently next time you’re in a similar situation?”  Use this as a mini-brainstorming session to talk with your kids about ways they could defuse the argument.  I’ve heard ideas like “play with a different game” or “scream in a pillow” or “find a compromise.”  Whether or not the follow-up plan is realistic, just talking about another option plants the seed that arguments don’t have to happen.

How do you stop bickering between your children?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

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