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Handling Sibling Conflict


mother handling conflict between girl and boy children


Some conflicts are a fact of life. After all, children are still learning how to get along. When they do happen, the main thing is to stop the children before somebody gets hurt or goes too far. Then it’s time to help them deal with the issues in a constructive way.

Four steps for breaking up fights

  1. Stop the conflict before the crying starts. This might require physically separating your kids, or sending them to opposite sides of the room to settle down.
  2. Keep your cool. This might sound impossible, but the idea is not to make things worse. As much as possible, try to save your emotional energy for giving positive feedback for behaviours that you want to encourage.
  3. Tell them you’ll talk about it later. Children are often too upset to take in what you’re saying at first. Wait until things cool down before you talk about the issue. This could even be the next day with older children.
  4. Take action. Decide on a solution or consequence. Tell the children what it is – and follow through.

Tips for handling fights

Treat all children fairly, in a way that’s reasonable for their age and skills. Fair treatment isn’t necessarily the same treatment. For example, it might not be possible to treat a six-year-old and a two-year-old the same.

No negative comparisons. Handling the emotions that go along with conflict is difficult for everybody. Try to bite your tongue if you feel like criticizing an older child for “not knowing better” or calling another “a troublemaker”. It won’t help, and your child might feel hurt or resentful.

Identify the cause of conflict, so you can choose the best way to deal with it. For example, if a child has taken a toy from a sibling, you need to step in. If you don’t, the child learns that taking things is a way to get what you want. Keeping an eye on your kids is the secret to knowing the reason for the conflict and deciding on the right consequence.

Let your family rules do the work for you. If children understand your expectations, it’s much easier for you to follow through consistently.

Have a game plan. Not all conflicts are equal. It can help to plan how you’ll handle smaller disagreements as well as bigger conflicts. Work out different consequences for different issues.

Using consequences

Consequences can be an effective form of discipline when kids can’t work the problem out on their own, and you need to step in to resolve the issue.

Here’s how you can use consequences when kids are in the middle of conflict:

  • Stop the activity or game with a comment like, “You can use the computer again when you can think of a way that you can both use it”. Or “Because you’ve been arguing, we’re going to turn off the television for half an hour”.
  • Remove the toy, game or other object. For example, “You can play with this again when you’re both ready to share”.
  • Delay something they want to do. For example, “Until you work it out, we’re not going to the park”.
  • Make the children spend time apart. For example, “You haven’t done what we asked, so you need to spend five minutes apart”.
  • Give them no say in the matter. For example, “here’s what we’re going to do about this problem...”.
  • Back up the consequence if children don’t cooperate the first time. Try removing a privilege such as an extra half-hour of TV or computer time, or using a time-out.

Consequences that are short and immediate work best. Half an hour without a favourite toy, a night without a favourite TV program, or a few minutes of quiet time should be long enough to get the message across. The point of the discipline isn’t to punish kids, but to help them understand that there are clear, negative consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

Stay calm if the conflict moves on to another subject. If they start arguing about who was responsible, say something like, “It takes more than one person to fight”. If they start arguing with you, say something like, “You’ve already been told no TV for tonight”.

Tip: The steps above are recommended for children three years and over. Younger children might still find it very hard to control their emotions and behaviour, and might not understand consequences. With younger children, distraction can work better.

Handling your own emotions

Your stress levels might shoot up when conflict occurs, but staying calm can really help. Many parents say that if they’re tense, the situation just seems to get worse. But some issues will bother you more than others, and some days you’ll find yourself getting upset more quickly. Give yourself a break – you’re human.

Here’s a quick tip that can help if your children’s conflicts are making you feel hot under the collar: stop, count to 10, and then act.

That extra 10 seconds is often enough to calm your emotions. If this doesn’t help, you might want to ask another adult to handle things while you take some time out.

Steps to take after the fight

What you do after a conflict can help children learn how to solve their own problems in the future. For best results, wait until tempers have cooled and children are ready to reason again.

  1. Let the kids know the bottom line.
  2. Get both children to say what they think the problem is.
  3. Get both children to say what they want to happen. You can also help them examine their expectations.
  4. Brainstorm together. Let the children go wild with ideas on how to solve the problem, and encourage them without commenting on ideas that sound far-fetched. Throw in some ideas of your own, and write them all down.
  5. Rate the ideas. Start by asking the kids to think of which ideas won’t work. Then look for the solution with the most benefits and the least drawbacks.
  6. If you can’t come up with a solution first go, come back to it later. You can ask the children to go away and work out some ideas together, or ask other people who have had similar problems. Or you might look for ideas in parenting books or websites.
  7. Once you’ve all agreed on an approach, give it a try and see how things go. Come back and start again if things don’t improve.

When to seek help

If you’re seeing high levels of aggression, it’s time to take action.

Conflict is a problem when it is unchecked, frequent or hurtful. This can be distressing for children and can contribute to future problems with relationships. In contrast, supportive relationships with siblings, family and friends help kids cope with negative experiences later in life.

Conflict that involves intimidation, bullying or physical aggression needs to be stopped quickly, before somebody gets hurt. Whatever tiffs and squabbles do occur, physical aggression is not the norm.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed by conflict, it’s worth getting support. You could start by talking to family, friends and other parents.

It’s much easier to nip challenging conflicts in the bud than to let a pattern of behaviour develop.

Tip: Conflict isn’t just physical. Sometimes you’ll need to step in when a fight involves nasty verbal remarks or name-calling.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Effective Parenting: Discipline  
HealthLink BC: Time-Out 
HealthLink BC: Establishing Limits With Your School-Aged Child 



Last Updated: November 30, 2014