Fights between children serve an important purpose, writes Dr Lyn O’Grady MAPS. It’s one way that children learn to resolve problems, and negotiating conflicts with each other also helps them to work out their place in the family.
Some siblings get along more easily than others. This can depend on factors such as temperament and the way the family manages incidents of fighting. Fighting is often more common when children are younger and haven’t developed language or social skills to communicate more effectively.
When children’s needs are met, they feel that they are treated equally by parents and they feel respected and heard within the family the conflicts between siblings can reduce. But striking a balance between the competing needs of family members is difficult.
Parents and carers can find fighting between siblings exhausting, particularly over holiday periods when children spend a lot of time with each other. How can families reduce the fighting so they can enjoy each other’s company?
Set clear family rules and expectations, ensuring each child has a chance to have input and understand why the rules are important.
A family meeting is one way to give everyone a chance to identify what rules will be important for everyone to get along. The Raising Children Network has lists of example family rules which might be helpful.
Establish family routines. Routines can help family members know what to expect and this can reduce conflicts.
Although holidays can be a time to enjoy a break from routines, there may be some routines that are helpful to maintain. For example, bedtime routines are still important to ensure that children’s sleep patterns are maintained. There might be a little flexibility if children don’t need to get up so early in the holidays but changing the routine too much is likely to affect sleep and also make it much harder to return to the school routine when the time comes.
Routines also help children feel safe and secure.This might be more important for some children than others. Finding ways to include children in deciding what routines are necessary to help the family to function well, and which ones might be able to change during holidays, can be a good way to help children understand change and learn how to deal with it.
Focus on the positive
Notice when children have done something to help others or followed the family rules. Let them know clearly and specifically what they did well.
Children like to please their parents and also like to be recognised when they have tried hard to do something well. If their positive actions are noticed they feel affirmed and valued and will be more likely to see themselves in a positive light. Children like to be noticed within the family. If parents focus on negatives rather than positive behaviours, children are not given the opportunity to learn how to do things better and their negative behaviours can become reinforced through getting attention only in that way.
Show how it's done
Model effective ways to resolve conflicts. This helps children to learn how to resolve differences without a fight needing to break out.
There are many different ways to resolve conflict and sometimes parents use styles of conflict resolution that they learned from their own family. These may or may not be the most helpful ways. KidsMatter has a resource to help identify the most effective ways to resolve conflict, aiming for a win-win approach:
Be a coach rather than an umpire. Where ever possible help your children learn to talk with each other. Prompt them to listen to the other person and together work out a solution. You may be able to offer suggestions but the more input children have the better.
Watch for triggers
Make changes to the environment where possible. You may notice that there are some spaces or times (such as in the car or when shopping) where fighting is more likely to occur. By making some changes to the environment and planning ahead you may be able to prevent fights. For example, you might set up rules beforehand about taking turns to sit in the front seat or to push the shopping trolley. Timers can be helpful to introduce as a way for the children to self-monitor when to take turns.
Step back sometimes
Let children work it out sometimes. If it is safe, it can be helpful to monitor rather than intervene when children argue. This can provide them with the chance to work out the problem for themselves.
Deciding when to let children resolve the issue themselves or when to step in will depend on the age of the children, the risk of physical or emotional harm occurring if the conflict is allowed to escalate and the parents’ own tolerance levels. The younger the children the more it may be necessary for the parents to step after a few minutes. Even when parents decide to step in to help resolve the conflict, don’t be tempted to come in with a solution. Even young children can often come up with great solutions if given the opportunity. It will be most helpful to try to keep the children involved in the resolution of the conflict and to see your role as the facilitator of finding a solution that works for everyone. You might find it helps to provide some suggestions for the children to choose from. If the children are becoming upset, you might suggest a break for everyone to calm down and take some time to think about it before returning to talk about it again together.
Set some safety rules
Be clear about boundaries when fighting or arguments go too far. Children can be hurt emotionally and physically through fights with their siblings. Having clear rules about non-negotiables such as hurtful insults or physical injuries will help children to feel safe and avoid long-term impacts of conflicts within the family.
The APS tipsheet has helpful suggestions for managing conflict between children, including discipline strategies. Positive approaches to discipline include logical consequences and time to calm down. The approaches need to take into account the age of the children and ideally followed up later with a chat about what happened and reinforcing what the parent hopes will happen in the future.
Have a cool discussion
When everyone’s emotions are running high it’s best to take some time to calm down. Parents can also benefit from taking some time to reflect on what happened and possible reasons why a fight occurred or got out of hand. It may be something obvious like everyone feeling tired and easily annoyed. This can be common during busy periods and changes of routine over the holiday periods.
If conflicts are continuing to occur without obvious reasons it could be a sign of a concern with one or more children. For example if one child is particularly aggressive or agitated it could be the sign of an emerging mental health difficulty which might need to explored further. Sometimes patterns develop over time in family relationships where conflict arise because this has become a habit or the way that children interact. Noticing this and looking at what happens before the conflict arises can give parents a clue about what they might be able to change in the environment or intervene at an earlier stage to reduce the likelihood of the conflict occurring or escalating.
If efforts to resolve sibling conflict don’t work and you are concerned about the extent of sibling conflict and the impact it is having on family members, seek professional help. This might in the first instance involve the parents seeking some assistance with their approach to parenting and skill development. Parenting groups or parent education sessions can be helpful, particularly hearing from other parents about what works for them. If this support is not enough, more intensive family support may be useful such as family therapy where family dynamics and underlying tensions can be recognised and addressed together in a safe and respectful environment with the support of a trained practitioner.