Dear YPP,

My kids just won’t stop bickering, fighting and being horrible to each other. It happens all the time and I don’t know how to deal with it anymore. No matter what I do, it just keeps getting worse. Please help.

Dear Parent,

This is a challenge that all parents face but one that with the right tools and approach can be managed very effectively.

The first thing I always like to think of, as with any behavior challenge, is:

What is the purpose of the behavior?

Generally the motivating factor behind this type of behavior is:

  • A child striving to seek significance within the family and/or
  • A child trying to get the parents involvement and attention

The child is often trying to assert him/herself, establish the hierarchy and see if they can pull rank on their sibling. It’s an even higher accomplishment to pull rank on Mum/Dad and get Mum and/or Dad on side in the process!

Very often in these situations, parents do not witness the exact chain of events leading up to the moment of conflict and often base their reaction / response on what has typically happened in the past or what they think might have happened this time. Regardless, even if/when you know exactly what happened, I always advise to NOT take sides as it only plays to serve one child positively over the other and which will reinforce the rivalry between them. It is between them and not you!

As parents, we have to think of our ultimate goal here. We want our children learn to resolve conflict and be able to negotiate in a socially acceptable manner and our role in this is to help them manage their emotions, develop empathy and guide, role model and teach them how to do this.

In the heat of the moment, when emotions are running high, any lecture from you will fall on deaf ears. If the fighting is at a level where you feel is unacceptable, you need to separate the two children. At this point, you need to simply say:

“This behavior, hitting/kicking/punching/fowl language/whatever it is, is unacceptable and you both clearly need to be separated from each other until you have calmed down a bit.”

You can comfort them if you feel that it would help, but you need to offer comfort to both. You need to treat them both the same way. One might turn the hug down but that is their choice. They need to know that you are there if they need you.

When both children are calm you can then say:

“I did not see what happened but I can see that Riley, you are very sad and upset and Archie, you seem to be very mad and angry with your brother. What would you both like to do about it?”

In doing this, you are not taking sides, you are supporting, accepting, acknowledging and validating BOTH of their feelings, you are comforting them both the same way and you are empowering them both to find a solution to the problem and resolve the conflict. Your role is to facilitate the process.

If we go back to the purpose of the behavior:

  • If it was to strive for significance, you have not played a part in reinforcing this
  • If it was to get your attention, you gave both children your attention, positive attention and,
  • If it was to get you involved, you are involved but not in a way that is seen to reinforce this type of behavior for one of them over the other

Remember, the bottom line is that one child invariably wants you on side so your job is to remain neutral and not interfere with their sibling relationship.

When parents take this approach consistently, the sibling rivalry will no longer serve the child well and the behavior will soon stop. The altercations will continue, it is a normal part of growing up with siblings, but they will learn how to manage if for them themselves and will not turn to you to do it for them.

“No habit is maintained if it loses it’s purpose” – Rudolph Dreikurs

I hope that this helps you a bit. When I have been in this situation, I find it much easier to be neutral if I can keep in the front of my mind the purpose of their behavior and know that my being neutral is going to therefore stop the behavior from serving them well.

Please give me a shout if you want to chat more about this. Good Luck!

Partnering you