How to deal with sibling arguments during isolation
How are your kids coping with isolation? If they’re anything like mine, they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves….juuuuust a little.
So first of all, I just want to say – if your kids’ fighting is driving you up the wall at the moment, you’re not alone!
And really, it’s probably not a surprise that our kids are at each other’s throats more than usual right now, is it?! We’re all under the same roof at the same time. We have no idea when this will end. All of our usual activities (and outlets for letting off steam) have been cancelled. And there’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty making us all feel a little on edge. No one is at their best when they feel stressed. So this fighting is completely normal and kind of expected, too.
But the other thing I want you to know, is that you can help your kids with this! The way we deal with sibling arguments is important. Our response will either exacerbate the situation, or – hopefully – calm it. Right now you might feel like everything you try only makes the situation worse. But with the tips below, you can learn how to respond more mindfully and help your kids learn important skills for effectively managing conflicts with their siblings (and hopefully with others too!).
So let’s dig in and talk about how to deal with sibling arguments in isolation without completely losing your mind!
How to mindfully respond to sibling arguments
1. Stay Calm
You knew this would be the first step, right?! Model healthy self regulation for your kids by taking a few deep breaths and calming your mind and body. A dysregulated adult cannot calm a dysregulated child. So if no one is hurt, it’s ok to take a minute or two to calm yourself before you respond. Otherwise, you risk adding fuel to the fire.
2. Ignore it
Well, not completely of course. If someone’s getting hurt, you should definitely step in quickly. But often, we intervene in our kids arguments far too soon.
You want your kids to learn some conflict resolution skills, right? You want them to learn to get along with others, to negotiate, to communicate assertively? Then you need to give them a chance to work things out themselves! We can’t learn skills unless we have an opportunity to put them into practice.
So if it’s a minor disagreement, stay close, but stay out of it. You may even find yourself pleasantly surprised by how capable and competent your children are when given the chance.
3. Avoid taking sides
Ok, fess up. How many times have you heard fighting and/or crying from another room and opened with the line, “What have you done to him/her?” Yep, guilty right here.
If you do need to intervene, it’s important not to take sides. You are not a referee. Nor are you a detective. Taking sides can lead to us inadvertently reinforcing victim and aggressor roles, which potentially reinforces the behaviour, too. And ultimately, finding out who instigated what and who retaliated and how, is less important than finding a solution to the problem anyway.
So instead, try to remain impartial. A comment like, “It sounds like you’re having trouble getting along” works well. Then simply take some time to listen to each child.
A sportscaster doesn’t get involved in the play. They simply narrate it. And this is what you can do too!
How? By simply stating the facts. Try to use an emotionally neutral tone to simply describe the scene in front of you. “You both want to play with the doll. Your brother took it from you and you feel sad.” And then, you can get curious. “I wonder what we can do about this?”
Sportscasting is effective for a few reasons. It lets our kids know that we see them and the problem they are having. It lets them know that we are comfortable with, and can handle, their big emotions. And it also sends the message that we will not swoop in and manage their lives for them, but that we trust them to solve their own problems. It’s, “I’m here, I care, but also…you’ve got this, kiddo!”
5. Teach self regulation skills
If everyone is really worked up, they may need some help calming down before you can attempt to reach a solution. An angry, frustrated or anxious brain can’t think clearly.
Don’t be afraid to give your children some time apart from each other to cool off. But remember, this is not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to self regulate. They are two very different things and it’s important your child understands that too!
I recommend you encourage each child to spend some time in their calm down space and use some strategies from their calm down kit. Don’t have a calm down space yet? Check out this blog post for some tips to get one set up, or take a look at some calming tools here.
6. Help them reach a solution together
When everyone is calm, you can help your children reach a solution together. Allow your children the opportunity to express their emotions safely and calmly. Allowing them to hear each other’s side of the story will help them develop empathy and understand the impacts of their actions.
Once everyone feels heard, ask your children if they have any ideas about how they might solve the problem, or what they could do differently next time. Offer up some suggestions if they struggle, but try to leave the problem solving to them. Finish up by checking with each child how they might be able to repair things with their sibling.
What if someone got hurt?
If someone is hurt, then this is your immediate priority. And if someone is being hurt, you will need to step in to stop it right away.
After that, offer empathy to the injured child (“Ouch, I bet that hurts!”) and tend to their needs – get them an ice pack or band aid, give them a cuddle or kiss the boo-boo. Resist the urge to pass judgment or react angrily toward the other child: simply ignore them for now and help your injured child.
When everyone is calm again, this is the time to talk to the “aggressor” (privately) about their behaviour. Again, try to remain calm and simply be curious. Your child doesn’t need a lecture. They likely already know that hitting their sibling is wrong, but it’s also likely that in the moment their emotions got the better of them and they simply couldn’t control their impulses.
So remind them of the boundary in your house, and then listen to your child. Allow them to express their upset – this is truly where the solution lies, as this is where the cause of the behaviour lies too. Are they feeling disconnected from you? Jealous of their sibling? Anxious about something?
Once you have an idea of what is driving your child’s behaviour towards their sibling, you can put solutions in place that may prevent it. And then you can discuss with your child how they might be able to do better next time. Offer them some alternatives and help them practice. You might even like to do a short role play – kids love them (especially if you play the child!).
While some degree of sibling fighting is certainly normal and expected, sibling aggression does not need to rule your life. If you’d like more tips on building positive sibling bonds and creating a culture in your home where sibling relationships are valued, read my blog post on raising kids who get along.
Building your children’s emotional intelligence and helping them learn to effectively regulate their big emotions, will help them better negotiate those tough moments with their siblings. And ultimately, their relationships outside of the family, too!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.