Should Parents Intervene When Siblings Fight?

What can families trapped at home together do about 24/7 sibling bickering?
Having to spend so much time at home together is a recipe for sibling bickering.
skynesher via Getty Images
Having to spend so much time at home together is a recipe for sibling bickering.

I have two young kids, and one of my great joys as a parent has been watching their relationship blossom. The 5-year-old is generally pretty patient and gentle with his toddler brother, and the toddler flat-out adores him. Part of their nightly bedtime routine is saying “huggie?” then clutching each other for, like, a full minute before I turn out the lights. They’re pals.

But as the pandemic wears on, their relationship has become increasingly tense. They still have nice moments throughout the day, but they’re squabbling constantly. I don’t blame them. We are in each other’s faces all day long. We are out of our routines. Sometimes I snap at them; sometimes I let it play out. None of it seems to help. And, goodness, I am sick of their bickering being the soundtrack of my days.

So HuffPost Parents chatted with a few experts about whether parents should butt into sibling squabbles — and some best practices for teaching kiddos about conflict resolution. Here are their top six tips.

1. Lower your expectations

Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and the author of “Getting to Calm, The Early Years: Cool-headed Strategies for Raising Happy, Caring and Independent 3-7 Year Olds,” said her top piece of advice for parents dealing with sibling conflict in the time of COVID-19 is to “please reduce your expectations of harmony.”

Although we parents have grown pretty darn adept at navigating the pandemic, we should not forget that this is “a disaster,” Kastner urged. So put on the TV. Let kids eat junk food. Don’t stress if your home feels messy and chaotic and your kids are growing increasingly feral. Get through the days and don’t worry too much about building bad habits.

“I just want parents to not worry so much,” Kastner said. If parents really can cut themselves some slack and lower expectations, there’s less likely to be yelling when the stress of juggling it all takes hold. And habitual yelling is something Kastner worries can have a more serious long-term impact when the pandemic is behind us.

2. Give them space

One simple way parents can lower expectations is to not expect our kids be able to hang out with each other all day in harmony. Because they probably won’t, Kastner said. Instead, she recommends parents give brothers and sisters as much space as possible. It’s just a really simple, effective preventive measure.

“Separate them as much as you can!” Kastner urged.

If you’ve got separate rooms and they’re old enough to handle it, send them there with a bunch of toys and just give them time to themselves. Let them be bored. They’ll figure it out. And if you’re in a cramped apartment like me, and your kiddos share a room, do what you can to eke out separate zones, Kastner said.

Because, ultimately, Kastner believes “benign neglect” is a pretty solid prevention strategy — and a simple, perhaps obvious one she believes hands-on parents sometimes overlook.

3. Teach kids how to stop

In general, you should not ignore sibling skirmishes, because it sends the message that you condone what’s happening, said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston who runs a program called More Fun With Sisters And Brothers, for parents of 4- to 8-year-old children who want to help those kids build positive relationships.

Specifically, she believes parents should make sure children have the skills they need to be able to manage conflicts before they’re given room to figure it out on their own. And one of those skills is the art of stopping when things get heated, which, frankly, is something a lot of adults struggle with.

“You want to help them stop what they’re doing. You might say, ‘Hey, I see the two of you are having a problem. Let’s take a pause.’”

- Laurie Kramer, Northeastern University

“You want to help them stop what they’re doing,” said Kramer. “You might say, ‘Hey, I see the two of you are having a problem. Let’s take a pause.’”

Parents can certainly work with kids on learning to stop in the moment, but Kramer also encourages families to work on this skill in calmer, happier times. Introduce it in a “playful” way she said, maybe asking them to stop when they’re playing with their toys or during an outing with you in the grocery store.

“You want to help kids learn to do it in a flash,” Kramer said. Eventually, all that might be required of you as a parent is popping your head in the room when you hear your kids squabbling and saying something like, “Oh, it sounds like something’s going on” — and they will be the ones to recognize the need to stop or pause.

4. Help them take turns talking about their side of things

Once you’ve helped kids take that first crucial step of stopping, there are many different strategies for handling what comes next. (The internet is full of acronyms and specific plans!) Most center around getting kids to calm down ― teach them belly breathing, Kastner recommended ― as well as teaching them to think about what they want to happen next and calmly explain what they’re feeling.

As they’re getting the hang of this — and it takes a lot of practice, the experts all emphasized — you can help them along with questions like: “What’s going on? What is it that you need right now?” Kramer said. “It’s important for everyone to have a chance to express their needs in the moment,” she added. “It can help to have one sibling repeat back what the other has said to them.”

Basically, you’re helping validate their feelings and teaching the fine art of listening.

Crucially, you’re also showing your children that they — and you — can deal with conflict.

“Often well-intentioned parents ‘shut down’ a disagreement thinking they’ve solved a problem or taught a lesson,” said Matt Lundquist, a therapist and the clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City. “When in reality, they’ve driven the conversation into the secret realm in which children communicate or disagree but away from the view of parents.”

5. Trust kids age 5 and up to work on the skills you’ve taught them

Whether or not parents get involved in sibling conflict has a lot to do with kids’ ages, the experts said. If you’ve got a toddler like me, you’ll probably spend a lot of time stepping in and redirecting. They’re just not developmentally ready to learn to manage conflict yet.

But the experts in this story also encouraged parents to give their children time and space to practice the conflict management skills they’ve learned — again, given that you have worked with them ahead of time and aren’t just expecting them to come by those abilities on their own.

“Let them learn how to settle their own squabbles as much as possible,” Kastner urged. “Certainly once they’re over the age of 5 and they can understand the rules.”

Trust that it’s good for all of you to back off when possible so you’re not always stepping in and, as Lundquist put it, “playing the role of judge.”

6. Always intervene in cases of physical harm or humiliation

Of course, there are times when parents should absolutely step in, the most obvious of which is when a child is physically in harm’s way.

“Red flags are instances where a situation is unsafe or where a stronger child (usually the older child) is using physical power to resolve a situation in a way that’s unfair,” Lundquist said.

But just as important are arguments or situations in which one child is humiliating the other.

“The same part of brain responds to humiliation and rejection as if you hit me,” Kastner said. Research clearly shows, for example, that emotional abuse can be just as harmful in the long term as physical or sexual abuse. And siblings can absolutely bully each other.

“One of the foundational rules that all families need to have is that no one is allowed to be mean,” Lundquist said. “Meanness can be tricky to precisely define, but in most cases parents know it when they see it.”

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