Three Rules for Children to Follow when Fighting
by Katy Skinner
On Fighting Between Siblings
When my children fight, my goal is to teach them how to take care of it themselves. They will not always have me with them. The bonus, of course, is that my own life is more peaceful. It also removes the motivation to argue in order to get mom’s attention, which is important.
When mom becomes the judge, the child’s whole motivation can change. They are no longer arguing about who gets to play with the doll, but who does mom love?
Notice I didn’t say, who does mom love best? No. If you side with Child 1, you love Child 1 and do not love Child 2. This is how my kids interpret it, I guarantee it. So, naturally, the arguing escalates astronomically. It hits them in the heart much more than whatever the initial argument was about and so they will fight much more aggressively. Notably, losing truly will be the tragedy they say it is.
Isn’t that sad?
But I can’t stay completely out of arguments, either! I must protect my children from abuse, especially in their own home, and I also must teach my children not to become abusers, especially of the people they should love best.
When my children fight, I try to teach them these principles:
1. They must communicate. Did Child 1 even tell Child 2 what she didn’t like? My kids love to skip this step. I am often surprised, no matter how often we go over it, that they have skipped it and run straight to me instead! “Mom! Ben is jumping on my back!!” It is very important to stop your gut reaction at this point. Contrary to what we might assume, kids do not simply know that they shouldn’t do something. Weird, but true. I could go instruct Ben in the dos and don’ts of jumping, but then Beth misses out on the lesson of how to solve her own problems—an essential life skill. Correct response: “Did you tell Ben that you didn’t want him jumping on your back?” Surprisingly, more often than not, that is the end of the situation! Bethany runs to tell Ben she doesn’t want him jumping on her back. Ben stops jumping on her back and starts jumping on the couch instead. Lovely. No more argument and I didn’t have to get involved. Bonus, I didn’t even have to stand up! My couch will be fine.
2. They must try to understand the other person’s point of view. I suppose this is where I interfere the most. Especially if the child is younger and doesn’t have the verbal skills or maybe even an understanding of why they’re acting the way they are. For instance, in the example above, if Ben hadn’t stopped jumping and they both now stood in front of me, I would say to Bethany, “Ben has a lot of energy and he needs to get it out. You’ve felt that way haven’t you? Maybe you could help him find another way to get his energy out.” With older kids, I can just ask simple why questions and it usually does the trick. “Why did you do that?” “Why didn’t you stop when she asked you?” My kids know that when a sibling asks them to stop something, they need to stop. They better have a pretty good reason if they didn’t. Again, though, I am referee and not judge. They should be talking to each other.
3. They must be kind. You can disagree with your sibling. You can be frustrated with your sibling. But you can not be mean! This is another place I may need to referee until they learn to keep their emotions in check. It can take many, many times doing this before they learn that the system works and that they can be kind and still have their own pain acknowledged and the situation rectified without having to resort to anger, physical force, or hurtful words. See my post on how you can model keeping your anger under control. That helps the kids a lot! The trick here is to not become punishing with the child who is angry. “Do not speak to your sister like that!” only escalates the emotions in the room. How about, “Kaylee, can you say that more kindly, please?” I am not above pleading at this point. “Kaylee, this is your sister! You love her! I know she is important to you. Let’s try to work it out.” Reminding the child that we are trying to love each other can really help clear some of the red mists from their eyes. If you can get them to internalize that goal (to love each other, to have our home be a safe place, and to be a safe person to be around), all that will go a long way to having the kind of home you want.
A few weeks ago, I heard two of my teenage daughters talking heatedly in another room. I could tell they were upset. I worried. Could they handle it alone without me stepping in? I listened. They were talking to each other. They were listening to each other. They were not being unduly mean to each other. So I let them be.
Several minutes later, my 15 year-old came in and I asked what had happened. My 17 year-old was upset about something a friend had told her that my 15 year-old had said. Importantly, after their conversation, both daughters were still upset. BUT they had talked it out. They had explained their side. Neither had done anything that would damage their relationship with one another once they had a chance to calm down. I called it a success.
It seems that all that training really can pay off. It can for you, too!
Katy joins us to share observations about parenting after many years of raising some of the strongest, kindest, smartest, most agreeable people you will ever meet (we can say that because some of us have met them). You can read more of her wisdom at On Parenting. We feel so privileged to also share tidbits here!