Handling Sibling Conflict

My younger son walked in from the shed and plopped on the couch exasperated. I recognized the familiar pouty look right away. Something had happened and he was not happy with his older brother. A flash of frustration washed over me. I was not in a place to deal with yet another Sunday afternoon of my boys bickering.

It is amazing how two boys with the same parents and same environment could be so different. My oldest loves calm and slow and mellow. He has a strong inclination to follow rules and try to make the adults in his life happy. On the other hand, my youngest loves fast and intense and busy. He has a strong inclination to do things himself and to march to the beat of his own drum.

Two boys so different from one another do not always agree or see the world the same way. When the arguing and bickering starts, it is easy to want to do just about anything to make the fighting stop. It can be hard to know when to intervene and when to let the kids figure things out.

As a parent, dealing with sibling conflict between our kids can be one of the most frustrating and overwhelming parts of parenting, especially when the conflicts impact family life in significant ways. However, conflict between siblings is normal and inevitable. It happens in all families sometimes, no matter how good-natured we all try to be. When sibling conflict occurs it can be used as a valuable opportunity to teach our children how to handle conflict. Here are some ideas for managing conflict that pops up between your children and ways to keep your cool in the process.  

Take a deep breath and engage thoughtfully. It is easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment and add fire to the conflict. Before addressing a conflict between your children make sure you are in a good place to help with the situation by becoming aware of what is going on inside you. Taking some deep breaths and calming yourself can help you approach the situation with a clearer head and a more open heart.

Consider each child and their personality and temperament. When managing conflict, it is important to consider the personality and temperament of your individual children. Some children are naturally more adept at expressing their emotions and frustrations. Look for ways to help create an even playing field by taking into account the unique individuals involved in the conflict.  

Embrace the idea that children develop at their own pace. Keep in mind that all children develop different skills at different speeds, including emotional and social development. When working with children in conflict note that their abilities to process conflict and express themselves may be at different places. This can help you find appropriate ways to help your children wherever they are at in their development.

Encourage understanding. It can be helpful to encourage children to try and see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Can they imagine what it might be like to be on the other side of the conflict? Sharing what they believe the other person may be experiencing can help build empathy and understanding. Empathic understanding helps reduce ongoing conflict and builds important skills for learning how to get along with others throughout life.

Set a good example. As the trusted adults in our children’s lives, we set an example for them about how to manage conflict in healthy ways. When we approach conflict in our own lives, let us stay aware that our actions speak louder than our words. If we handle conflict in unhealthy ways we are teaching our children to engage in these kinds of behaviors, as well. When we show them ways to handle conflict while respecting others and keeping our cool, we give them an example to look to in their own conflicts.

Invite honest sharing and exploration. To deal with the root issues driving conflict between our children it is essential to create a safe place for open sharing, exploring feelings, and thoughtful consideration about what may be contributing to the disagreement. When we begin to look at the complexities behind the conflict we can come up with solutions that address the underlying causes, reducing ongoing conflict overall.

Stay neutral whenever possible. We love all of our children. It is important to realize that conflict between them is just that (a conflict between two people we love) and stay as neutral as possible in our responses. When we assist our children with figuring out how to process their conflict we want to stay open to understanding everyone involved.

Avoiding high risk conflict situations. Are your children hungry, tired, or out of routine? Even as adults we know that there are certain things that can make it more difficult for us to control our emotions and be our best selves. The same is true for our children. Try to avoid these kinds of situations (and the increased chance of conflict) whenever possible.

Questions to Consider

Is there a possibility someone could be significantly mistreated (i.e. bullied, treated with physical aggression)? - This kind of situation involves more focused and immediate intervention and should not be left to children to work out on their own. No child should be harmed by an adult or a child in their own home.

How is personality or temperament playing a role in this conflict? – How does a child’s temperament or development contribute to the conflict that is happening? How will that knowledge or understanding be included in your approach to handling conflict?

Are there conflict patterns? - Do your children often struggle with conflict during a certain time or situation? Do they argue when doing chores or during the morning routine or during any specific time or task? What may be contributing to this recurring struggle? Could it be addressed when everyone is feeling calm?

No end in sight? - Is the conflict between your children ongoing? Do you feel at a loss to know what to do? We can all feel like that at times. However, if this is ongoing feeling there is professional support available that can help. Here at Good Dads we have compassionate counseling services available with professionals who can help you explore what may be going on and find solutions for the specific hurdles you may be facing.

Sibling conflict can be challenging to manage, but by taking a thoughtful approach we can reduce chaos at home and help our children find healthy ways to manage their disagreements.

About Author

Amy Fouse, Good Dad’s Project Manager, has a Master of Science degree from Missouri State University in Community Engagement and Resource Management. She has been married to her husband, Steven, for 20 years and is mom to two teenage boys, Corban (age 17) and Nathan (age 14). She has experience working in mental health related positions that spans two decades, including work with local families in crisis and roles in local nonprofit leadership.