With all the extra time my kids (6 and 8) are spending together, with no school or outside friends, they are fighting like crazy. Do you have any tips for how to help them get along?
You are not alone and there is a lot you can do to help them get along better.
First, make sure they take breaks from each other. The conflicts might be happening partly because they’re tired of each other. Have some time every day where they play on their own. You can have a name for it, like Quiet Time, and each child plays in his or her room or in a different space. Sometimes one child wants to play together more than the other, so make sure that if one sibling says, “I don’t want to play,” you support that child at least some of the time. It could be that one of your children is more introverted and not getting enough time alone.
Have established property and sharing rules. I recommend that parents do not force their children to share property that belongs only to one child, such as a birthday gift or something bought with the child’s own money. It’s up to that child whether to share it – or not. If it’s a toy that belongs to the whole family, each child should be able to play with it until he or she is done. Imagine if another adult demanded to use your phone or your car. Or imagine if you were in the middle of using a piece of equipment at the gym and someone told you your turn had been long enough. Forced sharing does not make kids more generous and it contributes to sibling resentment.
A great deal of fighting is caused by sibling rivalry: jockeying to come out on top. Sibling rivalry is always about, “Who does Mom or Dad love more?” or, “Will I get my needs met?” There are a couple of things you can do to decrease the rivalry.
Make time for one-on-one time with each child. Your children have a biologically driven need for your love and attention. They want to be assured that you love them and that you couldn’t love anyone else more. Take 15 minutes a day to show your child there is plenty of love and attention for them. There’s a great parenting tool for this called Special Time. Set aside your to-do list and find a time when you won’t be interrupted. Tell your child, “I’m all yours for the next 15 minutes. What would you like to play?” The key here is “play.” Dolls, stuffed animals, Lego, imaginary play and roughhousing are all great choices. No screens or structured adult activities like baking. Joining your child in their world of play is the best way to fill their deep need for attention and connection. Try for 15 minutes with each child and each parent every day. You will see a decrease in your children’s fighting when they know they will get you all to themselves for at least a little while every day.
Be Switzerland when intervening in sibling fights. We do need to intervene to prevent physical violence or the most dominant sibling getting their way (or both). However, if we intervene as judge and jury, even if we are “right” and careful not to favour one child, it will increase sibling rivalry. The child whose side we take feels victorious – “Mom loves me best!” – while the “loser” plots revenge on their sibling – “I’ll get them next time!” The key is to be neutral: help them talk to each other and come up with a mutually agreeable solution using conflict negotiation. If we take sides and solve the problem, they will never learn how to work things out and they will grow even more resentful of each other.
It can be difficult, but with some strategies, clear boundaries and some time and effort, you can help them stop fighting and be best buddies as they grow up.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, ages 12, 15 and 18. Do you have a parenting question? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.