I used to think that the point, when siblings fight, is to stop the fighting and to prevent it from ever happening again—as if the frequency and degree of the fighting was reflective of my mothering effectiveness. Now I realize that the point is not to stop the fighting (well, yes, we need to stop the fighting, but how we approach the fighting in our mind is the distinction I’m making) but to let it be said from my voice, as their mom, that the fighting is not okay.
What I mean by this is that it’s the message that I send by saying, “No fighting!” in the midst of an all-out brawl that is the main thing and not so much the grand display of breaking up the fight. Kids know when they shouldn’t be doing something. They know. So when they hear their Mommy or their Daddy reinforce this (that they shouldn’t be fighting and that they should stop), it solidifies their sense of right and wrong (or, to scale off the moralization if that’s bothersome, what’s helpful and harmful).
It’s helpful to work things out, talk things out, problem solve, and resolve conflicts and disagreements in a calm and civilized way. It’s not helpful (i.e., harmful) to hit and kick and yell and scream. These are the scripts that we are helping our children to have and to hold in their minds and hearts as they grow up.
And what solidifies these scripts even more besides saying these words over and over again for as long as our children live in our house is to model these words. If we handle every disagreement that our children have between and among each other with the same kind of aggressiveness that they are showing to each other, then it’s hard to learn to handle conflicts in a different way than that.
If we approach sibling fighting (in our mind) from a vantage point of fear and anxiety (oh my gosh they’re fighting so I have to get them to stop because good parents don’t have children who fight with each other), then it just escalates our own reactivity, and this is why and how we can find ourselves in the ring with them, being just as much a part of the fight as them. Is this very helpful? I don’t think so.
But if we approach sibling fighting (in our mind) from a vantage point of confidence and peace (I hear fighting. I’d better go and see what’s going on. And once there, how can we solve the real problem, here?), then it contributes to a valuable responsiveness that we should want to have with our children. No matter what the problem may be, we can handle it with strength, compassion, and grace.
Yes, sometimes, the alpha parent needs to bellow out a good, “That’s enough!” Because sometimes children really can go too far with their fighting. Kids can throw a good punch—it’s rather amazing. And, of course, it’s our job as the parent to keep everyone safe, so if the disagreement (aka “fight”) has turned physical (like with the punching or the throwing of toys at each other’s heads or, as what happened yesterday, the stepping on of faces), then priority number one is to bring it all to a halt. Not much is usually required. Do you notice that [little] kids go and hide when they know that they are going to be in trouble? Mission accomplished. All that’s necessary now is a good one-on-one conversation with each involved party, and we can move on.
Yes, it’s tempting to throw your hat in the ring and be part of the fight. (Who can resist it?) We want to show off our contending abilities, too, and how much easier does it get than to one-up the fight with fighting words of our own? This is where patience, perspective, and personal power really come into play and really reap their benefits in your life. All that’s required—truly—is your presence. Hear fighting? Enter the room, give everyone a good stare down. It usually doesn’t take too long. The fighting will cease. And then you can say a few words if you wish. “We’re going to stop the fighting right now.” Serious tone. I-mean-it-we’re-going-to-stop-this.
Kids know. This is all the leverage you need. Sure, we can stop the fighting by force (there are times when we might have to, like with literally picking up a child and peeling him off another), but in general, for the most part, there is absolutely no need to fight fire with fire. What’s the most important thing to remember when kids are squabbling is to attend to it. Do not ignore it flat out (there are strategic times when you can ignore some bickering so that your children will have the chance to figure out how to settle things on their own, but the key word here is strategic) because then the kids will think it’s okay or that you don’t care or that you aren’t aware that it’s going on. If the fighting is loud enough for you to hear in another room and it continues after the first sound of it, then it falls under the responsibilities of supervision—and parental check-in or back-up or intervention (whatever is appropriate) is needed.
So just remember that the existence of sibling fighting doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve been an ineffective parent. What makes an ineffective parent an ineffective parent is to consistently do nothing to attend to sibling conflict (for example). The fact that you go and see what is going on and respond as appropriate to the situation at hand is what makes an effective parent an effective parent. Effective parents are active and assertive. They do not sit back and just let things fly. They attend to situations and they tend to their children.
Fighting between and among siblings is simply part of being a child, so it’s our job as parents to mitigate the fighting in a way that sends the right message (e.g., We handle our conflicts respectfully and do our best to stay calm.) and that models the right behavior (e.g., We treat our children respectfully and help settle the conflict calmly.) so that we are not creating more confusion about conflict than there needs to be. (In other words, the presence of conflict is part of life. What’s important is handling and working through the conflict in a respectful and effective way.)
How do you handle fights that erupt between and among siblings?