Best Parent Practices for Fighting Sibling Conflict

(It’s exhausting, you’re over it — we know!)

Hey, we’re in the heart of summer.  You’ve already had six to eight weeks of family togetherness– and if you have more than one kid, the novelty of summer may have worn off and your kids are probably driving each other (and you!) completely crazy.  Good news:  as parents, there are lots of things that we can do to reduce sibling conflict and shift the dynamics between our kids!

First, we can set up situations in advance in order to make conflict less likely.  For example…

  • Think strategically and plan activities that will minimize competition and maximize collaboration.  For example, do family activities that don’t involve winners and losers (e.g., baking cookies, making art, building with Legos).  Activities that require kids to work together as a team are even better.  Avoid situations set up for competition– such as playing competitive board games or having your kids playing on/in the same sports teams or leagues.
  • Try not to use language around your kids that suggests comparison or fosters competition.  As parents, it’s virtually impossible for us not to compare our kids to one another– but try to do it when kids aren’t in earshot!  And try to avoid matching them up head to head– for example, having them race one another or compete directly in other ways.
  • Make a point of regularly spending quality time with each child one-on-one— even if it’s just a few minutes.  This doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be focused, connected time (no phone, no other distractions, just you and your kid).
  • And look for opportunities to praise your kids— separately for their individual strengths, and jointly at the times that you see them getting along with one another. 

That said, it’s obviously not possible to avoid all sibling conflicts!  Indeed, conflicts with siblings are great opportunities to practice emotion regulation and conflict resolution skills that will serve them well in any situation.  As parents, we can facilitate that practice by giving kids the chance to resolve things independently, without parent intervention.  Indeed, some research suggests that when sibling conflicts are regularly running really high, it can be helpful to use a joint incentive that kids earn together (everybody gets it or nobody gets it!) for getting along without the need for parental intercession as a way to motivate them to collaboratively problem-solve without running to us for help!  That said, sometimes it’s necessary for us to intervene (obviously, at times that kids get physical with one another, and/or when they’re otherwise clearly not succeeding at working it out independently)– and those moments are chances for us as parents to be skillful in helping to defuse the situation and modeling/encouraging key emotion regulation and conflict resolution strategies.  

In these moments, we can be most effective as parents by noticing and narrating what’s going on (getting curious in a way that makes our kids feel heard and tones down the emotional intensity of the moment), modeling the use of descriptive language about emotional experiences, and prompting for emotion regulation skills and collaborative problem-solving.  (By the way– this also means doing our best to accept difficult emotions rather than stifling them!  We all get mad.  That’s OK.  And those emotions are a signal that we need to do some problem-solving about the situation that upset us.)

For example, you might say, “Wow, I can see that you’re really angry.  You’re telling me that your brother took the toy that you were playing with.  I totally understand why that made you upset, AND it’s not OK to hit your brother.  Let’s take a few deep breaths together, and then think about what you could do or say the next time something like this happens.”

Not as easy as it seems, especially because by the time sibling conflicts have escalated to the point at which we need to intervene, we are often already annoyed or angry ourselves!  This week, I’ll encourage you to take a deep breath and try putting one or more of these strategies into action.

For more ideas and info, take a look at these links:

If you want more support in problem-solving about how to manage sibling conflict with your kids (or any other challenge your kids are bringing to the table!)– tailored to your individual kids and family!– reach out to us via email at clinic@practicesanfrancisco.com.  We offer individual parent coaching in-person, by phone, or via telehealth.  

And don’t forget, teaching kids about emotion regulation skills is part of what we do in our Mighty Minds program (plus so much more!)!  We have only three weeks remaining in our 2019 summer sessions– with limited spots still available.

  • July 29 – August 2
    • 1:30-3pm, rising 1st to 3rd graders (one spot remaining)
  • August 5 – August 9
    • 3:30-5pm,  rising 6th to 8th grade girls
  • August 12 – August 16
    • 1:30-3pm, rising 3rd to 5th grade boys (one spot remaining)
    • 3:30-5pm, rising 4th/5th grade girls (two spots remaining)

More information about the Mighty Minds program and summer sign-ups can be found here; if your child has participated in the past and you are interested in enrolling in our NEW one-session alumni program, please email us at info@practicesanfrancisco.com!).  Please note that we also offer our Mighty Minds program as an after-school program during the school year, and will be releasing our 2019-2020 calendar soon!  (If you are interested in school year sessions, please add your child to our summer registration list and note that you prefer an after-school program.)

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