For many parents, there comes a time when you are caught in the middle of a sibling crossfire:
- Your little one bops his brother on the head when the bigger one takes his truck.
- At breakfast time, two siblings make a run for the red bowl. They get to the cabinet at the same time and the tug of war begins.
- A big sister is tired of having her little sister in her room. She pushes her sibling to the door and a meltdown ensues.
It’s not easy when one child is upset, but when two or more are involved and there is aggression, name calling, and crying, you quickly go to that place of overwhelm. You feel like you’re failing parenting 101 as you fumble your way to a cease-fire.
Sometimes you can curb the conflict before it occurs, but when you get there too late and someone has been injured or they are both in tears, you need to know what to do next. Laura Markham in her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, outlines an array of helpful strategies. Here are a few I recommend to my clients:
1. Make things Safe
Get between your children and prevent a hand or leg from lashing out again. You may have to pull them apart or put your hand on top of the red bowl they are fighting over. “Whoa, stop,” you say as you hold out your hand and prevent them from advancing or taking the item and running off.
2. Find Your Calm
Take a deep breath so you don’t fly off the handle yourself. Your kids need someone calm and in charge to help them to the other side of the conflict. You are their port in this storm.
3. Comfort the Child who is Hurt
Separate the kids, but keep a hand on each one of them if you can. This lets them know that you’re not there to blame or shame anyone, but rather to help them through the hurt, and that you’ll stay connected as you do this. If one child is hurt, listen to their upset. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time to help you both.” “I’m sorry this happened. I know it’s not easy for either of you.”
Let the tears release. As you warmly listen to your child, their sibling will take note. If the other child is not as upset, you may be able to engage him in comforting his brother: “Ouch, this must hurt. Ethan, can you get the ice pack?” If that’s the case, his mind will go from “bad child” to “helpful sibling” which teaches him an important lesson about repair and will help prevent future aggression.
4. Let the Emotions Settle before Talking
When children are upset it’s not the time to force them to apologize or help them come to a solution. What they need at that moment is to work through the anger or fear so they can think clearly again and remember that they love their brother. You might say a few things as you listen:
“Your sister loves you. I’m sorry she hit you. She must have been feeling pretty bad inside to do that.” “You have a good brother. I’m sorry he put paint on your teddy bear. I don’t think he feels good about it.”
Listening without blaming or punishing anyone is better than any “fix” you can impose on your children. And they will learn to listen to one another in the future when things get tough.
5. Bring them Together to Talk
Only after the tears and tension have settled can you have a conversation with them…maybe. If they are still upset, you can say, “I want to hear from both of you, but first let’s take some deep breathes together so we can listen to one another.” If they’re still angry or hurt, they won’t be able to regulate themselves with deep breathing or think about how they want things to change in the future. But if they are a bit calmer, you can start the conversation of repair:
- Give each child a chance to speak and reflect back what they heard. “You were upset because you wanted the red bowl and she had it yesterday?”
- Restate the limit or rules: “I can’t let you grab from each another.” “No hitting.”
- Have each child express how they feel and what they want from their sibling. “Can you tell your sister that you want her to ask before she takes your truck?”
- Have each child restate what they heard the other person say.
- And then have them each come up with a solution.
None of this is easy. It’s hard not to yell or be reactive when one kiddo hits the other on the head, especially when a child gets really hurt. It’s hard not to take sides and blame the one who made your Mama or Papa Bear claws come out—because that’s what we do, we go into fight or flight or protection mode.
But when we blame or shame or punish, it’s counterproductive. Because as Markham says, “...it leaves them even more frightened or resentful and all those feelings will burst out in more aggression toward their sibling later.” And punishment after the fact, “doesn’t prevent crimes of passion. The defining characteristic of rage is that the thinking part of the brain isn’t engaged, so we forget all of the lessons we’ve learned.”
The strategies above work because children stop being perpetrators and victims, and you are no longer the angry enforcer. They help your children regulate their own fight or flight reactions and heal the hurt so it doesn’t fester and pop up later when you’re least expecting it.