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 sister out of her room 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 solution.

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.

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.

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. You might tell yourself, “This is not an emergency. I can handle this. My kids are good. We can figure this out.”

Comfort the Child who is Hurt

Separate the kids, but keep a hand on each of them to let them know you’re there to help them through the hurt, not to blame or shame anyone. If one child is hurt, listen to their upset and say a few things here and there.

“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.

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 sibling. You might say a few things as you listen:

“Your sister loves you. I’m sorry she hit you. Something must really be bothering her to do that.” 

“Whoa! Lots of feelings here. It’s my job to keep everyone safe and that means separating you two right now. No one is in trouble, but I do have to stop you.”

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.

  1. Bring them Together to Talk

Only after the tears and tension have settled can you have a conversation with them. If they are still upset, you can say, “I want to hear from both of you, but first let’s take some deep breaths 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’re calmer, you can start the conversation of repair:

  • Give each child a chance to speak and reflect back what you heard. “You were upset because you wanted the red bowl and she had it yesterday?”
  • Restate the limit or rules: “ I know you were upset, but I can’t let you grab from each other.” “Our family policy is 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.

Sometimes just asking them to think of a solution, even if it seems silly or unworkable, gives them the floor to practice problem solving.

None of this is easy. It’s hard not to yell or be reactive when one child hits the other on the head, especially when a child gets hurt. It’s hard not to take sides and blame the one who was in the wrong. But when we blame or shame or punish, it’s counterproductive.

Parents always ask, “But don’t we want to punish the perpetrator? Shouldn’t we give consequences to the one who’s done the harm?” The problem with punishment is that harsh words, yelling, and consequences leave siblings even more frightened or resentful. Those feelings build up and burst out in more aggression toward each other later.

As psychologist Laura Markham says, “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.