Bickering, Conflict and Sibling Rivalry... Inevitable or Eliminable?

Being the parent of an only child, one of the common parenting problems I don’t have to deal with is sibling conflict and rivalry.

However, for reasons I can only put down to an unsettling and turbulent year though, I’ll add that my 7 year old doesn’t need a sibling to be argumentative; these days I’m increasingly subject to objections that range from his drink being the wrong temperature to not knowing what he’s thinking.

I think it’s normal for kids to need a bit of friction in their lives; it’s human nature to want to know where you belong in the pecking order, whichever ‘tribe’ you belong to. But there definitely seems more of this about ATM.

It’s story I hear from plenty of parents I work with that they find their usually pacifist kids becoming argumentative and disagreeable, seemingly for its own sake, bickering with siblings, and having a general desire to not be satisfied with life!

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet to this one. As always, much of the how we react to our kids’ conflict and opposition – whether that’s with siblings, friends, or us as their parents – is what we should focus on, more than the children themselves.

But there are a few ways to minimise and manage it, and here’s three things you can try today;

1) Get their buy-in  It’s easy for children to break your rules or push against your boundaries, but when they have a stake in setting those boundaries, opposing them means they’re going against their own rules, not just yours.
Rather than drawing up ‘rules’ for them, involve them in co-creating an ‘agreement’ of ways they can try to manage conflict appropriately.

Of course, an agreement doesn’t mean they’ll always comply, but it at least gives you a point of reference when it comes to handling conflict and arguments when they arise.
And always define actions for when they can’t agree as part of the agreement process: Do they go and play on their own, take some time out, change activity etc.?

Absolutely don’t try to to negotiate any agreements in the heat of conflict though. Choose a point when your children are settled and co-operatively, and explain the point of the exercise first.

2) Give your kids chance to manage the problems themselves Leaving them to ‘get on with it’ is sometimes only going to end in full-on warfare, but rather than stepping straight in right away as the problem-solver, trying stepping in as an ‘observer’ first.
Report to your kids what you see going on and try to coach them, rather than direct them, towards taking some level of responsibility for resolution.
Whether you remind them of their ‘agreement’, give them a couple of options or ideas, or set a specific time, resist the urge (if you can) to become another frustrated or impatient participant in the proceedings.

If the situation is beyond them and you do need to step in, remain as objective as possible, even if there’s clearly a ‘wrong’ party. Children won’t learn any healthy habits from blame, so instead, support the child in repairing the rupture as necessary, so the other kid/s learn those skills instead.

3) Be optimistic AND realistic 
Just because children play beautifully or co-operate wonderfully one day, it doesn’t mean they can (or should) be masters of these skills all the time here on in, from this day forward.  We all have a moveable threshold for what we can and can’t tolerate, and our kids are no different.

It’s much too easy to fall into the intolerance trap ourselves, but where you can, conduct yourself like the person you want them to be. Calmly reflect to your kids if they seem to be getting irritable and offer support in steering them back on course, before the situation is hijacked by emotional crisis.

Avoid inadvertently expressing your expectation that they can’t manage (even if you do, and they can’t), and instead share your belief that they have the resources to handle the situation, even if you have to remind them of what those resources are.

And when they do manage to resolve a situation – even if far from perfectly – praise what they’ve done well. And always, always ensure they know they’ve got that skill and that they know how to use it again. Only when they’ve got that knowledge and self-belief can you expect kids to start being able to manage themselves.

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