All siblings get into conflicts at some point. In fact, conflict between siblings offers a crucial opportunity for children to build their interpersonal skills, such as learning to share, compromise, and disagree respectfully. Yet knowing that sibling conflict is expected and even helpful does not typically make it easier for parents to manage day to day! This is compounded during times of intense stress such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the many challenges parents are currently facing, there is much parents can do to manage and reduce sibling conflict, both during the current pandemic and in general. Read on for some easy-to-implement tips. 

Set Expectations

A helpful first step to manage sibling conflict is to establish family rules so that everyone knows what is and is not acceptable. These rules may look somewhat different during COVID-19 when the whole family is at home. Find some calm moments to think through guidelines around how you want your family members to treat each other. Try to phrase these rules positively. In other words, state what you want family members to do (e.g., “speak kindly”) rather than what you do not want them to do (e.g., “no name calling”). By phrasing the rules positively, kids are better able to understand what they are supposed to do. 

Once the adults have agreed on the non-negotiable rules, include your children in the discussion. Ask them what rules they think should be in place to ensure everyone in the family feels safe and respected. Consider making a family “contract” which the children can sign, help decorate and chose where to hang it in your home. 

Go Step by Step 

The ultimate goal is for your children to resolve conflicts as independently as possible. However, children initially need more support from parents to learn how to do this. When you intervene, do your best to remain calm and neutral. Doing so models for your children that it is possible to stay calm during emotionally charged moments. It can be helpful to follow these steps:

  • Call a “time out.” Ask your children to separate and each use a coping skill such a belly breathing. When each child has calmed down, they can come back together. 
  • If they are still upset, they can share their feelings using “I statements” in which they state how they feel and why. For example, “I feel angry when you take my toy without asking.”
  • Next, they can generate potential solutions to the conflict. In the beginning, you will likely need to offer some ideas as well. 
  • Finally, they should choose a solution to try. They can check back in with each other to see how the solution worked out and if they are both satisfied. If they are not, they should choose another solution to try. 

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to give your children more problem-solving responsibilities. This helps prepare them to solve conflicts independently in the future. For example, while you may call a time out and ask them to separate, ask each child to choose their own coping skill to calm down. If your children are a little older, ask them to try to problem solve without involving you.

Use Praise and Attention to Change Behavior

Children are highly motivated by adult attention and praise. Use this powerful tool to help shift your children’s behavior during conflicts in a more helpful direction. For example, praise them when they promptly separate during a conflict or when they independently attempt to calm themselves down. It is helpful to tell them exactly what you liked, such as “I really like how you took space and used a skill right away.” Similarly, praise your children’s attempts to resolve a conflict on their own before coming to you—even if it was not successful! By praising their efforts, you will increase the likelihood that they continue to try to solve problems independently. 

Remember… Parenting is a Long Game

When you are in the trenches with arguing children—particularly during a global crisis!—it can feel very hard to remember that this time will not last forever. Remind yourself that the time you are investing now will save you time in the future as your children stop looking to you to referee their problems. It is also important to be patient and gentle with yourself when you are inevitably pulled in too many directions and are unable to step in during a conflict. Your children’s social skills and future relationships are built slowly over years—no one conflict will break or break them. Continue to just do your best and incorporate these tips wherever you can. Your home will slowly become a more peaceful place. 

Below find some Magination Press titles that teach children calming strategies.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist in the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program and the McLean School Consult Service at McLean Hospital in Boston. She is also an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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