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For Sibling Battles, Be a Sportscaster, Not a Referee

Parents in my psychotherapy practice often ask how to make sibling conflict stop.

Understandably, they want the bickering, teasing, aggression and cries of “no fair” to end. But one of the best ways to dial up sibling love is not to squash conflicts, but to learn how to use them. Research supports this, and I’ve seen it in action.

For the most part, sibling conflict is normal and to be expected: Home is a safe testing ground for social dynamics. Siblings often want to play together, but it takes skill and patience when they’re different ages.

Be a Sportscaster

It’s our job to let kids know we see and hear them, but we’re not necessarily going to solve siblings’ conflicts for them (or else they never get the practice). When squabbles start, imagine you’re a sportscaster and describe what you see in front of you, without judgment and without taking sides. This simple practice lets your kids know you acknowledge and respect their struggles, but you’re not immediately jumping in with a solution.

Example: You hear shouting and walk in to find your kids looking upset with each other.

Instead of: Hey settle down in here! Jack, what did you do this time?

Say: I’m hearing really loud voices in here. Alex, you’re looking mad with your hands on your hips. Jack, you’re laughing. There’s a pack of Pokémon cards on the floor.

Narrate what’s happening. Repeat back what your kids say to you. Try to be neutral.

Ah, got it. You’re telling me he always takes the best cards. You feel like he’s the boss all the time. I see. Jack, you wanted to play the game you usually play and Alex wanted to change it up. Alex, you got frustrated and threw the cards. Am I missing anything?

When you repeat back their grievances, it helps kids start to hear each other and work on their own solutions.

[The topics new parents are talking about. Evidence-based guidance for pregnancy through age 6. Personal stories that matter. Sign up for the NYT Parenting newsletter for the info you need about raising siblings and more.]

Let Siblings Be Mad at Each Other

It’s a knee-jerk reaction for many parents to insist siblings be nice to each other, and try to smooth over tricky or unpleasant feelings. But siblings can feel love, anger, frustration and connection to each other all within the same day. If they get the message that we accept only their sunny feelings, they will either put more oomph into the darker ones so we hear them, or repress and hide them from us. Neither of these is a good outcome. Accept the negative feelings without judgment. The warm, loving ones will naturally resurface.

Example: He always ruins everything! I hate him!

Instead of: Hey, watch it. You need to calm down and apologize to your brother.

Say: Wow, you are super angry at him. What was it that made you this mad?

Example: I don’t want this new baby. I wish she were never born.

Instead of: Oh, you don’t mean that. You’re going to love her, you’ll see.

Say: I get it. Things feel so different now. It used to be just the three of us and it seems like everything changed. I feel it too sometimes!

Know When to Intervene

If you feel as if your kids’ relationship is bordering on emotional or physical abuse, it’s important to intervene quickly and be ready to separate them if necessary. But for the brothers and sisters who are merely annoyed, pause and listen. When voices start to rise and conflict is escalating, those are signs you may need to step in. Start with something like,

Do you guys need help figuring this out?

Can you give me some information about what’s happening here?

Kids are capable problem solvers, even the youngest ones. Assume they have good ideas and you’re there for support.

Use the Iceberg Analogy

Kids’ words and behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg. They’re the easiest to see and the part we fixate on. Usually, there’s something more telling under the surface. One sibling pushes the other not just to be mean, but because he’s angry, he’s testing boundaries, he’s been pushed at school, he’s tired, he’s overstimulated, he’s trying to get attention. As we teach and uphold family rules, it’s also our job as parents to look deeper.

Approaching the situation with curiosity will help you get to the root of the issue, and it also brings the family closer and makes the lessons stick.

Set Limits

The above are a few of the tools my co-author, Julie Wright, and I teach clients to help them tune in and understand what kids are feeling. But you need more for true conflict resolution. We call this strategy the A-L-P model, for the steps of attuning, limit setting and problem solving. Attuning means you lead with understanding, limit setting states the rules and realities, and problem solving is for coming up with alternatives and solutions:

Ouch, that looked like it hurt. Let me check and make sure you’re O.K. You were really mad and you slammed the door on his arm? Tell me what was going on. O.K., got it. You were angry and you wanted space from him. (Attune to both kids).

We absolutely cannot slam doors, because it’s dangerous. Remember that’s a family rule. (Limit Set).

Let’s get your brother some ice. Pause. What could you say, in clear, strong words, when you need space? Let’s write those down, because it’s really hard to remember when you’re mad. (Problem Solve).

This system helped a mom in our practice to feel empathy for her “problem child” — her middle son, who seemed to find every opportunity to provoke and aggravate his little sister. He was downright mean to her in a way that made the mom furious. She sometimes felt as if she didn’t like him.

We had her sketch an iceberg and fill in the possible sources of her son’s behaviors. As she did this exercise, she started to cry. She had written notes like, “Resentment toward little sister for being the baby of the family, attention from adults always on her, jealousy for her easygoing nature, overwhelmed at school, anger at recent family changes.” She worked on seeing him through this lens of curiosity and it made her less reactive and able to acknowledge his struggles.

Eventually, he started opening up and telling her more about how he was feeling. When she reminded him of family rules, rather than sending him to his room, she asked him what he could do instead of provoking his sister, and he actually started coming up with his own ideas.

As time went on, she still heard them fighting, but she also heard them working things out, chatting and laughing. The ratio of enjoyment to conflict was going up. Her empathy for her son was spreading through the family.

Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and co-author, with Julie Wright, of the book “Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma.”

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