Sibling Conflict: A Child’s First Class in Relationship School and You’re the Teacher!

One of the saddest things for parents is sibling conflict. You realize the long-term negative consequences of the fighting, teasing, and bickering between your kids. You want your children to have close relationships as they get older but it seems that they’re determined to undermine any unity by their negative interaction.

Joanne Miller, RN, BSN

Two Common but Unhelpful Solutions

One mom told us, “When the bickering gets too bad I just go in my room and shut the door!” In fact, many parents believe that the solution to arguing and teasing is to allow children to “fight it out.”

Other parents separate the children and try to keep them apart in order to maintain peace. They imitate a referee at a boxing match, breaking up the conflict and sending the fighters to their opposite corners. Unfortunately, continually separating children doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, inevitably the bell rings and the children come back to fight some more.

Both separating children and letting them fight it out are inadequate solutions to sibling conflict because they lack the depth needed to bring about lasting change. When parents only separate the offenders or walk away, they miss valuable opportunities to help their children grow.

Conflict between brothers and sisters is a child’s first class in relationship school. Your home is the classroom, you are the teacher, and a healthy plan for working on conflict is the curriculum. Each conflict situation becomes an opportunity for teaching children how to relate more effectively.

Principle #1: Discipline Children Separately

One of the most important strategies for addressing sibling conflict is to discipline the children separately, not together. Kids have an amazing way of deflecting discipline when they’re together-or ganging up on you!

When two children are fighting, call one out of the room and talk about how to deal with the conflict. Some parents feel like they must stop everything and administer consequences to both kids in order to parent effectively. A better response is to train them in the moment.

By removing just one of the kids you’re able to help that child develop better conflict management skills. When your son complains that you’re only disciplining him and not his sister, then use it as an opportunity to do some teaching. You might say, “I’m disciplining both of you but you both need a different approach. You’re right that your sister needs correction and I’m going to help her with that. But for now, her immaturity is a great way for you to learn how to handle conflict more appropriately. That’s why I’m training you.”

Principle #2: Use Training, not Just Correction

Teach children how to confront, ignore, negotiate, compromise, talk about problems, and be a peacemaker. And when they’ve reached a point of frustration, rather than lash out, they need to get help, typically from you. Send the child back into the situation to try again. You might call the same child out of an activity five or ten times in an hour to continue to point out the change that needs to take place.

Help children know what right actions are appropriate, and as long as they’re willing to try to do the right thing, send them back into the situation to practice. If necessary, call the second child out and give helpful suggestions as well.

The reality is that each child needs individual help to deal with the difficult sibling or with his or her own selfishness. By working with each child individually you gain tremendous influence over the correction process and you can turn the common challenges into training times.

Recognizing that sibling conflict is an opportunity for relationship training gives you a whole new perspective on the conflict. As you listen to your children’s interaction you’ll be able to identify specific skills they need, buttons that are easily pushed, and relating weaknesses that need to be addressed.

Principle #3: Don’t Get Sucked into the Blame Game

Of course, when children come to you with a conflict problem you’ll want to avoid the “he said-she said” dialogue. Many kids want to discuss who started it and who had it first. The real question that helps kids deal with conflict issues is how could you have handled this in a better way? Or what can you do to make this situation work. Certainly there are times when parents must step in to discipline one or more of the kids, but many times kids could practice conflict resolution skills with a little guidance from a parent.

Often it’s helpful to acknowledge the immaturity of the other child. You might say, “You are right. Your brother shouldn’t be hoarding all of the pieces. He’s wrong and needs to be corrected. But yelling at your brother and pushing him isn’t the right way to handle it. Let’s talk about what you could do to resolve this situation in the best way.” Kids need training. The reality is that the same problems often come up over and over again. Children need a plan and then they need practice. That’s why God gave them siblings.

Principle #4: Teach Servanthood

One time two guys came to Jesus to ask a question revealing their competitive nature and their own selfishness. They both wanted the best seat. In Mark 10:37-44 James and John asked Jesus if they could sit on his right and on his left in his kingdom. The question reminds us of many kids who compete with one another for the best seat or the first place in line. That competitive nature simply reveals selfishness. Jesus’ answer to his disciples is instructive for all of us and particularly helpful for children. He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

Here’s how one family taught humility to their kids as they were seeing a lot of sibling conflict. Note: This is a messianic jewish family so they translate Jesus as Yeshua. Watch this:

Most children need help knowing how to deal with their own selfishness and with the selfishness of their brothers and sisters. As you work with your children in this area you’re preparing them to deal with life. After all, adults face challenges with selfishness on a regular basis. The lessons learned now will be used for the rest of their lives.

Principle #5: Practice Honor

God has given children two assignments to work on: obedience and honor. Many parents work on the obedience and they teach honor by practicing good manners. Honor is so much bigger and is actually one of the success principles for life. Honor is showing value to other people. It starts with a good attitude and a responsive heart to parents, but quickly moves to other areas of family life.

Children need honor practice in their lives and it starts in the home. Listening, sharing, and affirming a brother or sister are great ways to address the selfish tendencies in the heart. In fact, for every form of selfishness there is an honor-based solution.

One mom applied honor this way with her fourteen-year-old. “I know that your brother can be annoying at times. You have an opportunity to learn some very important things in our home that will not only help him, but will help you learn life skills for the future. When you honor your brother by giving him some of your time, or teaching him how to be gentle, or playing with him, you’re giving him a valuable gift. And, your thoughtfulness is growing. Someday you might work in an office that has annoying people in it and you’ll be grateful you learned how to practice honor now.”

Children demonstrate emotional outbursts, selfishness, and foolishness in family life. Sibling conflict becomes a flag that specific weaknesses need attention. As you train and coach your children to success, you’ll use tools like firmness, training, and coaching. You’ll turn one of the greatest challenges in your home into a training ground for success.

Parenting so often brings us to our knees. Sometimes we think we know what we’re doing as parents but that feeling of confidence doesn’t usually last too long. In fact, our weaknesses as parents can give us a greater appreciation of our Heavenly Father who wisely provides guidance, discipline, and strength in just the right measure for us.

  • Stephen Barkulis
    Posted at 14:52h, 28 August Reply

    Thank you this was great

  • Chinue Black
    Posted at 16:50h, 30 September Reply

    I agree, Stephen. Super helpful and great reminders to keep putting this into practice!

  • Amanda Neal
    Posted at 20:50h, 30 September Reply

    I can’t wait to implement these. Thank you!!

  • scott turansky
    Posted at 20:53h, 04 October Reply

    Thank you Stephen, Chinue and Amanda for your encouragement and comments.

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