Parent Question: My kids are always fighting. I guess maybe not as much as it seems, because they do play well together some of the time. Their fighting really upsets me. I yell at them both, but more at my older son, because I know he causes most of the problems and starts the fights by picking on his younger brother. It’s getting worse as they get older, with more physical fighting. They hit each other, and my younger one sometimes kicks and bites his brother. I don’t know how to get them to stop. I think I’ve tried just about everything. Time-outs, taking away their toys and screen time, yelling, but nothing works. Please help. Thanks.

A: I think one of the more consistent questions I hear from parents is: “How can I stop my kids’ fighting?” My response to that is, What are they competing for? What are your expectations for their relationship? How was sibling rivalry handled when you were growing up? It’s inevitable that jealousy, resentment and competition between siblings causes considerable stress in parents. Our approach to the conflict between children likely determines how the rivalry will play out. Children are learning about balancing power, limits and giving in. When we step in to determine who is at fault and who is the victim, we are assuming the role of judge and jury. You might more readily identify with the child in the same birth order as you, while another parent might protect the more quiet child. Parents often decide the outcome before everyone has been heard and understood.

When children are screaming, our tendency is to “fix” the problem, to act as referee. However, it’s time to consider another approach.Typically, fighting between children is normal, while they work out their differences in a safe environment. This helps them build important relationship skills they’ll need both within and outside the family. We want our children to learn how to resolve conflicts, to develop negotiation skills. What blocks us from allowing them to find their own solutions?

Siblings often have strong feelings toward each other; thus, validating those feelings is important. When we truly listen to the feelings behind their fighting, our response communicates acceptance and support without judgment or criticism. It leaves room for our child to consider more acceptable ways to express the anger. Children can make peace with each other, despite our best efforts to find solutions for them. When our child cries, pleads for our intervention to punish the mean sibling, we do a big injustice if we manage and referee their conflict. Rather than get involved in the emotional triangle, the parent’s job is redirecting their communication to each other. Parental involvement reinforces children’s polarized positions (“If mom is on your side, she must love you best.”).

When your children can’t work out the problem and ask for your help (or as you mentioned, fighting is becoming more physical), it’s best to coach, not referee or judge. Help them name the problem and hear each child’s account, his feelings and concerns. Clarify the problem, asking what each child needs to move closer toward agreement, with win/win. Help them brainstorm solutions, without judging. Support them in determining the best possible outcome.

Sometimes coaching isn’t necessary, with children reaching resolution and re-engaging without us. Allowing children to navigate the process helps them shape the outcome. If we consistently make them work it out, children will stop bringing us into the battle for assistance. The competition for our attention no longer serves a purpose. Empowering children to resolve their own battles teaches the skills to find creative options. Treating our children fairly doesn’t mean treating them equally.

Children don’t need to be treated equally, but, rather, uniquely. Respond to each child’s individual perspective, temperament, likes/dislikes. Things won’t always seem fair to children. If we resist reacting to that complaint, we’ll hear the feelings more clearly and be able to respond with empathy. When children bring their battles to their parents, they’re hoping we’ll declare the verdict, that they’ll get our full attention, and/or we’ll choose the favored child. The unspoken question to their parents is: “Who do you love best?” It’s important to pause, breathe, and disengage. Rather than answering that question with emotions triggered from our own childhood, try listening to each child’s perspective, connecting to the emotional root of the conflict. By listening carefully, we’ll hear our child’s compelling need to be understood, to have his feelings validated, releasing us from choosing sides. What we’re called to do is to love each child best!

“The only thing that’s necessary is that we take another look at the less favored child, seek out her specialness, then reflect the wonder of it back to her. That’s all we can ask of ourselves, and all our children need of us. By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality, we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child.” — A. Faber and E. Mazlish

Please send me your questions.