Kids Fighting All the Damn Time? Here's How to Stop the Hitting and Keep the Peace

“I love that when I’m telling my kids to stop fighting, I say, ‘I’m not in the mood,’” tweeted author Arianna Bradford, “like if they tried me on a different day I might be cool with their bulls---.” Whether we are fully quarantining or gingerly dipping pinky toes back into the playdate pool, our new way of living means siblings are spending more time together than ever. This yields both incredibly sweet bonding moments and an uptick in fights so vicious, insults will be hurled, limbs pinched, ultra-rare Pokémon cards shredded and unauthorized haircuts “accidentally” given to dolls. So how can parents promote sibling harmony when family members cannot escape each other’s company and kids have painfully few outlets for their energy? Read on for expert ideas. We’ll be over here, cleaning up the aftermath of Princess Jasmine’s new mullet.

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1. Routine is your friend

If you are able to create and stick to a daily routine, replete with rituals and visual aids (we love a dry-erase daily calendar), kids of all ages will feel more in control of their lockdown lives. They will thus hopefully be calmer and less liable to attack each other over who gets which couch cushion or who gets to pet the “head end” of the dog.

2, So is positive reinforcement

The two most oft-used words in the parenting advice universe are also among the hardest to act on. After all, when one sibling face-claws another for, let’s just say, denying her stuffed animal Octopus is in actuality a living, breathing creature of the deep, it’s tough to turn a blind eye. That being said, “Children often get our attention when they are fighting and hurting one another, but it is easy to ignore them when they are getting along and playing nicely,” Kimberly Updegraff, PhD, an Arizona State University professor of family and human development told the New York Times. Still, whenever possible, “Acknowledge behaviors that you want to see more of, like sharing and playing together. Positive reinforcement may increase that behavior in the future.”

3. Know that Some fighting is healthy

Before you step in to thwart the next sibling smackdown, wait a beat. After all, if kids are never allowed to express their full range of emotion at home—including anger, frustration and resentment—they may be less capable of handling confrontations and resolving the conflicts they’ll inevitably face as adults. The way they react to disagreements and tension with friends, romantic partners and colleagues will be dictated by their childhood experiences, experts say. “Often quite unthinkingly, we tend to replicate our roles relative to [our siblings] in work and even love,” writes Hara Estroff Marano, an expert on “invasive parenting,” in Psychology Today. “Whether we like them or not, siblings are forever.” But the benefits of a good (nonviolent) sibling tussle can also be reaped right now, while kids are still young. “Witnessing arguments—and participating in them—helps us grow a thicker skin,” writes University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Adam Grant in the New York Times. “There’s no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out—and to take it.” Who better to practice your verbal sparring, contrition and forgiveness skills on than someone who will love you unconditionally—or at the very least share your bathroom for the next 4 to 14 years?

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4. Work on your romantic relationship

“The parents’ relationship is the beginning,” according to renowned psychologist Ellen Weber Libby. “Children mirror tensions they see and feel in their parents, and those tensions affect their relationship with one another. When they see their parents loving each other and committing to each other, the whole family is strengthened.” It’s a fallacy to think that investing in your partner takes much-needed attention away from your kids. Especially if siblings are in a conflict with each other, strengthening your bond with your spouse may be healing for everyone.

5. Avoid taking sides

Blaming and shaming will not give any child the tools to resolve future conflicts. In fact, even the sibling who ‘wins’ the fight (as determined by the parent-referee) is likely to walk away feeling diminished, disempowered and guilty. Instead, envision yourself as the neutral mediator/adult guide, but make it your children’s job to find a solution to the problem. Give each child equal airtime to explain the source of their conflict and the feelings it engendered, from their perspective. Then let the other kid(s) go first when suggesting potential resolutions. Children in families who resolve disputes in this way—rather than ones with parents who quickly shut down any argument—have a richer emotional vocabulary and better self-control, experts say.

6. Use feelings-based language

“Rather than yell at your child for making a bad choice, try saying, ‘Can you think of a better way…?’” writes Dr. Aliza Pressman, Director of Clinical Programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. “This helps them focus on problem solving instead of focusing on how to avoid getting lectured.” Replace accusatory phrases like “You always...” and “Why must you…?” that put kids on the defensive, with open- ended, empathy-boosting ones like, “I can see that your sister is upset. What do you think she is feeling?”

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7. Manage your own stress

“Anxiety reverberates through a family the way you throw a pebble into a pond,” therapist Dr. Jonathan Caspi told the Times. “If you can take note of your own anxiety and say, ‘OK, I’m stressed, I’m going to respond differently to my kids.’ That alone can make you respond better.”

8. Don’t extinguish healthy competition

We’re not suggesting you pit kids against each other or make them battle for your approval, Thunderdome-style. But inserting yourself into every squabble or equalizing every imbalance (exhausting yourself emotionally in the process) may have the unintended effect of making you your kids’ go-to referee forever. You may also be unwittingly robbing them of an opportunity to define themselves—yes, in comparison to each other. Writes Marano: “There is evidence that competition among siblings to distinguish themselves from each other is an inevitable—and necessary—part of family life. Sibling strife allows for the emergence of distinct personalities and identities… [Sibling relationships] are children's first relational experiences, the ones that shape their social and self-understanding for life.” Think of throwaway lines like, ‘My sister was a star athlete; I was a theater nerd,’ or ‘My brother was the life of the party; I was a shy with a handful of close friends.’ These ideas are more than just autobiographical filler. They’re essential to the stories we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are.