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Unbearable bickering? Teaching kids to become problem-solvers

“If I was a better parent, my kids wouldn’t argue so much!”


Siblings live in close quarters, and have different temperaments, needs, and emotions. It makes sense that there is conflict between our children. Conflict is natural and normal. This conflict gives our kids opportunities to learn and practice getting along even when we don’t agree. It gives us the chance to teach these skills.

Before we go any further, it’s important to recognize that there is a difference between sibling rivalry and sibling violence or sibling abuse. Violence is not normal. Sibling abuse is not something that kids “just figure out” or “grow out of.” It is critical that anytime there is violence between our kids, we step in and separate the children, keeping everyone safe. It is a parent’s job to teach ways to solve the problem and safely release emotions.

“But doesn’t roughhousing just happen between siblings?”

It may happen between siblings or friends. Our job as parents is to identify it as such and put boundaries around it. When the ‘wrestling’ or ‘play fighting’ is mutual, it’s just roughhousing. When it is not mutual, it is abuse or violence. Planning with kids how to communicate that they no longer want to play, and holding everyone accountable to stopping the play when that word or statement is uttered is one way for us to teach our kids how to play-fight fairly.

When rivalry occurs

Young children, or those who have not yet been taught how to work things out, will definitely need our help. When we speak to both children using the same words, we treat them equally and are not labeling anyone as the aggressor or the victim. Moreover, we are teaching them that we believe in their abilities as problem-solvers.

Let’s imagine they are arguing over a toy truck.

What to say:

“I see/hear two kids arguing. Let’s take a few moments to calm our bodies and then we’ll work together to solve this problem. I’d like to hear what each of you feel and need. Both of you will get a turn to talk, one at a time.”

“I can see/hear that you both want to play with this truck. I’m going to put it aside for a moment while the three of us figure out how this can happen in a way that works for all of us. I believe our family can make this work, we do well as a team.”

They may have an answer, they may not. If not, you can suggest, “you can take turns, you can play together, you can alternate days when you play with the truck.”

What not to say:

It’s important that we realize the power our words and actions have over our children. They think we are all-knowing. When we tell them they are something, they believe it. When we tell them they can’t do something, they believe it.

Language to avoid when speaking to the one who is often the aggressor: “Why are you always picking on your sibling? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so mean?”

Language to avoid when speaking to the child who is often the victim: “Oh, you poor thing! Your sibling is always treating you badly. You are always picked on. You can’t stand up for yourself, you need me to do that for you.”

Avoid saying this when speaking to both kids: “That’s it! No one gets to play with the truck. You two will never learn how to behave!”

Moving forward

It may take time for your kids to learn how to work together to solve problems. Teach it to them, (as above), and then, as you feel they are getting the hang of it, you can step back and guide them through it.

“Sounds like you need a moment to breathe and then you can start problem-solving together. Who is ready to say ‘I feel…’ or ‘I need…?’” Then, when they’ve shared, you can ask, “how will you work together?”

Eventually (and this may take years, based on ages and stages of development), “do you two need my help, or can you work it out together?”

There will be times when the kids are very angry or highly emotional. Create space between them and provide time for a cooling down period (minutes or hours), for everyone before the problem-solving begins.

Recurring battles

Clients can usually tell me exactly what situations cause rivalry between siblings. It is often a certain time of day or playing with certain toys or technology. Perhaps it is when they’ve been playing for 15 minutes and get bored. When we can spot those situations in advance, we can help our kids to plan a way to play that won’t end in an argument.

Talking about it upfront can make a difference:

 “I’m going to be making dinner. Often when you play together at this time of day, something happens, and you get on each others’ nerves. What will you say to each other to stop that? Could it be ‘I need my space please,’ or ‘I’m feeling frustrated, please give me my turn.’”

Kids need our help to learn new ways of being

This is a process and takes time. If you’re not sure how to make it better, you are not alone. It’s way easier to learn new strategies together. I’m here to help you teach new ways of working together as a family. Your kids will thank you for it.

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Author, blogger, podcast host and parenting expert, Julie Freedman Smith has been supporting parents across North America for 20 years. Through her company JFS Parent Education, she helps parents find relief from their everyday parenting challenges. Want to know how she can help you? Email her today: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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