How Serious a Fight Is It?

Sibling rivalry is normal.How parents react to it makes a big difference in how well siblings get along. It’s an opportunity to teach the social skills that will help them to resolve conflicts and avoid fighting in the future.

Leave the kids alone unless there is a threat of harm. Safety must be the first priority, psychology the second. Parents not only need to protect growing bodies from physical abuse, which siblings usually grow out of with few or no lasting scars, but more importantly to protect them from emotional abuse, which is more likely to have life-long consequences.

Children need you to monitor put-downs. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job. By remaining silent, the victim concludes you’re siding with the victimizer. Be particularly vigilant to prevent emotional scars, which take longer to heal than the physical ones. Show them alternatives ways of handling differences, a valuable lesson for life.

You must step in immediately and call a halt if:

    somebody is going to get hurt, whether physically or emotionally, or
    you sense one child is victimizing another, physically or verbally, or
    property is likely to be damaged.

Assessing the levels of the fight
In deciding when and how to intervene, take into account not only the degree of violence, but also the ages and relative sizes of the siblings.

Level 1: Normal Bickering
Ordinary bickering can safely be ignored. Teach children to handle minor squabbles by themselves.

Simply state two points:

    you expect them to be able to work it out themselves; and
    the consequences if they don’t work it out.

For example, “I’ll be back in one minute. If you haven’t decided how to share the toy, the toy goes back into storage and both of you into your bedrooms for 10 minutes to cool off.”
Leave the room.

Level 2: Situation Heating Up; Adult Intervention Might Be Helpful
If the quarrelling continues for too long a time, get involved and determine the causes for the conflict.

Acknowledge their anger.
Listen respectfully to each child’s view.
Give your children time and space to vent their anger and frustration before beginning your “therapy”.
Show you understand both children’s viewpoints and help them hear each other by echoing their feelings, “John, you feel like you have been waiting long enough for your turn, and Mike, you feel that you are just getting the hang of the new game.”
Describe the problem with respect: “Looks like we’ve found a great new activity. Too bad we only have one game.“
Acknowledge the difficulty: “For now, you have to figure out to share it.”
Express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution: “I know you can solve this problem.”
Leave the room.

Level 3: Situation Possibly Dangerous
Play-fighting, or roughhousing by mutual consent, is permitted, but real fighting is not. Parents must be able to tell the difference between the two.

When in doubt, intervene. You may hear, “Oh, they’ll just grow out of it!” That’s taking an unnecessary, naïve and unwise risk. Bad relationships are likely to grow. The more kids are allowed to fight, the more likely they are to fight as adults.
Ask the kids: “Is this a play fight or a real fight?
Remind them of the rules: “Play fighting by mutual consent only; If it’s not fun for both of you, it’s has to stop.”
Respect your own feelings: “That’s too rough for me even if you think it’s playing. Please find another activity.”

Level 4: Situation Definitely Dangerous; Adult Intervention Necessary
Once again, safety comes first and psychology second. Dangerous fights need to be stopped immediately. Sibling abuse is not to be tolerated.

If danger is apparent:
First, separate the fighters.
Speak with authority: “It’s not safe to be together. We must have a cooling-off period.”
Calm everyone down, including yourself.
Don’t get drawn into the shouting match.
Remember the kids will be caught up in their own emotions. They won’t hear what you’re saying.
Describe what you see: “I see two very angry children who are about to hurt each other.“
Separate the children even more: “Quick, you to your room, and you to yours!”
When they have calmed down, talk about what happened and make it very clear that no violence is ever allowed. Follow the steps used in Level 2.

If your children are physically violent with each other on a regular basis, and/or one child is always the victim, is frightened of the sibling, and doesn’t fight back, you are dealing with sibling abuse.
You should seek immediate professional help and guidance.

More information is available in:

Sibling Rivalry, Carol C. Nadelson, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000

Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, Perennial Currents, 1998

They Love You, They Love You Not, Vera Rabie-Azoury, HarperPerennial, Toronto, ON, 1995

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