How to Get Your Kids to Stop Bickering
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Stop the Madness1 of 11
By Jessica Baumgardner
Every morning, this is my alarm clock: the banshee wail of my daughter screaming, "GET OUT OF MY ROOOOOOOM!" to her younger brother. It snowballs from there—fights over cereal, over who sits where, over who is more annoying (answer: they both win!). Their constant bickering leaves me feeling like a huge parental fail. Even though everyone assures me that this is all very normal, I'm not so sure. So, just in time for the holidays, here are 10 rules for brokering peace between your warring tribes.
Don't Ignore2 of 11
Some childcare experts say that it's important for kids to learn to resolve conflicts, so you should not get involved unless there is unsafe behavior. But Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles, says that scenario is destined to play out like a scene from Lord of the Flies. "We need to teach kids these skills, starting as early as the toddler years," she says. "Most importantly, we need to intervene early when we see them struggling to stay calm." Parents should pick up on cues—voices getting louder, energy getting more intense—before things get out of control.
Resist Yelling3 of 11
When you sense the temperature rising in the room, don't just rush in to stomp out the fire, says Kurcinka. "Parents tend to say, 'Stop that!' or 'Give that back!' right away, but what we need to do is connect and understand the cause," she says. Instead of barking commands or denying their feelings, say, "I'm here to help" or "What's up?" or "It looks like you have something important to say to your brother/sister." "Children need to feel like grown-ups are there to help, not as a threat," says Kurcinka. Then they are more likely to open up and honestly tell you what's fueling the fight.
Give Them Words4 of 11
Toddlers don't have the words to work out these conflicts, but they understand more than they can say. That's why it's up to adults to give them a verbal road map. Tell them precisely how to use their words with each other ("I wasn't done with that toy yet" or "How much longer before I can take a turn?"). Don't worry—you won't be spoon-feeding lines forever. "I've seen 4-year-olds working out a disagreement over a toy, saying, 'What can we do to fix this?'" says Kurcinka.
Let Love Happen5 of 11
It can be tempting comic relief to want to force your kids to get over it ("C'mon, hug it out! She's the only sister you've got!"). For example, my father-in-law used to force my husband to hold hands for hours with his brothers when they fought, and I saw a photo on Pinterest of two miserable siblings squished together in one "Get Along" T-shirt. But like the Supremes say, you can't hurry love—even the fraternal or sororal kind. "Siblings have to learn to work together and be kind," says Kurcinka.
Create Calm6 of 11
When kids boil over into belligerence and frustration, it's difficult to get anything accomplished. Parents can teach kids to recognize when they are starting to "bubble" and teach them to take a break and come back when they are calmer. "I like to use 'calming baskets' where you can store loveys, stuffed animals, books, Legos, markers and paper, whatever," says Kurcinka. "I like to put one in every room or at least on each level of the house." If your kid is upset, ask what they are feeling, and if they would like a little break with their special stuff.
Redefine Fair7 of 11
Kids think you better get out the measuring tape to make sure everyone gets the exact same inch of dessert because, to them, absolute sameness equals fairness. But we grown-ups know that life doesn't actually work that way, nor should it. If your older child needs new soccer shoes, you're not going to get new soccer shoes for the younger one when he doesn't play the sport. When you hear the dreaded whine of "Why does she get [insert special thing] and I don't? NO FAIR!" reply that everyone doesn't get the same thing but everyone will get what's fair, according to their own needs.
Do Not Compare8 of 11
Here's the ultimate parent trap: By encouraging one child to behave better, you innocently point out the other child's model behavior ("You are so wiggly! Can you sit still like your sister?"). Kurcinka warns not to compare kids in this way as it only breeds resentment. "If your child is not doing something you want her to do, look at what's getting in the way," says Kurcinka. "If she's a high-energy person and sitting still is challenging, make certain she gets enough exercise and frequent breaks."
Stick to a Schedule9 of 11
Ever noticed that most fighting occurs during rushed times like mornings, before meals, or during odd schedules like holidays? Sibling rivalry increases exponentially when children are short on sleep, hungry, stressed, and over-scheduled, says Kurcinka. Keep some healthy snacks like fruit and carrot sticks on the table before dinner so kids can keep the hunger rage at bay. "Parents also need to provide a predictable routine that protects kid's sleep," says Kurcinka. "That means 12 hours for preschoolers and kindergartners, 10 to 11 hours for school age, and about nine for teens.
Don't Force Sharing10 of 11
As a parent, you want your kids to learn generosity, but it doesn't seem right that everything must be communal property. Some experts recommend keeping special items (like something fragile or a favorite stuffed animal) separate from other toys. Others like the collateral system; if one kid wants to play with a special item, then they forfeit something special of theirs for the duration. Kurcinka says the bottom line is about respect.
Promote Teamwork11 of 11
My oldest daughter is far likelier to have a positive attitude toward her brother if I enlist her as my helper with "Can you show him how to set the table?" She feels competent and mature (and gets to boss around her brother in a sanctioned way) and he is just super-psyched that she is talking to him. "It's important that responsibilities are shared in a family," says Kurcinka. In that vein, try to make a regular age-appropriate chore, like taking out the garbage or feeding the pets, a team effort so the kids learn how to work together.