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Ways to Ignore Sibling Fighting Without Condoning or Abandoning

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Stop Sibling Rivalry

If you watch “The Parenting Show” or have attended one of my Parenting Bootcamps, you’ll know that I often answer parents who ask, “How should I deal with sibling fighting?” with the advice, “Just ignore it.”

That is just one solution and, no, it doesn’t mean I condone violence or that I tolerate people being treated poorly. My “just ignore it” advice is based on the fact that most often fights and quarrels between sibs are because they know it will serve to get your attention.

Fighting is a negative behavioral pattern choice that they both have discovered over time; namely that if they get along, parents tend to ignore them and get busy with their chores and emails and cooking dinner, etc. When they fight and cause a kerfuffle, however, parents get involved with them again.  It’s THAT involvement they seek and they simply have learned from experience that being in conflict achieves it. Be peaceful – get ignored. Fight, get parental attention.

My advice is to switch that up! When they are playing peacefully, go join them and tell them what good company they are, and when they fight, instead of intervening and policing, try one of these lines instead (and then walk away):

“I am sorry you are having trouble with your sister – I am sure you two can work it out.”

“I am not interested in watching this – call me when you two are playing cooperatively again and I’ll happily come join in again.”

“I am sorry you are choosing to not get along – I’m going to find something else to do. Come get me if you want to play happily again.”

“I can see you are having a hard time playing without getting rough – this is not a fighting house – please take it outside.”

“I can’t watch people I love hurt each other, I am leaving.”

“I am going to get a coffee, call my cell phone when the house is a peaceful place to be in.”

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

13 Responses to “Ways to Ignore Sibling Fighting Without Condoning or Abandoning”

  1. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Seema.
    Congrats on all the efforts you have made to stay out of their fights. Fighting is tough energy to be around. However, two boys who decide to fight is a choice they make between the two of them. When they come to you with scratches, you can re-iterate: I don’t know why you choose to fight instead of getting along”. You can also offer to put their contentious issues on the agenda for a family meeting if they need help solving things between them that they can’t manage alone. Instead of thinking it is your job to make them get along, think of how you will be able to cope with their fights. I suggest asking them to fight outside or move yourself farther away from the noise. They have to no you really can’t hear or see them. Where could that be in your house? Go to the work shop and work on a project down there every time they get fist-to-cuffs? When they are older you can go for a walk. I also suspect that 2 year old is playing into the dynamics in aways I can’t tell from a simple email. Take the 2 yr old with you when you leave if you must. – Hope that helps. Alyson

    Reply
  2. katrina

    I have 3 children – a 7 year old boy (he is the reason I read “Honey, I wrecked the kids”) and 3 year old twin girls. We have made enormous progress with the sibling issues being the last frontier! The big brother consistently favors one of his sisters. While they are not agressive toward the “third wheel”, they actively exclude her and will put down the things she likes or wants to do. I can’t stand to see her left out like that. The problem is that even though I ignore it, I wonder if he gets a big enough charge out of her reaction to make it worth continuing these behaviours??

    Reply
  3. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Katrina,

    Thanks for the note and I am glad you have made progress. Were you the one left out in childhood? Sometimes we have such a great feeling of empathy with one child that shared our same childhood pains, its hard to realize we are somehow parenting differently with this child. Its working to pull us in somehow. I suggest you follow your instincts – work with the excluded daughter to see how her reaction may be thrilling her siblings and maybe she wants to experiment with a different tactic. Also, coach her to see if she find creative ways to get in their game! Hope that helps, and give me an update on how that works!
    Alyson

    Reply
  4. Jill

    I have two sons, 5 + 7. They have just recently (regularly) started fighting with each other – real classic sibling scrapping. Simply a teasing smirk from my older son can get his younger brother annoyed and lashing out – a physical fight ensues. The first time they did it, I did my own thing (folded laundry, etc) but stayed close to make sure no one got hurt. It went on way too long. Frustrated, I stepped in to put it to an end. In the end, I was mad and they had lost some random priviledge.

    The next day (after taking some time to reflect on how that didn’t end well) we were in the car. I took the chance to chat with them. I told them “Sometimes, brothers fight, and sometimes it feels good to fight with your brother. However, as a mother, I don’t like to be around when you are fighting. I get worried that someone is going to get hurt. So I have two rules, 1. If you are going to fight you need to be on a different floor in the house than me. If someone gets hurt than come and get me. 2. If I ask you not to fight, because it is really not a good time, or you are being disruptive/disrespectful to others (eg: too loud or too long for our neighbours in attached house), I will ask you to stop. I am respecting your relationship as brothers. I need you to listen when I ask you to stop.”

    I am just wondering if I am condoning too much? I remember the “satisfaction” of scrapping (usually verbally) with my sister as a child and that is what fueled my approach. Thoughts?

    We also have a “don’t go for the face” wrestling rule in the house 🙂

    Reply
  5. caylie

    I have a 2y/o son, and a 5y/o daughter – when he gets bored, he takes after his sister, and they start to fight – she tries to escape him, he chases (he’s entertained!), he hits, she cries, he bites, he kicks – he’s all over her!!!! – I find that if I ignore it, he isn’t old enough to figure out how to better express his boredom and need to play, and she doesn’t have the skills yet to engage him once they get into it. In the end, they both end up crying, and often she’s injured, I try to give her strategies to deal with him, but I’m not giving her anything she’s able to make work. Any suggestions?

    Reply
  6. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Carlie,
    You have done such a good job of identifying his boredom and how he solves it through engaging his sister negatively. He is only 2! I believe that at 5 yo, the older sister is indeed capable of being equally creative in addressing her brother’s need for her attention. Coach her with some ideas ” Its seems your brother is asking you to keep busy with, you can fight, or you can re-direct him to a better way to play with you. Maybe see if he wants to play hide and seek, or some other game with you”. The idea is that she has to see that the only person she is responsible for is herself, that in every interaction with other humans, how YOU yourself act and respond DOES influence the situation in some way, and that it is HER job to deal with her brother, not yours! If they can’t work it out… Send them both to their rooms to chill out until they can be together without harming one another. Let me know how it goes!
    Alyson

    Reply
  7. Alyson Schafer

    I think your approach is fine. Let me know how it goes! The proof will be in its effectiveness. Share back with the other readers so we can all learn from your experience.
    Alyson

    Reply
  8. Miss Lexie

    Hi,

    Enjoyed your funny and helpful show in Ottawa a few weeks ago.

    I have two girls (4 & 7) that play me like a fiddle with their “I want to be first” competition. First to get juice, first to get their hair done in the morning, first at the bus stop. How can I nip this in the bud without having to manage in my head who was first last time?

    Not to mention they both want the pink cup or pink plate versus all the other colors. “She always gets the pink plate”…

    Arg!
    Thanks in advance,
    Miss Lexie

    Reply
  9. Maria

    I have a 3 year old and a 5 and a half year old sons. They are completely opposite in personality, the youngest one is really easy going but at the same time with a strong personality and the older one is more serious and needs to always get his way, when it comes to friends, the old one either loves somebody or just doesn’t bother trying to get along with someone if he doesn’t want to. They get along some times but most of the time they fight. The oldest one always end up hitting the small one and bossing him around, the small one either ends up agreeing to everything just to please him or crying for my attention. I feel like the oldest one hates his brother, like he never got over the fact that there was a new member in the family. The small one is really strong, but I’m worried about the psychological consequences for him, I don’t want him to please any one just because he’s easy going (like he does with his brother), and I want my kids to get along. I know it’s normal for siblings to fight but I just can’t ignore them since I feel sometimes it’s not safe and I have tried every possible approach without getting any sign of improvement. I would like some advise.

    Reply
  10. Alyson Schafer

    Hi there – thanks for commenting. I have a great chapter in my first book “Breaking The Good Mom Myth” that discusses the dynamic between siblings in great detail. I also give advice for a bunch of different interventions. Have a look there for more ideas. Thanks for posting! Alyson

    Reply
  11. michelle

    I’m trying desperately to implement these strategies with my 3.5 year old and my 16 month old but somehow I feel that the 16 month old (who is still non-verbal) can’t communicate his wants and needs. It’s creating a lot of stress as he is taking things from his sister or turning off the tv, pulling her hair etc. As much as I’d love not to step in, is my 16 month old too young to start this strategy with. I don’t want to teach my 3.5 year old that I’ll always rescue her if her brother is sitting on her head pulling her hair out. any suggestions of when and how to implement this as they begin their sibling dynamic?

    Reply
    • alyson

      At sixteen months you can try a simple time out if he will go “can you play nicely or do you need to go?” At the same time – teach your 3.5 year old how to anticipate and manage his brother who clearly wants her engagement “he will come bug you if you don’t find an alternative – can you play give him some of your time and attention?” And of course – send them both to their rooms for a few minutes saying “if you want to be together – you need to show me you can get along”. Your 3.5 might moan that she didn’t start it – but for a few minutes in her room it is teach both children you don’t care about the details and that they both need to work together to stay together.

      Reply
      • Mary

        Alyson – Just finished both Siblings without Rivalry and Honey, I Wrecked the Kids (which is hilarious, by the way, coming out of my 4 year-old’s mouth). We’ve been having some success with the two-arm strategy, and lots of encouraging communication/interpreting the 2 year old’s grunts for his big sister, etc.

        I’d love any other suggestions you have for dealing with sibling pushing and shoving and fighting between very young children (2 and 4), particularly as they share a room. I’m trying to spend most of my energy teaching them skills to solve the problem, but am wondering if we should be spending more time addressing the actual hitting and shoving.

        Reply

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