For most of us, when we have our second child, we are grateful that we are giving our first child a sibling — a confidant; someone he or she will be able to travel through life with, even when we are gone; a best friend for life. We imagine total bliss, holding hands, and our children thanking us for the gift we’ve given them.
Then, too quickly, reality hits. Our beautiful, darling child pinches the new baby. A few years later, “Mom, she’s hitting me,” or shrieks from the backseat of the car, “Dad, he’s touching me!” or, the screams of, “I hate you!”
Once we realize that they will not always be grateful for the gift we believe that we’ve given them, what do we do? How do we become comfortable with the relationship they have and how do we help them navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of siblinghood?
When Siblings Fight
by Inbal Kashtan
My two children play together beautifully much of the time but they also fight frequently, especially when we’re at home. Sometimes the constant bickering drives me nuts. I go back and forth between letting them work it out themselves and intervening. They yell at each other a lot and sometimes hurt each other intentionally. How can I help them learn better ways of resolving their differences?
Signed, Frustrated mother of two
Dear Frustrated Mother of Two,
Before you approach helping your children, I would suggest that you ask yourself what about their fighting is “driving you nuts.” Are you physically uncomfortable with the level of noise? Do you need more peace and quiet? Do you feel frustrated because you want some peace of mind as you go about your life in the house? Maybe you’re concerned for your children’s safety, or feel discouraged about the possibility that they will grow to live together more peacefully? Are you also confused about how to help them in these situations? There may be other feelings and needs to explore. The more you give yourself room for connecting with yourself, the clearer you will get about what strategies are likely to meet your needs. You may notice that, depending on what your needs are, your strategies may vary considerably.
Gaining inner clarity about your feelings and needs is likely to open your heart when you actually approach your children to talk about this situation. It will also enhance your ability to express yourself to them without blame or anger, dramatically increasing the likelihood that they could hear you and dialogue with you about both their needs and yours.
Next, I would encourage you to explore what needs might be going unmet for the children that are making fighting more likely. You said this is happening especially at home. If you can identify what is going on before fighting breaks out, you might come closer to understanding their needs. This doesn’t mean you can prevent all fighting! In the course of life, not all our needs are met. When our needs are not met, we do our best to try to get them met. From this perspective, raising voices, grabbing, hitting, or whatever other behavior you might categorize under “fighting” are all attempts to meet needs.
Your challenge, then, is to help your children identify and express their feelings and needs and look for strategies that are more likely to meet their needs and that don’t hurt one another. You can do this first by modeling for them care, respect and commitment to meeting everyone’s needs, and second by helping them gain these skills themselves.
How do you model this behavior? If you’ve done the first step I suggested above, with practice you will find that you can walk into the room where your children are hurting one another and reach to them with your heart instead of anger, frustration, confusion or resentment. I’m reminded of a woman who wrote me after attending one of my workshops, and shared how the mediation she had done with her children the following day had had a completely different flavor than any she had done before. Previously, she tended to feel badly even after a conflict was seemingly resolved, because her sense was that at least one, and sometimes both children, were not satisfied with either the process or the solution. This time, she sought to connect with each child instead of looking for who started the fight, who is at fault, who should make amends.
Key in mediation is a commitment to attending to both sides’ needs. This means moving away from the roles of judge (deciding who is right and who is wrong) and law enforcement officer (enforcing a consequence for the wrong-doer). Here’s an example:
Mom hears Melissa and Jake’s raised voices from the living room. She stops what she’s doing and listens, to help her decide where things are going and whether she wants to intervene.
Jake: “I had it first! Give it back!”
Melissa: “Well, you put it down, and now I have it, so there!”
Jake: “That’s not fair, you stupid head!”
Melissa: “You’re the one that’s stupid!”
By this point, Mom makes her way to the living room. When Jake sees her, he runs over.
Jake: “Mom, Melissa is being unfair. I was playing with this toy and she won’t give it back.”
Mom: “So, you’re pretty upset right now. Is it that you wanted to choose when to end your play?”
Jake: “Yeah, I wasn’t done!”
Melissa: “Well, he put it down, Mom! He just saw me take it and then he suddenly wanted it back. He always wants everything I want to play with. I wish he would just leave me alone!”
Jake: “You stupid head!”
Mom: “Just a minute. I’d really like to be able to hear each of you at a time so we can all understand how both of you feel and what you need. Melissa, would you be willing to wait another minute or two until I’m clear on what’s going on for Jake?”
Melissa: “You’re always taking his side, Mom!”
Mom: “Sounds like you’re really upset, too, and you want to trust that your needs matter, also?”(Once it’s clear that Melissa is not able at that moment to listen without speaking, Mom chooses to turn her attention to her, at least for a moment. This doesn’t have to be the way she handles it every time—her decision would depend on the circumstances and people involved.)
Melissa: “I just know that you’re going to take his side. You never really listen to me.”
Mom: “Hmmm. I’m wondering whether you feel pretty sad right now. Is it because you want to know I care? You really want to be heard?”
Melissa (tearing up) “Yes.”
Mom (reaching her arms to hold Melissa) “I’m so glad you told me how you feel, Melissa. It’s so important to me to hear everyone and care about everyone.”
Jake: “But she took the toy I was playing with!”
Mom (reaching her arms to Jake): “I want to hear more from you, too. Would you both be willing to spend a little more time working this out?”
The dialogue will probably not end here, but I hope this example gives you an idea of the fluidity of moving between the two children while expressing care for both. One of the key needs the children probably have at that moment is to be heard, and to trust that their needs matter. This is probably more important than the original conflict!
What about the possibility that the children don’t really require intervention? I do believe children need opportunities to learn to work out their own conflicts, and I would support you in choosing not to intervene sometimes. If you think that the children really could work it out, you may modify Faber and Mazlish’s strategies from Siblings Without Rivalry to include more NVC, and say something like this:
“Hmmm. There are two of you and only one special green train. [Observation] I noticed in the past that you’ve been able to find strategies that can meet both your needs, [another observation] so I feel confident [feeling] that you can do that again now [need for peaceful conflict resolution]. Would you be willing to try? [request]” Or, she can forgo the question and just leave the room, as Faber and Mazlish suggest, to give the children the opportunity to work things out on their own – as long as it’s not a demand on her part that they must figure it out.
Supporting children in working out their own conflicts offers them opportunities for practicing their skills, building trust in themselves and each other, and growing into their own power. At the same time, leaving children to work things out when they don’t know how to do it in a way that meets both their needs can set a pattern of win/lose interactions, resentments, helplessness, discouragement, or residual anger. If you keep trying both options, you will strike a balance that is most likely to meet all your needs.
I’d like to recap my key suggestions. Check in with yourself before you walk into a conflict: is your heart open to both the children? If not, take another moment for self-empathy, or go in and express your own feelings, needs and requests first. Otherwise, what’s likely to happen is that you will enter into the struggle with them and they will look to you for judgment and consequences. By staying as open-hearted as you can with both children, you can help them take responsibility for their actions. You can help them gain a rich vocabulary of feelings and needs. You can help them acknowledge their impact on each other, on you, and on themselves by the behaviors they are choosing. And you can help them learn how to connect with each other, and how to come up with strategies that work for both of them.
It’s likely that your children will still fight. But when you think of your role in this way, their fighting might become opportunities for growth, learning, and deepening your connection as a family. Let me know how it goes!
When your children fight, what comes up for you? What do you do about it?
Since the mid-90’s, NVC became the focus of Inbal Kashtan’s passion to contribute to creating a world where everyone matters and people have the skills for making peace. Inbal focused primarily on leadership development and transforming parenting, as two powerful strategies for contributing to structural change, until she became ill with cancer and her health became a major focus.
Some of her NVC endeavors include co-founding BayNVC and their Leadership Program; creating the Peaceful Families, Peaceful World Project and the Parent Peer Leadership Program for our international office, the Center for Nonviolent Communication; writing articles and a booklet, Parenting from Your Heart, and creating a CD, Connected Parenting; leading retreats and workshops; speaking at conferences; and creating hundreds of handouts and exercises that are used by many people around the world, including the NVC Tree of Life.
Thank you Inbal for giving us permission to republish your article. I feel grateful for your insight and your willingness to contribute because it meets my need for knowledge, competence, and community.