Putting a stop to sibling bickering

By Erin Dym on April 22, 2013
If my boys aren’t fighting over toys, it’s about whose cracker has more access to the dip, who goes first up the stairs, who goes first down the stairs. They even fight over which route I take to get home (one likes me to go straight; the other around a curve). The bickering drives me to despair.

For weary parents, there is some solace. As it turns out, all siblings bicker. “The bickering can be on a different level and different frequency, but I have yet to see siblings that don’t squabble,” says Aneta Chencinski, M.Ed., a family and parent coach who has a private practice in Toronto. “The bickering will vary depending on the children’s age and the age difference.”

If your children are young, bickering may follow a predictable pattern. Aneta says, “When children are stressed, upset, confused or tired, they will demand more attention from parents, and if parents are busy, children will begin to bicker. They would prefer positive attention, like having parents play with them, but any attention is better than no attention at all. They will do whatever it takes to get their parents involved with them.”

While younger kids may bicker to act out their anger and attract their parents’ attention, older kids might simply find it entertaining. “One child I worked with was 10 years old and told me that he was greatly entertained by his parents’ reactions. He would watch with pleasure as his parents tried to break up the bickering.”

No matter what your children’s ages or motives, Aneta has some anti-bickering strategies parents can use.

  • Redirect their attention before the bickering starts.
  • Listen to their stories and let them take turns talking. You can ask both siblings to tell you just one story with one ending so that they learn to collaborate if they want to tell you what happened.
  • Take time to empathize and understand that they want your attention.
  • Help them find words for their feelings. This will teach them to express what is bothering them and help them feel more secure and loved because they were listened to.
  • Take yourself out of the equation to minimize jealousy. Explain to your children that you believe they are capable of finding a solution, thus building their self-esteem and minimizing the times they will rely on you for resolution. This will also encourage them to work together, teaching them cooperation and selfassurance.

When your children do bicker, there are a few important rules that need to be followed. “Hitting should not be allowed under any circumstances,” says Aneta. “The rule ‘you hit you sit’ needs to be established early.” Even at ages one or two, parents can sit their child on their lap for a minute until they quiet down. You can also request a time-out – for all the siblings. These rules are meant more to stop and redirect the children rather than punish them. When they are calm, “helping them to find solution to the problem is the best solution.”

Seven ways to cope when your children bicker

  • Take a deep breath… calm yourself.
  • If you can, remove yourself from the area of the conflict. 
  • If you feel you need to be where the action is, walk slowly in the direction of the commotion…it can stop before you reach the room. 
  • Don’t raise your voice. 
  • Listen actively to each child’s story. 
  • Validate their feelings. 
  • Help them find a solution that will satisfy everybody.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May/June 2013.

By Erin Dym| April 22, 2013

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