Oh, Good, the Kids Are Fighting Again

The wails. The screeching. One more conference call interrupted.

After months of social distancing, children are as frustrated as their parents.

“They’re fighting over who’s sitting in what chair,” said Ana Balich, a mother of three who lives in Chicago. “They always fought about stuff like that, but it just seems like its been worse.”

In her household, like so many others, daily routines have been disrupted and her children are spending more time together — and fighting more often, too.

In Meridian, Idaho, Mette Angerhofer Holden has watched her children battle over who gets to eat the most play food and which TV show to watch.

“They just fight over the littlest things,” Angerhofer Holden said of her 4- and 5-year-old. “They’re going from zero to screaming, faster. There’s less of a buildup.”

Those sibling quarantine quarrels may be testing parents’ patience, but what if they were also an opportunity — to teach conflict resolution? Wait, don’t roll your eyes just yet. Maybe quarantine could provide the perfect environment for bickering siblings to build better relationships, with a little guidance from parents.

“I think it’s really important to offer some hope that this is actually a good time to help kids have more positive stuff going on in their relationships,” said Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on sibling relationships. “It is possible, and I don’t think that parents have to feel like this needs to be this major undertaking.”

“We’re teaching parents how to be the coaches,” she said. “I think it’s perfect for right now.”

One of the best places to learn conflict resolution and problem-solving skills is through interactions with a sibling, experts say.

“Siblings are often children’s first experiences in ‘peer-like’ interactions, so the skills they develop can help them when they go to school and interact with peers,” said Kimberly Updegraff, Ph.D., a professor of family and human development at Arizona State University who has studied sibling relationships for more than two decades.

When siblings are fighting or trying to hurt one another, it can be tempting to intervene, dictate a solution and quickly shut down the argument — but that can prevent children from brainstorming ways to fix their problems on their own. It can also encourage them depend on a parent for a resolution.

“With a little practice, children will get better at solving conflicts and need less help from parents,” Dr. Updegraff said. “Ultimately, the goal is for children to learn to solve conflicts on their own without needing help from parents by listening to each other and coming up with solutions that they can agree on.”

Some children respond well to a visual aide when learning these new skills. In a 2012 study, researchers used an image of a traffic light to help elementary school children and their siblings practice self-control and conflict resolution. When the light was red, the children learned to take a deep breath and calm down. When the light was yellow, the children were instructed to listen carefully to each other, think about their different choices and make a plan. They were then asked to distinguish between solutions that were win-win, win-lose and lose-lose. The green light, the last step, represented picking the best solution and agreeing to try it. Over the course of the study, which also included lessons on the art of negotiating and goal-setting, the children participating in these activities improved their relationships with their siblings and showed better self-control. A 2016 study of Latino children that used the same intervention found similar results.

“If kids don’t learn to resolve these conflicts, by the time they’re teenagers then it’s very hard for parents to step in,” she said. “So that young middle-childhood age is really the best time. They’re developing all of these social-emotional skills.”

Conflict also presents an opportunity for parents to articulate family rules and moral values, experts said. For example, you might tell your children about the importance of listening without interrupting, and explain that name-calling and physical violence are never good solutions to an argument.

It can be easy to rely on the same methods you’ve always used to help your children get along, but being in quarantine can force us to confront old patterns that weren’t working and try new ones.

For example, if you tend to focus on the negative behaviors, try giving just as much attention to the positive interactions between your children.

“Children often get our attention when they are fighting and hurting one another, but it is easy to ignore them when they are getting along and playing nicely,” Dr. Updegraff said.

Acknowledge behaviors that you want to see more of, like sharing and playing together. Positive reinforcement may increase that behavior in the future, she said.

You can also encourage positive interactions among elementary school children by identifying common ground and helping them come up with a list of activities they all like, Dr. Updegraff added. It can be as simple as identifying a food that they enjoy eating for dinner or recognizing that they all like to paint.

If you’re really pressed for time, you can find little moments throughout the day to help siblings engage with each other and learn to see things from their sibling’s perspective, and to value that perspective even when it’s different.

For example, Dr. Kramer said, you might say, “Billy, could you ask brother what he would like for breakfast this morning?” or “What do you think your brother would like for breakfast?”

You can also help your children develop a wider vocabulary for the emotions that they’re experiencing, she suggested. Kids may say that they hate their sibling when in reality they are feeling frustrated, disappointed or anxious. If they had more words to express those feelings, they might be in a better position to manage those feelings.

In her oft-cited research, Hildy Ross, Ph.D., a professor emerita at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, used formal mediation procedures to help parents resolve differences among children as young as 3.

In Dr. Ross’s research, a mediator (the parent) was in control, but remained neutral to allow the children to arrive at their own solutions.

Mediation techniques included: telling the children they were responsible for finding a solution with the parents setting ground rules (stage 1); asking each child what happened during the dispute and what problem it posed for them (stage 2); asking children to talk about how the conflict affected them and how they felt and why (stage 3); and asking the children to come up with a solution, with a parent asking questions to make sure the proposed solutions are feasible (stage 4).

The researchers found that parents who do not use mediation techniques tend to make more suggestions instead of letting the kids come up with solutions, and don’t talk about emotions and goals to the same extent, Dr. Ross said. In addition, the younger children in the conflict do not tend to speak up about their interests, nor play much of a part in forming the resolution of the conflict.

Not only is sibling conflict normal, it’s something parents should expect, said Jonathan Caspi, Ph.D., a therapist and professor of family science and human development at Montclair State University.

During the coronavirus crisis, children might act out more often, and that is also normal, he said.

So don’t think that sibling squabbles mean you’re somehow failing at parenting.

“Anxiety reverberates through a family the way you throw a pebble into a pond,” Dr. Caspi said. “If you can take note of your own anxiety and say, ‘OK, I’m stressed, I’m going to respond differently to my kids.’ That alone can make you respond better.”

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