Quarreling between brothers and sisters

In one family there is an occasional quarrel, in another it goes on and on. Standard brother-sister stuff, or sometimes seriously clashing characters. What to do? Parents are quick to try to soothe fights. A natural reaction, but exhausting!

Heleen de Hertog: “I myself had a whole arsenal of reactions: “Stop it! Just stop it!” Or, “Who started it?” A question that only made the fights worse, I discovered later. Or, if a child did not want to share, I would say, “You should be ashamed, you have so many toys! I was also great at playing the victim: “Sigh, here we go again. Can’t I ever just watch TV in peace?” Even worse: I took sides. Of course I got that back: “You always take her side! And although the quarrel seemed to have calmed down a bit at times, it just bubbled on under the skin and surfaced again at another moment. In short: the rivalry only increased.

That had to change. And now I know how. To begin with: why do children quarrel?

They want to defend their possessions and territory. That’s my doll, I want to play with it myself. This primal instinct is not only about their belongings or their own space, but it can also be aroused when it comes to parental attention.

Rejection. Your child is frustrated, angry with themselves or someone else. What is a good outlet? Your brother or sister of course, nice and close in every way! When should you intervene, and how?

That depends on the ‘level’ of the argument. There are three levels:

  1. Bickering
  2. More bickering
  3. Escalation

In level 1, bickering, there is no need to intervene. In fact, it is important that children learn to deal with differences of opinion. They must learn to defend themselves and formulate a response. No better exercise material than your own blood sister or brother. So let it go!

Is the bickering getting annoying for everyone? At level 2 you can help your children to solve their issues. But remember: they have to do it. You guide them. It goes like this:

Step 1. Acknowledge the feelings of each child. Show them that you understand their feelings and empathize with them.

‘Tim, you are angry that Joris is playing with your car. It’s hard to share your toys sometimes, too.’ ‘Joris, you are angry because Tim wants to play with the car. That’s annoying when you’re playing nice.’

Step 2. Name each child’s point of view. Important: do this without judgment.

Tim, you want your car back, because it is yours. Joris, you like the car too and would like to play with it for a while.’

Step 3. Talk about the problem with respect. Formulate this carefully.

‘Sometimes you both want something, but can’t do it at the same time. Like now with the car. You’re mad at each other for both wanting to play with it.’

Step 4. Express your confidence. ‘I’m sure you can find a solution together that’s good for both of you.’

Step 5: Go do something else. Leave the room, but keep an eye on things. If necessary, say, ‘My ears are only open to solutions.’

Can’t they find a solution together? Then start brainstorming together. Don’t try to think of the answer right away, but put that responsibility on the children.

Does the solution feel unfair to one of the children? (‘George should never play with the car again!’) Do not intervene immediately, but let the disadvantaged child come up with the solution himself. In this way he learns to stand up for himself. Do you have doubts whether it is all right? Then ask the children each time whether they are satisfied with the solution.

Are things escalating (level 3)? Then intervene. Set clear boundaries and give the children a place to cool off. This is not a punishment. Get back together at a quieter time and follow the steps of level 2.

Complicated? It is not.

Heleen: ‘I also started out a bit uncomfortable following the steps of this method. But after a few times it actually went automatically. And once it’s in your system, your children pick it up too. Just like learning a language, learning social skills is easy for children.