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Does it drive you mad when you witness your children quarrelling or squabbling?

Have you been finding that your children are squabbling a lot over the Christmas break? It can be incredibly frustrating to witness our children quarrelling or being horrible to each other.  You might have a toddler and a baby and are finding that the toddler is snatching the baby’s toys away or leaning on them just that bit too heavily which are both signs of sibling jealousy.

Other things you might see with older children are subtle or not so subtle put-downs – ‘You are a baby, I’m bigger, stronger, taller than you, you are stupid, dumb, you can’t play with me..’. You might find they race to beat one another and the older one usually wins. They race to sit in a certain car seat, up the stairs, one wants to get in the bath first or out of it.  They compete for your love and attention – ‘I’m sitting on daddy’s lap, mummy is playing with ME, I’m having a story first’. They can pinch or hit one another and one ends up crying.

All these things are totally normal and yet sometimes the battles can get out of control and be badly physical. Sometimes your patience cracks when you just can’t bear the noise any more or you just get so sick of the pettiness.  So here are my ten top tips for reducing sibling conflict.

  1. The most important – and hardest – thing is to stay out of the squabbles. That isn't to say that you can't help them come to a solution, but don’t take sides. The minute you take sides, you are saying that one sibling is the bad one and the other the good one. This simply isn't true. There is a dynamic between them and the younger one learns quickly how to goad and provoke her brother or sister. They learn to do it in a cunning way so that it isn't at first obvious, but it is there. I remember seeing my son Felix, aged 2 years, take a toy from his older brother, Nico, and Nico didn't react. Felix clearly wanted a reaction and a bit of 'fun' so he said, ’Nicooooo, I got your tooooy’, then he waved it under Nico's nose and ran away. It was clearly a ploy to push his brother's buttons. Nico then grabbed the toy and pushed Felix, who started crying. Had I not seen the beginning of the event, I would have been tempted to wade in and tell Nico he was being unkind, and to give back the toy and share.
  2. Act as a mediator to help them come to a solution: ‘Hmm, two children, one truck and you both want it. What do you think we should do?’
  3. ‘You are both so cross with each other that I think you need to cool down and when you feel calmer you can come back and work out how to solve this.’
  4. ‘Sam, when you use put-downs like that Jack feels really humiliated by you and I'm not sure what you are trying to achieve by saying those things. If you want something, please just ask him in a polite way or say nothing.’
  5. Praise them when they are getting on well, even if it is only for a few minutes. Make sure they have the perception of themselves as siblings that can have a good relationship. It is so easy to only focus on the bad stuff.
  6. Describe patterns of human behaviour: ‘Maya, I think you must have had a bad day today. When you came home you shouted at Sacha when she asked if she could play with your doll. When people have had a rough time at school (or even an adult at work) they often try to take it out on someone else. You want to rid yourself of bad feelings and you want someone else to feel bad too. Does that really help?’
  7. Set them a task that involves teamwork. It might be to do a puzzle, lay the table or go shopping with a list. As they are forced to work together, you can praise the small steps along the way: 'Hey, look at that, Luke. You suggested another way to play the game and Annabel agreed. That is real teamwork.'
  8. Never get them to do something by competing them against each other – for example don’t say ‘Who can get to the bath first?’, all that does is create a winner and a loser which perpetuates the conflict.  You can say ‘how quickly can you two get upstairs, I’m going to count’.
  9. Keep them occupied. Very often it’s when children haven't had any physical activity, have been cooped up inside the house and have been watching too many screens that they alleviate the boredom by provoking a fight.
  10. Remember that it is completely normal for siblings to squabble. Send them away from you so that you don't hear the noise or walk away yourself. They are learning life’s negotiating skills, where the boundaries lie and how to solve problems – especially when you help them focus on that.