Summertime means more time at home together, and this summer is shaping up to be a long one. Many families have already spent months at home together, quarantining during state-wide shutdowns, and many more are waiting to see what school will look like in the fall. Parents all over, share their struggles with the juggling act of having children at home, and trying to work. One of the biggest challenges we’ve been hearing from parents is the challenge of managing sibling conflict. Where do we even start, when it seems like conflict and yelling is just a constant in the home?
It is normal for siblings to have conflict. In fact, some experts even say it’s great practice for social skill development and conflict management skills, but we can also feel it tip into some areas where it doesn’t feel helpful anymore. With all the changes in our environment these days, and all the extra time siblings have playing with ONLY each other, it makes sense that parents are reporting a higher level of conflict between siblings (and family members) these days.
We can’t take away all the stressors of these times, but we do have some ideas of where to start to help cope with conflict this summer, and beyond. See some of our tips below and take what feels useful to you.
- Hold a Family Meeting
Often families hold rules and expectations that are “unspoken.” This often means that parents are usually the ones that hold expectations and values that they want their children to follow, but don’t always speak these aloud. We love the practice of holding a positive “family meeting” to talk together as a family about your hopes and dreams for how to want things to go. Help your family set reasonable expectations and encourage kids to participate in adding to what they want the summer to feel like.. Write down what you decide on a piece of paper, add pictures and drawing and post them someplace in your home. This approach is something your kids may already know about from being part of classroom settings and many teachers help kids develop guidelines at the onset of each school year. Some values you may want to include are; Have lots of fun together, respect one another, be kind to one another, problem-solve when there is a conflict. Explain to kids, that we know there are times when we all may have trouble following these values, but if that happens, we can try to solve the problem and work together to get back on track.
- Set a Summer Routine
We first recommend creating a structure or routine to your summer days. Conflict and behaviors can often emerge when children are restless or anxious about what is coming next. Routine can be as simple as going to bed and waking up at the same time, having a basic rhythm to the day, where you eat, play, and rest. Before conflict even emerges, set a schedule to ensure your children have the best chance of being well-rested and well-fed. Hungry and tired children equal more conflict.
- Address Problem Areas before they start
Is there a certain toy or time of day that causes the most conflict? Notice these patterns and address them before they begin. Do the kids fight every time they play with that one game? Set time before the day begins to talk with your kids about how they want to deal with that conflict when it emerges, or, honestly, just remove the game. It’s totally up to you which battles to pick. We just recommend that you look for patterns. Is there a time of day that is hard? Maybe right before dinner, kids are hungry and may need some extra structure or parent support during that time. Problem solve ways to support your kids at tough times of the day.
- Schedule Special Play Time
Are your kiddos using conflict to try to get more time with you? If this seems to be the case, think about trying to set a schedule where you spend quality time with each child. This is a great idea for many reasons. This can seem impossible when schedules are tight, but know that quality time, could just be 15-20 minutes of giving your child your full attention and playing what they want to play. This type of time tends to be children’s “love language.” It’s how their cup is filled up allowing them more energy and tolerance for playing alone or with their sibling.
- Practice Calming Skills Ahead of Time
With younger kids, who are just learning to cope with big feelings. It can be helpful to teach skills like taking deep breaths when we get angry. Learn and practice these skills when kids are calm, so they can establish muscle memory, for when they really need them. Slumberkins has resources for kiddos, like Hammerhead Shark’s story to help kids learn how to take deep breaths when they feel angry, and how to go back and engage in “repair” to make things right after a conflict occurs.
- “Let it go”
This is a tried and true parenting strategy-called “let it go.” Become clear on when your kids need your intervention, and when it is up to them to work it out together. We, of course, recommend that parents intervene to prevent kids from getting hurt, but often kids are more capable of dealing with conflict than we think. The more we step back and let kids sort out their conflict together, the more they gain skills to deal with the conflict. If your kids are playing in another room, and you hear yelling. You may not need to run into the rescue, move closer, and keep an ear on things and see if they have the skills to work it out themselves. If it continues to escalate, then you can step in.
It’s helpful to remember that kids can have a very different outlook on conflict than adults. If one sibling says to the other, “I’m much faster than you,” instead of jumping in to say “that’s not nice,” take a moment to check in with the recipient of that message and ask. Do they seem upset? Did they shrug it off? Maybe they don’t really mind if their sibling is faster.
- Notice your Own Story around Sibling Conflict
When our children fight, it can bring up old memories of family conflict from our childhoods. This sometimes happens with our awareness, and other times it happens unconsciously. Did you grow up with siblings? Were you the oldest or the youngest? How did you feel about the way your parents handled conflict between you and your siblings? Were your parents hardest on you because you were the oldest (or youngest?)? What kind of messages did you get from your parents about being a sibling?
It is really common for parents who were the oldest children to better understand the perspective of their oldest child and vice versa. Check-in with your memories of your childhood, could your own experience be shading how you are responding to your children? Are you harder on one child or the other? How can you work to better understand your reactions and how they are impacting your current family dynamics? If you figure out what triggers bigger responses in yourself, you may begin to calm your own nervous system and engage with your children in a calmer and more egalitarian way, which will help reduce overall conflict in the family
- Be a “Facilitator”, not a “Judge”
No matter what you do, sibling conflict will still occur. This does not mean that you failed, in fact, it usually means that your kids are engaging in healthy learning about social interactions and problem-solving skills. Sometimes our kids can do this on their own, but sometimes they need our help. Children’s brains are not fully developed so they often get flooded with emotions and need our help to work through these conflicts. If it becomes clear to you that your kids need your help, try to enter into the conversation by staying calm and take the role of a facilitator of the conflict, and get away from being the one who rules a verdict. If you are always depended on to solve the conflict for your kids, they won't have a chance to solve it on their own. You can use a code phrase with your kids, like “Let’s problem-solve this” to let them know you will stay and work it out together. Allow both kids to state their opinions, and reflect back on their perspectives with empathy. Then state the conflict to both of them, and ask if they have suggestions for how to solve it. An ideal way this conversation may go would be like this:
(Sounds of conflict escalating from the other room)
Mom: Wow, you two, I’m hearing some big feelings coming from this room. What is going on? (in a calm voice)
Sister: Mommy, brother took my doll!
Mom: Ah, brother took your doll, and you sound angry about that.
Brother: Mommy, it was my turn to play with it!
Mom: Oh, you were feeling ready for a turn. You really wanted it. I see that your sister is feeling pretty sad that you took it. What do guys think we should do about this?
Sister: I want it now because I had it.
Brother: I want it too.
Mom: hmmm. This is tricky.
Sister: maybe we can take turns?
Mom: Good idea. How do we decide who gets a turn first?
Sister: I do
Brother: No, I do.
Mom: Hmm. You both want turns first. How will we decide?
Sister: I should get it first because I was playing with it first.
Brother: Ok, but then I get a turn.
Mom: Wow, you two. Great problem-solving.
We know that it doesn’t always go like this. Kids will often times dig in their heals, and struggle to come up with solutions. Try to give your kids a chance to solve it on their own, but we understand there sometimes comes a point that an adult may need to make a choice for the kiddos. Until your kids gain problem-solving skills you may need to add a statement like, “Hmm.. well if you two don’t have ideas of how to solve this, I’ll make a choice for you today.” If one child is upset with the choice, you can give them empathy and allow them to express their emotions. You might say, “I hear you are really upset about that choice I made to let your sister have a turn first. You are welcome to be sad about that. It’s hard to wait.” The more you give your kids chances to solve problems, and take more of a facilitator role
- Change the Scenery
If you have given your kids plenty of chances to problem solve throughout the day, remember that it’s okay just to help your kids move on, and get a change of scenery. Sometimes kids may just need to move their bodies and allow excess energy to move out of their systems. If kids are getting into conflict a lot, you may just go into the room, and say, “okay, everyone outside.”
- Addressing Deeper Emotional Issues
Sibling conflict is normal, and even sibling rivalry is normal (sibling rivalry is not just the conflict between siblings, but also feelings of jealousy or competition for parent attention). Siblings will naturally compete for resources- and the resource is their parent’s time and attention. If you’ve tried many things on this list, and it seems like one, or both, of your children are struggling with extreme behaviors (not typical for their age), it is possible your kiddo is struggling with deeper feelings of low self-esteem or stress. All humans have the capacity to take out our big feelings on the ones we are closest too, and for kids that is their siblings and parents. If you’ve noticed big shifts in your kiddo’s mood or behavior, this could be a sign that they need some more emotional support. This could be support by parents offer kiddos to cope with big changes, or you could speak with your child’s pediatrician or access mental health services to help your kiddo cope with big feelings.
There are many ways to support our kids through conflict. We hope you get a few new ideas from this list, but also we want you to know that conflict is not all bad. When your kids fight, it doesn’t mean that you are doing things wrong, or that your family isn’t functioning. It's likely that your kids are just getting an accelerated course in conflict and emotional awareness. Kids tend to share their feelings loudly and frequently –and good for them! It feels good to be able to express ourselves and be heard. With these tips, we hope your kids can keep moving through conflict while gaining skills to become more and more independent. For more emotional education resources and tools visit our website at Slumberkins.com.
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