When Siblings Fight

The Question:

Sandra, I remember reading a post of yours a year or so ago where you described how you handled it when your kids were fighting. Seems like it was mostly Marty and Kirby you were talking about. You had a way of helping the underdog not feel so much the underdog and a way to help the big dog not feel outnumbered either. A good friend of mine is really bothered by how much her kids fight and I wanted to send her the post but can't find it. Could you possibly describe how you referee your kids' fights? A section on this topic on your website would be wonderful some day. Many thanks.


First, I must say that I hate it when parents say "They need to learn to work it out for themselves." I never smile or nod when a parent says that.

The post Priss had remembered was found by Joyce Fetteroll, who is a whiz at finding things, and I'm grateful that she has that skill and talent.

Here, from 2/2/03, is what I responded to someone having written this, of her children fighting:

I can't just let it go because there seems to be no natural consequence for hitting.

I've told kids from time to time when it was fast and severe that if they do NOT learn to control their tempers they could end up in prison or dead. Because just in brief, the natural consequences of being a violent adult are often retaliatory violence or conviction of a crime.

For little kids at home, I separate them. A trick I learned as a Jr. High teacher has served well. To break up a fight, grab the loser and remove him. He WANTS to be saved. If you grab the winning participant, you might get hurt. If you remove the underdog, they both save face. He can think he wouldn't necessarily have lost. The winner still thinks he won.

I talk to the apparent victim first. Sometimes it turns out he wasn't such a victim. But in our case at home, with my boys, that has usually been Marty, who's younger by two and a half years. At the moment they're 16 and 14 and physical problems might be over. Kirby's learned enough karate that he's developed the self control that ideally comes with being able to seriously hurt someone. And they're both verbal, so physical isn't their first thought. So what I'm going to tell is a summary of various things over the years when they were younger, in various stages.

What has worked best is taking the one away and letting him tell me what happened. While he's calming down and stating his case, I'm asking him what he did to try to make things better. "Did you think of doing this?" "No," or "Yes, but it didn't work."

So partly it's a session in possibilities. Then that kid's calmer. But I remind them that I'm responsible for seeing that BOTH of them are safe in their own homes, and happy.

Then I go to the other kid (usually Kirby) who's calm by then too, and ask for his side. He tells me the whole thing, and I ask him at the end (since I'm wanting his whole story to compare to the other whole version) whether he doesn't think he could have prevented it by this or that.

(Unfortunately in many of the scenarios, Marty had sneaked up close enough to hear and jumped in with "I DID NOT!" so I have to go and deposit Marty elsewhere and say later "That really didn't help me convince him, y'know.")

Then I say to Kirby, "Marty says you said/did this."

So Kirby tells me his version of the evils Marty contributed to the argument.

I remind Kirby he's older and has a responsibility to show some maturity and set an example (as appropriate, if appropriate). And I tell him yada yada, Marty needs to be safe in his own home, and not feel like his life is ruined because he has an older brother who's bullying him (if appropriate...)

Finally I'd go back to Marty and say "Why didn't you tell me this part?" or "Kirby says you threw this/said this..." And I go through it again with Marty.

I know lots of people say to let kids work out their own stuff but I think that's lazy at best and sadistic at worst. My parents raised two cousins of mine and one was mean and violent and frustrated and hurt both me and my sister. There should have been more active supervision and peacemaking and advisement.

I know some people believe each soul chose their family and they need to learn to work out their own interactions. I think it's random, personally. I don't think any one of my kids needs to be the material on which another kid works out his karma unchecked anyway.

So in the interest of helping them develop a set of alternative responses and social skills, and keeping them safe, I let each tell his story in private instead of in front of the other. It cuts out arguments instead of turning a little argument into a big one (Jerry-Springer-show-style, in worst cases). And it lets each kid vent to me about his frustrations about the other one. They NEED to express that. Better to me than to friends outside the family, I think. Because in this case they have a lot of mutual friends. It's to the benefit of lots of people for them to be sociably at peace. And it lets me commiserate with them about the flaws of the sibling and to tell them how hard it is to be a parent and to love both kids but to see when one is being hurt without me saying in front of one "Yeah, I know it can be a drag" in front of the other one.

That might not be clear. It's not that I'll say to Marty "Yeah, Kirby sucks, doesn't he?" It's more like "Marty, I really did want to have you. I LOVE you. And things would be different if you were the oldest. I'm sorry it frustrates you. But I was an oldest and there are disadvantages to that, too." It helps the relationship between me and each child for me to be able to discuss the emotions and reactions in some depth with them.

On verbal abuse, one thing that has worked here is to remind them that it's their own reputation and self/soul that they're hurting when they're mean. If someone is cruel, it makes him a cruel person. It might hurt the other kid too, but it immediately hurts the one who was mean for meanness' sake. And it disturbs the peace of the others around them. If two kids are fighting, the third kid isn't having peace either.



Someone on unschooling.info (now defunct) was frustrated with advice that she be more gentle with her daughter and wrote:

You guys do it your way, let your kids run wild, let them curse, let them do every little thing they want to do.
arcarpenter/Amy responded:

That's really not how my house looks or feels—not wild, not out-of-control. There is something in-between the extremes of demanding obedience and having children feel and act out-of-control all the time. The something in-between is giving feedback about how a behavior is affecting me and others, while also being understanding that the behavior is coming from a valid need. The something in-between often takes more time and attention than either of the extremes, but it is worth it, because my children get a chance to problem-solve and to grow in their own emotional awareness now, when they're young, instead of trying to figure it all out on their own when they're older.

Today Riley (age 3) had the impression that Fisher (age 9) was taking over his game, and he screamed. It was loud, and close to Fisher's ear—it really *hurt* Fisher, I could tell, and set off a bit of an adrenaline reaction in him. I got there quick, and talked Fisher through walking away and breathing.

While I was telling Riley that his scream had hurt Fisher, and was talking to him about saying no, or calling me if there was a problem, I looked over to see Fisher in the meditation position. On his own, he had realized that he was feeling almost panicky, and decided that deep breathing and peaceful visualization would feel better than feeling resentful and vengeful towards Riley. That's what I mean by having some emotional awareness.

We talked about how we need to respect Riley's "no" right away, so that he doesn't feel a need to scream to be heard. Riley did start to understand that Fisher was hurt, even without being hit. We moved on, all of us with a slightly better understanding of how the situation had come to be and what we could do to avoid a problem next time.

The more we practice these principles, the more peaceful our house becomes. *That* is what our house looks like—not what you described above.

Mom to Fisher (b. 6/97) and Riley (b. 6/03)

"It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us." -- Charles Dickens

January 2020, Cass K (full name withheld to protect the feelings of her former roommates 😊):
Living with someone else can be so frustrating. I’ve had roommates in the past that became so irritating to me that their very presence made my skin crawl. My son sometimes feels that way about his sister. He didn’t choose to live with her and he doesn’t have the ability to move out so he is stuck with her. I see it as my job to help him coexist with her. It is also my job to help my daughter feel and be safe.

The number one thing, in my opinion, is to be nearby whenever the two of them are in the same space. Being close gives you:

A- The ability to physically jump between the children if necessary to stop an assault. Knowing that someone is there to physically protect her will help your daughter feel safe.

B- Deflect rising tension before it escalates. The value of a well timed distraction can not be overstated. If you feel the tension rising and you are intimately knowledgeable about the two people involved in the potential dispute then you have a lot of power to provide just the right distraction. In my home, I have used adorable pets as a distraction many many times. “Aww, look at how cute Rubin is right now” has broken the tension so many times! Turning attention away from the stressful thing and focusing on something that makes you feel love is such a simple way to break that tension for a moment. Then quickly follow that up with something like “who’s ready for lunch?”

When my kids fighting was at its peak I used many different distractions and after awhile they knew what I was doing but they appreciated it. They didn’t want to fight and feel yucky but they didn’t know how to negotiate those difficult feelings in a way that didn’t result in conflict. I helped them figure that out and now I have new techniques to use for myself.

C - If you are unable to deflect the conflict then you were a witness to what happened. This means that after you separate them you will not need to go through the process of asking each child to explain what happened because you already know.

What I would do in this situation was tell my son to go to his room and wait for me. I would listen to my daughter’s feelings about what happened. I would then go to my son. Prior to unschooling I would yell at or shame him in some way. Unschooling advice helped me shift to more compassion for him. That chapter of our lives started when my son was 8 and daughter was 10. I came to understand that shaming and isolating him only made his deep feelings of frustration and shame worse. This translated into more angry outbursts. I looked for new ways of being with him in those moments. He already understood that hurting his sister was not ok. What he didn’t understand was how to coexist with her without becoming so frustrated that he resorted to violence. So that was where I realized I needed to focus my energy with him.

I remember going into his room once around the time that I was figuring this out and not knowing what to do or say. He was sitting on the bed with his back to me. I sat next to him quietly and gently touched my back to his. I could feel the defensiveness and deep emotions roll off of him as he leaned into me and we sat there in silence. That was the beginning of the transition. That was when he started to trust that I was there for him. And that was when I actually started being there for him in the way that he needed. He needed me to love and support him even when he was at his worst. It’s easy to love someone when they’re at their best. Loving them when they’re at their worst is the hard part.

D - Provide opportunities for your son to experience himself as a gentle, loving being. My son was ashamed of himself for his violent outbursts and it colored his view of himself in a negative way. It started to become his self identity and secret shame. This is where animals have helped us again. He has been able to experience himself being gentle and nurturing with animals. He has had the opportunity to feel his own desire to love, help and protect vulnerable things. We have a cat that has chosen him as his special person and I’ve watched the tenderness between them with so much gratitude. My son is learning that he is a deep feeler and he is learning to negotiate that road.

Cass K, the original, at Radical Unschooling Info on FaceBook

In a February 2012 discussion on facebook, someone recommended family meetings, in a thread about Jihong's Orion knocking down his sister's Lego structure. Much discussion ensued, but one dad said he had been at a family meeting once and was punished immediately. It seemed very sad, and inspire me to clarify.
-=My punishment was to mow the lawn right then. I remember secretly liking the punishment because it ended the stupid family meeting.-=-
You got to get the adrenaline out. It sounds like it was a kangaroo court situation, or some sort of entrapment.

The reason I used the method of speaking to each child separately, and ME going back and forth, rather than summoning them to where I was (like going to court, or to a hearing, where there might be a "tort") is that I was trying to comfort them and help them be safe and to be better people--people they would be glad to be. They don't like it when they're all frustrated. If I can tweak sibling behavior and comfort the aggrieved child, and then go to the other one with comfort and ideas, each was better prepared, in private, without a witness knowing what he was "supposed to do" the next time. That was important to me, to give them some privacy and some dignity, and some time to think without other people looking at them or praising my suggestion, or criticizing them further.

In a podcast interview, Pam Laricchia asked me, "When you children were young, I imagine that with three at home sometimes conflicts arose. Can you share some of the ways you approached them?" That section begins here, at here, at 17:20.

If you want to hear that podcast from the beginning, it is Ten Questions with Sandra Dodd (episode 5, February 3, 2016)

More about helping create peace among children

"Siblings Fighting" from Joyce Fetteroll's site

When a child is hitting, or destructive

more on siblings, including tales of unschooled siblings getting along well

How my children taught me to be a better parent.


other parenting issues.