How to Get Your Kids to Stop Fighting

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I once read an article that said the only way to stop siblings from fighting is to get rid of their toys. No toys, no noise. While a part of me would LOVE to take all their toys (or at least the talking and flashing ones) and throw them away, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the most realistic approach for our family. So what should exasperated parents do when their kids just will not play nice? Thankfully there is someone out there with answers. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life offers us invaluable advice on how to manage sibling conflict and create a more peaceful environment for everyone in the family.

–Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company

 An interview with Dr. Laura Markham

What are the most common things that siblings fight about?

By far the most common reason for kids’ fights is that they both want the same scarce resource—usually a given toy. Some of the time, that toy is probably a symbol of parental love, but sometimes they just want the same toy. Every child should have some things that are solely theirs; that they are never required to share. These need to be kept separate from other toys.

So should parents force siblings to share?

Instead of “sharing” or parentally-enforced timers for taking turns, I recommend self-regulated turns.

The child is free to use the toy for as long as she wants (until bedtime, but not into the next day), so she can fully enjoy it, and then give it to the other child with an open heart. She experiences that wonderful emotion of giving someone else something they want, and seeing how happy they are, which develops generosity.

We tell the child who wants a turn that he can ask the sibling when it will be his turn, and assure him that we’ll help him wait until the sibling decides she’s done with the toy. If he cries, we empathize.

What children learn when parents enforce sharing or enforce when children must take turns:

  • If I cry loud enough, I get what I want, even if someone else has it.
  • Parents are in charge of who gets what when, and it’s arbitrary, depending on their whim and how dramatically I beg for my turn.
  • My sibling and I are in constant competition to get what we need. I don’t like him.
  • I guess I’m a greedy person, but that’s what I need to be in order to get what I deserve.
  • I had better “play fast” because I won’t have this item for long.
  • I won! But soon I will lose again soon. I had better protest loudly when my turn is up to get every minute I can. And then start protesting again as soon as it’s my sibling’s turn. If I make my parent miserable, I’ll get more time with the toy.

The conventional approach of forced sharing undermines the ability of children to lose themselves in play, as well as undermining the sibling relationship by creating constant competition. Neither child gets to experience the generosity of having their fill and giving to the other.

What children learn when they self-regulate turns:

  • I can ask for what I want. Sometimes I get a turn soon, and sometimes I have to wait.
  • It’s okay to cry, but it doesn’t mean I get the toy.
  • I don’t get everything I want, but I get something better. My parent always understands and helps me when I’m upset.
  • After I cry, I feel better.
  • I can use another toy instead and really enjoy it. I’m getting better at waiting.
  • I don’t have to whine and cry to my parent to convince them to get me a turn. Everybody has to wait for their turn, but everybody gets a turn sooner or later.
  • I like the feeling when my sibling gives me the toy. I like her.
  • I can use a toy for as long as I want; nobody will make me give it to my sibling at a moment’s notice. When I’m done with the toy and give it to my sibling, I feel good inside—I like to give her a turn. I’m a generous person.

That a child will offer her a sibling a turn, without parental enforcement, is hard to believe for most parents. But if you adopt this policy, it will become an everyday occurrence in your home. You’ll still have to buy two of the most treasured items, and you’ll still have to put them away before other children visit. But rather than arbitrating sharing, you’ll find yourself coaching your kids as they wait for their turn, and admiring how often they navigate taking turns without you running interference. Why not try it?

So how involved should a parent get if things escalate to a full blown fight?

Coach, instead of controlling or punishing.  Parents who punish and control end up raising children who are more negative with each other, probably because they’ve observed that the way to get others to do what they want is to use threats and force. By contrast, when we coach each child in conflict resolution, they’re better at navigating the inevitable bumps of living with other people. Emotion-coaching helps kids learn to calm themselves, understand their brother or sister’s point of view, and put their needs into words instead of lashing out physically during a sibling conflict—so they can come up with win-win solutions.

Parental intervention in which the parent decides who’s right and tells the children how to resolve the issue increases the number of sibling fights. That’s at least partly because the “losing” child becomes resentful.

BUT parents who listen to both sides—not so they can make a ruling but so both children feel heard, and then help kids sort through win/win solutions—empower their children to solve their own problems. Even better, they gradually clear up the feeling each child has of being unfairly treated, so sibling rivalry and fighting diminish over time.

Once you begin using a conflict resolution approach regularly, your children learn how to express their feelings, listen with empathy, and look for win-win solutions. They begin to work out disagreements before they escalate into conflicts, and there’s a lot less fighting—and a lot less involvement from you.

If you want more tips on how to transform sibling fights to brotherly love, Laura Markham, Ph.D.‘s newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, is now available for pre-order. And when you pre-order, you get complimentary access to her Peaceful Parent Audio Course.  

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusic, and more.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

The Siblings Show

Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Family, Modern Parenting, Siblings

Comments (11)

  1. michelle

    Hi I am a mother of 5, 2 girls and 3 boys. You have a good point about your post. On this part about two kids wanting the same toy , my kids when there is only one thing or toy to play with yes they fight over it and sometimes depending on what it is we tell them to take turns. But sometimes when there is something really good and there is only two of that item we let them take turns and if they start to argue over them me or my husband takes the item , wouldn’t believe it but they will cry for a little bit and then go do something else . No one is mad, no one fights when the item is gone , i’m happy because the arguing has stopped and it’s like you didn’t see them argue in the first place. Sometimes taking away a toy works and in some cases it doesn’t

  2. Dimitra

    I like this approach however what do you do when the younger one doesn’t quite have enough words to communicate well enough?

    • Dr. Laura Markham

      Dimitra – You can “interpret” for both children. “Are you both having fun here? Honey, look at your brother’s face…It doesn’t look like he’s having fun with this game.” And to the little one, “You can tell your brother, STOP!” This helps both of them learn to articulate their feelings and set boundaries on the other child’s behavior.

  3. Karen

    hi there
    I have 2 girls ages 8 and 11. They are in constant competition with each other! Over anything school awards food presents friends etc. How do I stop the competitiveness and get them to be happy for each other especially in terms of school awards etc?

    • Dr. Laura Markham

      One important thing is to talk about what you actually value — kindness and respect, as opposed to school awards. Be sure that you notice and comment on it, every time your girls support each other in any way. Make a much bigger deal about that then about school awards. You’ll notice that the competitiveness will really diminish. There are a lot of ideas in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings about how to reduce competition. Try some of them and let me know what works best for you!

  4. Christine Dillon

    This article forced me to think of my own upbringing. I cannot recall fighting with my siblings over toys. We didn’t have many toys. Eight children in total and we were made to play outside. When it wasn’t suitable to play outside we played board games. We received 2 toys each a year, birthday s and xmas. I do believe in all honestly kids have too many toys and not enough outside time. Sorry if I sound like the Ol “back in my day” type of statement, but I believe what I have said holds much merit. X

  5. rose

    Im so thankful for this book If it willbeoffered to me. I have 3 boys, and yes quite sometimes there is misunderstanding when it comes of.borrowing toys. I hope my husband will get this book for me. Thanks to the Author. GODSPEED

  6. Caitlin

    I love this perspective. I’ve been really perplexed on what to do over this issue with my three year old triplets who are constantly fighting and crying recently. Coach mode is now on. Starting…NOW!

  7. km

    I appreciate this may work, but when friends come over how do you flick a switch that the friend is inly here for a short time and cannot wait until tge next day or week to have a turn?

  8. Abbie

    VW – we get it! I ended up leaving my career in entertainment because the balance was impossible and my kid was being shortchanged. But that’s not the only option. I do appreciate that it is hard to feed the “love bank” for both kids AND get everything else done. And forget about time for yourself. But here’s the thing – they’re not going to get that need met any other way. SO…what has worked for us is – 1 meal together a day, preferably dinner (research shows that family meals are one of the most important factors to life-long happiness and a sense of family belonging), 10 minutes of special time (with no digital distractions) for each kid as often as you can, and family time on the weekend. Make a big deal about the weekend family time – have the kids join in on the planning – and make sure it includes quality time, not just busy walking around seeing things time. We do beach or park visits. And then, show up for them, emotionally. Listen. Every once in a while take them out of school for an “appointment” with you. Family is your priority. Work is your job. Make sure the pendulum swings towards both ends of that spectrum to eventually try to balance out in the long run. Good luck.

  9. VW

    I would appreciate some feedback on what to do when the scarce resource your kids are fighting over (constantly) is you. As a mother who works outside of the home full-time, I often find that I cannot satisfy both of my children’s need for me even with time dedicated to each of them. They are literally fighting over me -who gets to be next to/on/with me- and they will not relinquish turns to each other (or both be with me at the same time). I find it impossible to figure out a way to satisfy both their needs, and it’s incredibly frustrating to try to negotiate with them, to the point that I just want to walk away so nobody can “have” me.