How do you handle sibling rivalry? When little kids constantly bicker or fight, we moms can get really worn out.
Every Thursday this month I’ve been running an article to help equip moms for parenting effectively once the school year starts again! And I’ve been trying to emphasize some advice that sometimes goes against the grain of what we’re told in Christian circles, which often emphasize outward obedience rather than actual character training.
I was thrilled when Connected Families contacted me to talk about their “Peace Process“, where they’re equipping parents to raise peaceful kids. It’s really cool. From Jim and Lynne Jackson, who founded Connected Families, here’s what it looks like in practice:
“Knock it off!,” one kid commands. The other raises the energy and volume, “Knock it off yourself! I was here first!” You round the corner just as they erupt into a volatile war of insults. You interrupt with parental volume and energy. “This is NOT OK! Go to time out until you can say you’re sorry!” Or perhaps you threaten a spanking if they keep this up.
The kids quiet down, and wanting to go on with life, each smugly utters the word “sorry” through angry glares. They keep it together for a while afterward, not wanting your intervention any time soon, but truly repentant, apologetic hearts are nowhere to be found.
Scenes like this unfold in good homes every day. Siblings fight. It’s natural and normal. The way parents routinely deal with it determines whether the kids will grow up well-equipped to navigate conflict… or not.
Sadly, the typical way parents engage with sibling conflict does little to help kids learn valuable conflict resolution skills.
Motivated by good intentions to teach the value of respecting each other, parents unwittingly teach their kids to hide their conflicts or to depend on parental intervention to make it stop. What’s needed is far more than forced apologies, time-outs, and spankings. To grow the value of true reconciliation, kids need to learn to understand each other and value solving problems like this on their own – none of which is accomplished by the above approaches.
Reconciliation is at the heart of biblical teaching about conflict. Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:23,24,
Suppose you… remember that your brother or sister has something against you… go and make peace with them.
In Matthew 18:15-17 he gives further instruction about going through conflict – and gives the primary goal: listening in order to resolve! People naturally regard these verses as written to and for adults.
The problem: We somehow think our kids will magically figure out conflict resolution as adults without giving them opportunities to learn healthy strategies as children.
As we look at the divisions in the church and the state of marriages today, teaching this to young kids is critically important!!
In our home we embraced the belief that the scriptural guidelines for conflict resolution apply as soon as kids can talk, so we began this work when our very sensitive daughter was two and having conflicts with our intense, oldest (five-year-old) son. We had lots of opportunities to work on this.
We taught our kids that God created us to have close, connected loving relationships, and when we hurt each other with our words or hands it breaks that connection. When that happens, it’s not enough to say a quick or insincere “Sorry” and move on. It’s the job of the people involved to resolve the conflict in a way that truly reconnects their hearts! It was rewarding to watch our kids’ joy and closeness grow as they learned practical ways to “make right what they’d made wrong” in their relationship. Our kids grew to be dear friends and have great relationships with others.
We call the approach we used, “The Peace Process.”
It’s a simple guide that helps parents wisely guide kids to value true reconciliation. The process has four basic steps:
- Calm down
- understand each other
- solve the conflict
- celebrate (even the smallest steps of progress).
Recently a five-year-old whose parents have started using this process was in a scuffle with her little brother. He was being too aggressive and the dad intervened the old way. She blurted out, “No, Daddy! Don’t give him a time out! I want to do the Peace Process!”
This can happen with your kids.
It starts with you. Think of the four steps as a stepping stone path to true reconciliation – with you leading the way:
Develop a habit of taking a deep breath when your kids start fighting (unless there is imminent danger, in which case, do what’s needed to stop it and come back to this process as soon as you can). Remind yourself that conflict is normal and that your calm response will help your kids learn to calm down too. Sometimes, in your effort to calm down, the kids will notice and will calm down too. If not, calmly ask what they need in order to calm down. Offer them time to cool down. A phrase we often coach parents to use is, “Do you kids need to find a comfortable spot to calm down before you’re ready to work this out?”
More than once one or the other of us said to our kids during conflict, “I need a break because I’m upset and I don’t want to disrespect you.” This modelled both the importance and an approach for self-calming.
As the kids calm down, ask yourself, “What’s going on with the kids and how could I let them know I understand?” Then ask, “How can I help them understand each other?” How do they each feel? Do your best to make empathetic statements with them as an example and then ask them to reflect on how the other child is feeling. See if they’ll talk to each other about it. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
At the core of solving is restoring. This is why insincere “Sorry’s” don’t help kids really learn. To restore means asking, How did your actions hurt someone else? And how do you want to make things right? At first it will feel awkward and kids will need your help. So ask them, “You two used your words to hurt each other, how do you want to use words to make things right?” As they learn this process they’ll be able to come up with their own ideas.
Philippians 4:8 invites us to dwell on whatever is good. As kids make even the smallest amount of progress, instead of focusing on what they’ve not yet done well, give smiles, high-fives, and hugs for little steps of progress. When it comes to encouraging progress, affirming energy directed at little bright spots far outweighs critical energy to what’s still going wrong.
As you develop the habit of calming, seeking understanding, working not just for consequences but solutions, and celebrating, little by little the kids will follow your lead. And soon perhaps your kids will ask for the “Peace Process” too! Now that’s something to celebrate!
They show you not how to control your kids, but how to help them learn to control their emotions and truly show each other love. And it honestly works! You don’t have to live with constant sibling fights. You can find peace in your home.