Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

How do I prevent my two young boys from regularly fighting with each other? With the Xmas holidays here I am beginning to feel quite desperate!

This sounds like sibling rivalry. It is very common, but it can be frustrating and upsetting to watch your children fight, and a household that’s full of conflict is stressful for everyone.

In order to promote peace in your home it is useful to understand why children fight in the first place. Although jealousy or competition are the most common factors causing siblings to fight there are at least three other important factors that will affect your children.

1. Your children’s evolving needs, anxieties, and identities affect how they relate to one another. For example, toddlers are naturally protective of their belongings, and are learning to assert their will. So if a baby brother picks up the toddler’s toy, he may react aggressively. A school-age child will often have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so might not understand why a younger (or older) sibling appears to be receiving preferential treatment.
2. Your children’s individual temperaments and their unique personalities also play a large role in how well they get along. For example, if one child is laid back and another is easily upset, they may often get into fights.
3. The way in which you resolve problems and disagreements with your spouse sets a strong example for your children. Working through conflicts in ways that are respectful, productive, and not aggressive increases the chances that your children will adopt those tactics when they run into problems with one another. Regularly shouting, slamming doors, and arguing loudly is going to have the opposite effect.

So, with the above in mind, the rule of thumb when fighting starts is to try not to get involved. Step in only if there’s a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, your children may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue rather than learning to work out the problems on their own. You may also make it appear to one child that the other is always being “protected,” which is likely to foster even more resentment! If you do step in, try to resolve problems with your children, not for them. And when getting involved, separate your children until they’re calm. They will be much more able to learn when the emotions have died down.

Consider holding regular family meetings in which everyone has a say in setting and reviewing the “ground rules” (and consequences) with regard to fighting: there should be no hurting, cursing, name-calling, shouting, or door slamming.

Remember that children sometimes fight to get a parent’s attention. In this case, take a time-out of your own. When you leave, the incentive for fighting is gone. And consider handing the reins over to the other parent for a while. If you feel that the conflict between your children has become so severe that it disrupts daily functioning, or affects one of them emotionally or psychologically then it would be wise to get help from a mental health professional.