It's inevitable – children fight. Despite our best efforts to encourage a spirit of cooperation and our attempts to “equalize” everything from cookie distribution to love, we parents all hear our little ones say things to one another we wouldn’t say to our worst enemy, taunt, tease, grab, fight, and bellow, “It’s not FAIR!” “You love HER better!” when we try to play Solomon.

Are there ways to intervene helpfully? You bet.

Five Tips for Parents When Our Children Fight

1. Equal means less

Equality may work for constitutions, but not our little ones’ “constitutions.” Children need to be loved and provided for uniquely, as they are unique with different needs. How much better to lose the measuring tape, assure each they are special, and will get what’s required.

When Mark starts arguing “Not Fair” that his brother got a larger hamburger, simply say, “Are you still hungry? Would like another half or can you handle two?”

If Rachel asks, “Who do you love best?” instead of reassuring, “I love you both the same,” it’s more helpful and realistic to reply: “Each of you is special to me. There’s not another Rachel in the whole universe!”

When Eli, impatient and angry while you’re helping his sister prepare for a math test, complains, “Mommy, you’re talking to her longer than you talk to me!” you might explain that this math test is important, but when you finish, you’re eager to hear what’s on his mind.

2. Get off the bench and put down the gavel

As the parent, our children look to us to be judge and jury. This, of course, is a lose-lose situation, as one child will “lose” – and so will we. First, prioritize. Not every little squabble is our “business.” Whenever possible, let them sweat solutions over the small stuff.

The “bigger stuff” does require our attention, but rather than playing cop or judge, the goal is to teach them how to settle things themselves.

For example, Shayna, 7, and Michael, 6, are arguing furiously over a Sing-A-Ma-Jig. Each is screaming and holding onto it with the strength of Sumo wrestlers. Our natural inclination is to yell and investigate. “Stop it this minute!” “Who started it? The truth!” “Shame on you Shayna, give it to your little brother and play with your Barbie!” “Can’t you learn to share?!” “No one gets it! Time-out for both of you!”

We know the above will send us and them on a merry-go-round, creating even more frustration and resentment as they will claim or think “I won/lost,” “But that’s unfair!” “They always take his/her side.” “Why should I share?!”

How much more helpful to simply:

a) Identify the feelings: “I see two children who are angry at each other.”

b) Identify the conflict: “Hmmm. Shayna, you were playing with it, then Michael wanted to play too. Wow. This is tough. Both of you wanting to play with the same toy now.”

c) Throw it back: “If you think hard together, I know you can find a fair solution.” Then, get “outta” there.

I hear you groaning, “Right.” But, believe it or not, most children, when you show them you have confidence in their ability to work things out will figure it out! And you’ve managed to avoid the fall-out and charges of favoritism that come with being the mommy-in-the-middle.

3. Stopping the bully/victim cycle

In many sibling relationships a “bully” vs. “victim” cycle develops. How often have we heard these words between them: “If you don’t get out, I’ll ....” as the “bully” threatens or grabs, while the “victim” withers, whines, tattle-tales, and looks to us to punish the offender? This is a rough one, as our sympathies are often with the victim.

For example, David, 10, is hitting his 8-year-old sister’s boombox, threatening, “If you don’t get out of here, Anna, I’ll smash it!!” while Anna is hysterical. Rather than saying: “David! You’re bullying again! Knock it off!” it’s more helpful to say, “No teasing or smashing! You know how to ask for what you want without nicely, and I expect you to do it right now.”

As for the “victim,” instead of going the “poor baby” route, the task here is to help her learn to stand up for herself. Comments such as: “You can tell your brother ‘I got it for my birthday. It’s my toy’” or, “If he teases you with a mean face, tell him ‘You don’t scare me!’”

Teaching our little ones that bullying is unacceptable and they need not be “victims” prepares them to behave in a civilized manner with confidence.

4. When the bigger stuff gets out of hand

In a perfect world, the above will work, but as we know, at times things may spiral out of control, and of course we must step in to avoid a potentially dangerous situation!

For example, you hear screaming and find your 9-year-old twin boys clobbering one another. First, inquire: “Is this a real or ‘play’ fight?” (Play fighting is allowed only by mutual consent. Real fights are not.) If you quickly determine they’re out for blood, describe it: “I see two furious boys who may hurt each other.” Then, separate them, saying, “This is NOT safe. You both need to cool down. Quick, to your rooms (or other separate areas), now!”

Sometimes intervention is needed.

5. The “Meeting Hall”

Among sibs, there are persistent triggers in specific situations. Your Eli, 14, babysits when you go out for short hops, but becomes a mega-macher, ordering his 12-year-old sister, Becca, around, and calling the shots over everything from TV viewing to iPad apps. If she disobeys, he pinches her.

  1. Call a family meeting to discuss the situation.
  2. Invite each child to express his or her feelings and concerns.
  3. Write them down and read them aloud to make sure you’re all on the same page.
  4. Ask the kids to offer fair solutions, then write them all, without judgment.
  5. Establish the final rules with them. For example: “No bosses.” “No hurting.” Devise a TV schedule, along with suitable apps that Becca may choose from without interference from her brother.
  6. Follow-up a week later to see if all are satisfied with the new strategy in place.

Just imagine brothers and sisters growing up in homes where hurting isn’t tolerated; where children learn to negotiate fairly; and where cooperation rather than competition is encouraged. From such a home, they will have the tools and the confidence to grow together, rather than apart.