Let's look at some common reasons that children fight and antagonize each other and what parents can do to combat each one. One reason children misbehave is due to one or more basic needs not being met at the time: Being tired, hungry or bored are often causes of crabby or argumentative behavior, thus leading to sibling conflicts. If a sibling conflict breaks out while shopping, for example, parents can ask themselves which of the basic needs may not have been met? Taking a short break from a busy shopping trip or grabbing a small snack and sitting down for 10 minutes to eat might work wonders in this situation.
Children also argue in order to get attention. I'm sure everyone has heard the cliche about negative attention is better than no attention at all. Well, for children at least, this is often the case. Parents often have busy schedules and find it difficult to sit down with their children and give them the one-on-one attention they crave. If children are fighting due to a lack of attention, parents can best handle this situation by simply ignoring it. That's right -- if it's a small argument or conflict it's often best to simply walk away and not reinforce the behavior. Parents often unknowingly encourage sibling conflicts in these situations by giving the children negative attention. By ignoring small arguments and conflicts, parents are allowing their children to learn valuable problem-solving skills and not reinforcing the negative behavior at the same time. Instead, parents should offer praise in the form of positive attention when they notice the children compromising and getting along. Take a few seconds to offer some praise such as "Wow, you two are getting along and sharing so well! I love it when you get along like this!" By doing this instead, parents can begin to reinforce positive and not negative behaviors.
Lastly, siblings will sometimes argue or have conflicts due to power struggles. This is especially true when there is an age difference and one sibling has more freedom or privileges than the other. Parents need to be careful here to not take sides or encourage competitiveness, either directly or indirectly. Parents can simply explain that age comes with more privileges at times, but also with more expectations and responsibilities.
So what if a parent is following all of this advice and there is still an excessive amount of sibling conflict? A great next step is to implement a family rule addressing the conflict that uses rewards for the positive behaviors (getting along, sharing, taking turns) and gives negative consequences for negative behaviors (arguing, refusing to share). Negative consequences should be instant and brief, a time out for three to five minutes, for example. Look at this as a way to put a stop to the arguing, to give everyone involved a chance to calm down and regroup. If the parent isn't sure who started the conflict, be sure to send both children to take a brief time-out.
Again, it is always best to focus on positive reinforcement as opposed to negative (time-outs, etc.). Remember this philosophy when dealing with any childhood behavioral problem; focus on encouraging positive behaviors with positive reinforcement as opposed to the idea of "punishing" negative behaviors with a negative consequence. Parents rightfully get frustrated with childhood noncompliance, especially if they have been trying for a long time to get the behavior under control but nothing seems to be working. It is easy to fall into the common parenting trap of "If a five- minute time out didn't work, then an hour might do the trick," or "If losing the video game for three days wasn't enough, next time I'll take it for a month." This type of parenting rarely succeeds in reducing or eliminating negative behavior, or perhaps even more importantly, in teaching the child how to make positive choices on his or her own without parental intervention.
A final option is to seek out a trained, experienced family counselor to help the family to better address the sibling conflict. Generally parents can reduce the conflict to a more manageable level by following the tips and suggestions mentioned here. But if even this advice doesn't seem to be helping, it is always best to seek professional help before the problems get worse.
Shannon Anderson is the owner and clinical director of Tender Hearts Child Therapy Center and specializes in child, adolescent, and family counseling. He is also currently completing certification in parent management training, an evidenced-based therapy for the treatment of oppositional and aggressive children ages 2 to 14. He has also recently completed training through the Missouri Therapy Network in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, an intervention designed specifically to treat traumatized children dealing with loss or abuse. Look for his blog at semissourian.com/flourish.