What to do when playtime among siblings turns nasty

They want to play together and are great friends a lot of the time but then out of the blue the gloves come off and they are arguing...

Our children seem to have this love/hate relationship thing going on. They want to play together and are great friends a lot of the time but then out of the blue the gloves come off and they are arguing and fighting over the littlest things. We feel like we have tried everything to stop the scrapping but it does not seem to have any lasting effect. Any thoughts you can give us to get our kids to stop scrapping and get along more would be great!

Thanks for your question. This is something that comes up for many families to varying degrees. I know at times it is something that I wrestle with around my own kids particularly when the arguing seems to have been going on for an extended period of time!

I do not know how old your children are, what the fighting/scrapping looks like and how it plays out in your home so it is hard to answer the question directly for your circumstances. However, I think it is important to remember that some of our children’s developmental tasks are to learn how to resolve conflicts and get along with each other. At home this means learning how to address, work through and respond to conflict with our siblings who we spend a lot of time with. Children are not always going to be able to do this well and they do need practice in order to get better.

The challenge for us as parents is being able to tolerate how our children are learning to work through things with each other and to know when we need to intervene. Sometimes as parents — and I am certainly guilty of this — we work too hard to stop conflict between siblings that is developmentally necessary and that we are unable to stop. Some of the conflict and arguments are going to happen regardless of how much we step in, redirect, consequence or punish.

A lot of the times our children need to work through it themselves without our interference. Our worry as parents is that we want them to do that appropriately and feel that we should intervene when it is not happening that way. Our children can and do use this to their advantage at times and will escalate the situation to get us involved when they need to step back and resolve it themselves. Often when we do not step in they can and do work it out successfully and move forward even though how they do that may not be the prettiest process.

So if we accept that the arguing and conflict is developmentally necessary and that children need to practice working it through for themselves, our jobs as parents shift a bit. No longer is it our job to stop them from fighting but rather it is to make sure that they are not going too far as long as they sort it out themselves. We need to set some limits and boundaries around it so that they are safe as they sort through it but then we need to get out of the way and let them develop their skills.

This is not easy to do and getting out of the way is easier said than done. Certainly if they are hitting and attacking each other physically we need to intervene and make sure they are safe. But if they are yelling and screaming at each other and it is difficult to stay out of it, ask them to go somewhere else to work through it (where you can keep an eye on them without being drawn into the middle) it rather than trying to mediate it. Most siblings will sort it out and move forward in their play fairly shortly once they realize that is their only choice. And, when they cannot, then learning how to take some space from each other until they can is another useful skill for them to practice in the safety of their sibling and family relationships.

To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail  info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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