Question: Hi Jennifer, Could I ask you for some parenting advice about dealing with sibling squabbling? This is a new problem I am just starting to have in the last few weeks. The girls are just bickering constantly. It’s like they can’t be in the same room together without fighting. It’s just non-stop pettiness…
“She said I did a bad job on my chore.”
“She keeps moving my paper into her box.”
“I have more grapes than you do.”
“She glared at me.”
“I’m glad I didn’t get your chore.” etc etc etc etc.
I alternate between feeling like I need to referee each incident to deal with the problem-causer and try to teach good manners and virtue (We don’t say things to hurt others. We use a nice voice to talk to others. God wants us to be kind, etc.) and being overwhelmed and telling them I don’t want to hear about their bickering and they need to work it out (which they do not seem to have any ability to do). Any advice would be much appreciated!
Answer: As I’m sure you’ve realized, there isn’t a fix-it-all answer to this question. Squabbling between siblings is just an inherent part of mothering. There are, however, various approaches that can be taken at various times. I will list my ideas here in no particular order.
1.) You gotta nip it in the bud. (We don’t normally turn to Barney Fife for parenting advice, but in this case, he’s on to something.) This is probably the most effective approach, but the caveat is that it requires mom’s attention and listening ear, and the children need to be playing where mom can hear them. As soon as mom hears the first child mis-step in their behavior, she nips it. Most squabbling (maybe all?) begins as an offense against one sibling by another sibling. So when that happens, and mom is paying attention, she can nip it in the bud immediately. “That was very unkind. Apologize to your sister right now. Don’t say that again.” Or, “She had that first. Give it back to her right now.” Or, “You know that is her special toy she just got for her birthday. Stop antagonizing your sister; you aren’t going to play with that right now.” Or, “Your brother is trying to build with legos. Stop sitting in the box of legos. Stop being annoying to your brother. Get out of the box right now.” (This literally just happened as I was writing this post.) Or, “What an unkind thing to say. You will have to go sit in your room for 8 minutes. Consider your ways and ask God to help you speak kindly.” (I have some younger children who are literally terrified to be alone in their room. So in that case, they may sit on a chair, etc.) Remember, the more distracted mom is, the more squabbling will happen. Those sweet darlings will be like sheep without a shepherd.
2.) Separate the siblings. Sometimes they just need some alone time. This will also help them appreciate each other more when they play together again. Give them strict physical boundaries that they cannot cross, set a timer and have them play separately. It’s best if they cannot even see each other during this time.
3.) Warn them that children who fight and bicker show mom that they need a quiet time. Some days we have a quiet time after lunch, and some days we don’t. My children often play their best and most quietly together after lunch when they are trying to avoid being sent to Quiet Time. A similar approach is that children who can’t play happily show mom that they need more work to do. “If you can’t find anything better to do than squabble with each other, you are both going to do some extra jobs around the house.”
4.) Stop them and pray together. “We are going to ask God to help us have peace in this home and kindness to one another. This behavior is not right. God can help us show kindness even if we don’t feel like it. We are going to ask Him for help right now.” They could pray as well, under your loving direction. This is a good chance to help them understand that selfishness and meanness are sin in God’s eyes. It brings their spiritual needs right down to where they live.
5.) Expect a little more from the older child. Let the older child know that you expect more mature behavior from them. “You are not two years old. I expect you to act like an older sister and be a good example to your younger sister. You are much too big to be acting like this. I’m very disappointed.”
6.) Sometimes these situations can help them learn life lessons. Some sibling squabbling happens because one child will just not cooperate with the other child’s plans. Both sets of my boys have argued and gotten upset in their younger days because one wanted to go outside and throw the football, and the other one didn’t. It became kind of a power play. One would then appeal to me. “Mom, tell him to go out and throw the football with me!” Most of the time I would respond by saying, “I’m not going to make him do that. It would sure be nice of him, but I’m not going to require it of him.” Life lesson: people will not always do what you want them to do. Deal with it.
7.) Sing songs. I do this quite a bit to help overcome some of the unpleasant aspects of parenting younger children. It’s hard for them to misbehave with mom cheerfully singing a song in their midst. One good song for squabbling is Steve Green’s Scripture song, “Do everything without complaining, do everything without arguing…” On a similar note (pun intended 🎵😜), putting on happy music can help improve everyone’s disposition.
8.) Utilize a timer. A timer can be a mom’s best friend sometimes. If they are fighting over a toy, a good approach is to say that one child can have it for a certain number of minutes (5 or so; shorter times the younger the child is), and then the other child will have a turn. This often results in them both losing interest and moving on to something else, but sometimes the waiting child will gladly take his/her turn when the timer goes off. The other one will maximize her time with the toy while she has it.
9.) Tell them to “work it out.” I know you mentioned that they don’t seem to be able to do this. I understand. This mainly works if they know they won’t get a privilege of some sort. “I want to watch this cartoon! But she wants to watch that other one!” A good response is, “You’re not watching anything until you have come to an agreement.” It can be quite amusing to then listen to their negotiating powers come into play.
10.) Emphasize being a peacemaker and having a soft answer. If someone is trying to antagonize another child, that child can learn to squelch the fire by ignoring what is being said or by saying, “I’m not going to get into a fight with you.” More life lessons. (Good for us adults to revisit these lessons, too. So often I’m teaching my children, but the words I’m speaking are coming right back to me!)
11.) Deal sternly with the instigator when needed. Children need to understand that deliberately causing trouble is a serious offense, and after several warnings and sessions of prayer, song, or instruction, if they just won’t stop, they need to fully understand that you won’t have any more of one child trying to instigate trouble and “stir the pot.” It’s just not acceptable. It’s deliberate disobedience at that point.
12.) Get Dad involved. Sometimes a stern warning from Daddy can let the children know that, wow, this is serious. And then, when they have done well, brag about their good behavior to Dad at supper. “These girls were so kind to each other today! I am so pleased and proud of how they acted! I know God is pleased as well. What a happy day we have had!”
As you can see, one or two of these approaches can be appropriately applied to any given situation. Don’t try all twelve at once!
Any reader comments are always welcome and I’m sure would be helpful to those who read this post. What measures have you learned to be effective in squelching sibling squabbling? ♥