Siblings sitting in the park smiling

Sibling Bickering; It Has An Upside!

Yesterday it was in the low 80’s here, and today we’re fogged in and COLD! Big temperature changes remind me of how quickly things can shift between siblings. One minute they’re laughing and the next minute they’re bickering. It happens fast.

When situations change quickly it’s hard for parents to do anything but react…unless they have a plan.

Yesterday Parent Educator Shelly MacDonald inspired me to spread a detailed topic over several newsletters, so that’s what I’m going to do for a few weeks, discuss a big family topic—arguing. 

During my 30-yr. career I’ve only used one book to guide me on the topic of siblings, Siblings w/o Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It was published a long time ago, so the book’s conversations are a tiny bit out of date, but the concepts are unparalleled. I have adapted the methods suggested in their book so I can show you how to respond, not react, to sibling fighting. The methods I’m sharing can also be creatively applied to other situations as well.

Today we’ll focus on something that tends to send a parent up the wall, bickering. The tiny, stupid little arguments that can cause a parent to act as judge and jury in order to stop things from getting any worse. What I’m about to advocate will be counterintuitive to you until you try it about 10 times and see that it works.


Two points you need to keep in mind as you read further.

1. Your parental job is to teach, not control your children.

2. Pick your battles.

The Scenario – Breakfast Bickering

Brother: “That’s my bowl, give it to me!”

Sister #1: “It’s not your bowl!”

Sister #2: “That’s my cup!”

Sister #1: “Mom got that cereal for me, it’s mine!”

Sister #2: “I can have some; you’re not the boss of me!”

Need I go on?

Every parent’s tendency is to rush in to “Stop it right now!” We either angrily attempt to identify who started it, or lump all the kids together and begin yelling. That’s reacting, and as we all know, things will get worse pretty quickly from there. That’s why I asked you to remember two things, your job is to teach, and pick your battles.

I know every fiber of your body, especially in the morning, wants to shut down the bickering immediately. But, believe it or not, this is a great learning opportunity.

If you rush in and insert yourself into the mix, your silent message teaches the kids that they’ll never need to, or be able to, resolve things without your help. Kids need to learn how to resolve things without your help, because you won’t always be there to help! So what can be done? Here’s a three-step process to try. 

Step One-Reminder only

Do not rush in and hand out a consequence, not yet. But do go in to deliver a reminder. Pretend that you need something and casually say, “There’s no name calling in this house” and walk out. That’s being proactive and reminding them of the rules, aka your job.

Why not try and stop it at this point?

I know bickering is annoying, however, bickering is pretty harmless in the grand scheme of things, remember… pick your battles. Bickering is what kids do to establish pecking order in a family. It’s a child’s form of communication. As long as all that’s going on is bickering, then just deliver the reminder.

Step Two-Cooling off

Continue listening closely to the bickering and banter between them. Listen for the moment when hurtful words are said or labels are being slung, or someone’s character has been attacked. At that moment calmly walk in and call for a mandatory 5-minute cool-off.

Kids don’t fully understand how to control themselves in every emotional situation yet, they’re kids. They haven’t had enough experiences in life yet to figure out how to dig deep to access their internal resources so they can control themselves. They learn how to do that by experiencing what happens when they don’t do that. In other words, when they experience the consequence of not controlling themselves, they become motivated to figure out how to control themselves.

Mom: “I’ve already reminded you that there’s no name calling in our family. Everyone please get up and go to your rooms for a 5-minute cool-off.”

Sister #1: “What about breakfast? I won’t have time to do my hair! I’ll be late if we don’t eat now!”

Mom: 5-minutes for all of you!

Remember this is not punishment; it is a cooling off moment to settle any ruffled feathers so they can return, apologize and try again.

3-5 minutes is good for older kids, 1 minute is good for younger kids. The time needs to be short so the situation remains fresh in their minds when they come back to the table.

Step Three- Apologies and A Try Again

Mom: “In this family we apologize when hurtful words have been used. Please apologize to each other from your heart, now.”

Mom: “I know each of you knows what hurtful words feel like and are totally capable of not using them with those you love! You guys decide how you want the rest of the morning to go. We can certainly do another cool-off, if need be. I’ll be in the office quietly drinking my coffee.”

That statement sends the silent message, I know you’re now fully aware of what will happen if you use hurtful words, a 5-minute cool-off will occur. And I trust you to figure out how to control yourself or there will be another cool-off period and another, even if it makes us late, until you stop. 

Bickering, teasing and taunting actually serve a purpose. It teaches kids how to reject harsh words, which can help when/if they ever face a bully. Shows them that when mean things are said, an apology must follow. Models that you believe in their ability to control themselves. It shares your family’s values—we don’t speak harshly to those we love. Repeatedly requires them to resolve things by facing them, apologizing, and beginning again.

See you next week! Let me know how this works for you.

Now go hug your kids.


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