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How Long Should You Wait Before Breaking up a Sibling Argument?

close up of children shouting at each other

As a kid, your siblings could be your best friends or your worst enemies, depending on how many ice cream sandwiches were left in the freezer. Now as a parent, you’re watching or (more likely) listening to your kids argue and wondering whether the bickering is normal of or if it’s time to step in and take over.

Believe it or not, most of those sibling squabbles are helping your kids improve their social skills. According to Psychology Today, the disagreements between siblings teach them how to identify a problem, express their feelings, and learn to compromise.

When to Intervene

It’s tempting to intervene if only to quiet things down. The trouble is that intervening (especially too early) can cause more problems.

Children fight for many different reasons, according to the Center for Parenting Education, and not all of them are about the specific problem your kids seem to be arguing over at the moment. Fighting can be a power struggle, a cry for attention, or even a break from boredom. Figuring out the real issue behind the argument can ensure you don’t inadvertently encourage bad behavior.

Most of the time you’re safe to let your kids settle their disagreements themselves. However, there will be instances when it’s apparent that they need your help. Listen for name-calling, physical violence (hitting, pushing, etc.), or even voices that become very raised or intense (more than just the usual yelling level of intensity). Sometimes your children will even come to you when they’re unable to settle a disagreement.

When it becomes apparent that your kids are not going to be able to resolve their argument peacefully, you can step in to help facilitate a happier resolution. Think of yourself as the mediator in the argument, not the fixer.  The idea is to help your kids learn how to resolve their problems.

It’s also important to note that when (and how) you intervene depends on the age of your kids. When your pre-school age kids squabble, you might want to intervene a bit sooner than you would when your teenage boys are fighting over the Xbox. Younger kids need more help in developing the skills to work these things out.

How to Help

sons and dad sitting at table, leaning heads on palms and staring indifferent at camera
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

You can help facilitate learning moments by being prepared ahead of time. Here are a few tips to make navigating the sibling fight a little less painful:

  • Recognize when you are needed: If the kids are continually bickering but there’s no name-calling, screaming, or hitting, feel free to stay away. If things are getting out of hand, insert yourself into the conversation.
  • Stay calm: Whining, yelling, and bickering can drive any parent nuts. However, it’s vital that you don’t let your temper flare along with the kids’. Remind yourself that the argument has nothing to do with you. Your temperament will influence how the rest of the conversation goes.
  • Encourage each child to have their say: Let both children explain their viewpoint. Make sure to encourage everyone to listen to the other person’s explanation, too. You can also practice active listening, by fully engaging with each child and showing each of them that you understand how they are feeling.
  • Ask clarifying questions: Once each child has spoken, ask clarifying questions. Asking questions helps you and the kids identify the problem. For example, “So, when Tommy broke your doll, that made you angry, and you called him a name. Is that right?”
  • Ask leading questions: Consider asking questions to help the kids come up with a solution. Like, “How do you think you could have responded instead of calling him a name?” Letting them come up with a response allows them to think of how their actions make a difference in any given situation.
  • Encourage a compromise: In a situation when both kids want something, learning to compromise is the best way to make sure both parties walk away feeling satisfied. By definition, a compromise means that both sides win and both sides lose. Each person will have to sacrifice something to ensure they both get what’s most important to them.

Lead By Example

One of the best things you can do to help your kids learn to settle arguments on their own is to show them how to fight productively. Be respectful and listen when arguing with another adult (or even one of the kids), don’t call anyone names (even if it might seem called for), and learn to compromise.

And when you and your partner begin an argument in front of the children, it’s important to let them see how you resolve that argument (as long as the context isn’t too sensitive and you and your partner argue respectfully). If your kids see the start of an argument, get shipped out of the room, and then magically everything’s better later, they won’t learn much.

If you’re not comfortable carrying on the argument in front of your kids, that’s fine! But do consider talking to them later about why the argument started and how you settled it.

You may have pictured your kids blissfully getting along every day or their childhood, but that’s not realistic. That doesn’t mean that your kids are unhappy or unhealthy because they bicker and fight though. As annoying as it is to hear the constant bickering, it’s good to know that they’re getting plenty of practice for that boardroom negotiation they’ll face 20 years from now!

Angela Brown Angela Brown
Angela has 14 years of writing and editing experience, including as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. Angela has a Bachelor's in communication with minors in creative and technical writing from BYU-Idaho. She works closely with real-estate and financial industry clients. Read Full Bio »
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