When Sibling Fights Turn Physical: Ultimate Guide to Success

Two boys fighting

There are few power struggles that take an emotional toll on parents quite like sibling fighting. We’re not talking about a simple disagreement—“Mom, he took my stuff!” or “She won’t stop repeating me!” Those spats are a normal part of life and growing up.

We’re talking about finding your kids in the thick of a physical altercation—punching, biting, slapping, or even worse. That’s scary stuff for everyone involved—children and parents alike. But the truth is, this behavior is fairly common, especially in younger children who don’t have more appropriate conflict resolutions skills.

Before you throw in the towel (or set up a boxing ring in your living room), let’s talk strategy to create a peaceful home.


Prepare To Be Fair

Be PROACTIVE and determine what YOU might unknowingly be doing to set sibling rivalry in motion.

I know it can be a difficult pill to swallow, but much of the misbehavior we see in our kids is triggered by something WE do as parents. In order to stop siblings from fighting, we must create a fair and impartial environment. Without even knowing it, parents contribute to sibling rivalry in many ways. Here are 3 things we should stop doing to create a fair environment:

(Don’t worry, if you’re guilty of any of these, keep reading—there are practical changes you can make today!)

1. Don’t Use Labels

Whether spoken or implied, labels such as “the smart one” or “the wild one,” lay the groundwork for sibling fighting. For example, if you tag one child the “star athlete,” you can be sure his sibling feels less than star quality. Or, if you dub another kid as the “problem child,” her sibling might feel pretty superior as the less squeaky wheel.

Positive and negative labels set the stage for fights as kids struggle with the comparisons you’ve put in place.

Sometimes labels are not even spoken, only implied, but this creates just as much competition. Look at your interactions with your children. Is there one you view as your “go-to” kid? One you rely on when you want something done quickly and without a fuss?

Now consider how that might affect siblings. Can you see how that might foster a, “what’s the point in trying” feeling? Can you see how that might make another child feel less capable and set the stage for competition?

Labels are funny things because we often think we are helping. We believe that we’re giving them titles to lift them up, right? But the truth is, those crowns can be a heavy burden for the child wearing them—and a competition catalyst for those who do not.


2. Don’t Reinforce “Victim” And “Aggressor” Roles

As parents, we often find ourselves playing the role of detective and referee. As a detective, our first job is to identify the “victim” in the dispute as well as the “aggressor.” Or, as a referee, we blow the whistle and call the foul.

Once we’ve seen enough, we take on the ever-powerful role of judge. Oh boy—that’s when things go sideways. We soothe the “victim” with hugs and kind words and banish the “aggressor” to his room with a strongly worded reprimand.

The trouble is, when we shower the “victim” with attention and “poor baby’s,” we send a clear signal that acting as the weaker player in the argument (true or not) will garner attention.

That, of course, sets the scene in motion for repeat performances with, perhaps, even more drama. Meanwhile, the “aggressor” gets the green light that there is power in being the bully—and that behavior gets put on repeat as well.


3. Don’t Blow Things Out Of Proportion

One of the most important things to remember about parenting is that we’re the parents. The grown-ups. Supposedly the calm in the storm. That’s something to strive for and the behavior we need to model.

When we blow things out of proportion, we add to the drama, attention, and breathe more life into trivial situations. When we do, kids register our overreaction as an attention flag and recreate the havoc.  

For example, when we flip our lid over a favorite-toy-tussle or lose every ounce of our sanity when the siblings stage WWIII on a road trip, we relinquish our “adult-in-the-situation” title. We all know how frustrating these situations can be but don’t make mountains out of mole hills. There will be enough parenting mountains to climb without overreacting to the small stuff.

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How to Create a Fight-Free Environment

Now that you know what NOT to do, here are some strategies you can use to create a fight-free environment. We know when kids’ needs for belonging and significance aren’t met,  the odds of drama and rivalry escalates quickly.  

Minimize the potential for fights by doing these 3 things:

1. Fill Your Children’s Attention Basket Daily

Provide positive attention daily. Take time each day to get into their world, on their terms, to build emotional connections and calm the child’s impulses to lash out. That means separate time for each child where they get your undivided attention.

At Positive Parenting Solutions, we call this tool Mind, Body, and Soul Time and it is a life-saver in curbing all sorts of misbehavior.

The truth is that proactive parenting is much more effective than reactive parenting.

Unfortunately, many mainstream parenting experts and bloggers teach ways to respond to children AFTER the  misbehavior occurs—time-out, rewards, counting to three—you’ve probably tried them all.

When it comes to sibling rivalry (and most parenting issues, for that matter) it’s always best to curb the issues BEFORE they actually start. That’s why filling your kids’ attention baskets each day is critical. By spending 10 minutes one-on-one with each child doing something THEY choose, you’ll eliminate their desire to seek your attention in negative ways—like fighting with a sister.

2.  Ensure Kids Are Well Rested

Kids are more likely to control their impulses if they’ve had enough sleep. (Just like all of us, am I right?) So whenever possible, DON’T skip naps or rest time. Kids need that time to regroup both mentally and physically. By reducing their impulsive nature, you’re less likely to see those fights break out.

If bedtime is a battle for you, don’t fret. Here are 4 tips to make sleep the Good Guy in your home.


3. Encourage Positive Attributes

Instead of labeling your children, encourage their positive attributes. By encouraging their effort over their natural talents or abilities, you empower all your children to live up to their potential.

Instead of “she’s the smart one,” you can say “she’s been putting forth her best effort in school.” Or instead of “he’s the athletic one,” say “he’s working really hard at improving his tennis stroke.”

When siblings hear parents encouraging effort, this only empowers them to work harder. When children understand that effort is valued over the outcome, they are more motivated to give it their all. If you need more encouraging phrases to use, here’s a list of some of my favorites.

The most effective discipline strategies are those that proactively prepare the child so the parent doesn't have to reactively respond

During the Fight: Stay Calm and Carry On

 

When your kids move from disagreement to physical aggression, break out these time-tested techniques and strategies for keeping your cool, diffusing the situation, and creating teaching moments that can circumvent future tussles.

1. Stay Out As Long As You Can

While this sounds counter-intuitive and goes against every parental instinct you have, stay OUT of your kids fights—at least until it turns physical.

If it’s a simple case of name-calling or other mild frustrations are being expressed, avoid playing referee—instead, simply walk to another room. By doing this, you’ll remove any attention pay-off your children are seeking, and give them an opportunity to resolve the conflict on their own.

If you’ve ever found yourself asking a caretaker, “Really? My kids? They were so well-behaved and actually GOT ALONG?” this is a good sign sibling rivalry is being used as an attention seeking strategy in your home. Take away the gift of your attention and you’ll be amazed at how many fights get stopped before a punch is thrown.

If, however, the fighting begins to escalate, and a simple squabble turns into a WWF wrestling match, then please implement the following strategies.

2. Remain Calm And Help Your Children Do The Same

It’s understandable to be upset when your kids hit each other, but you’ll get better results by staying calm. When you get upset and raise your voice, it’s scary for your children, and only fuels the power struggle.

If you enter a sibling fight with a raised voice, you will undoubtedly receive a barrage of accusations and complaints from the opposing parties—”But he hit me first!” “She took my toy!” “He started it!” “No, SHE started it!”

Once the accusations start flying, it’s hard to refrain from taking on the judiciary role. Your best bet is to enter the ring calmly and impartially by making an observation, a non-judgemental statement—”Wow it seems like you are having a hard time getting along.”

If necessary, you can calmly separate the children into separate areas and say, “I can tell everyone is frustrated. Let’s take a moment and calm down.”

Your energy really sets the mood here. Be calm, unflappable, and impartial and your children won’t get the attention they are seeking for in the moment.  


3. Check To See Everyone Is Safe

Once the dust has settled, attend to your children and check for any battle wounds. If a band-aid or an ice pack is needed, calmly procure one without placing blame on either party.

You’ll be amazed how calmly your children respond to bi-partisan medical treatment—the child who was once “the victim” will be unimpressed with your lack of over-empathizing while the child who was once “the aggressor” will be less empowered to own the role of “bully.”

Once you know everyone is safe, you want to bring the energy in the house completely down—get everyone a glass of water, offer a small snack, turn on some soothing music, have them hug their favorite stuffed animal, take deep breaths. However you can effectively deescalate the situation in a timely fashion—do that.

Note: For Positive Parenting Solutions members, see Session 5 Lessons #37-44 to equip yourself with all the tools you need to resolve the sibling rivalry issues in your home!


After the Fight: Don’t Take Sides

Once the fighting has subsided and no more punches are being thrown, it’s the perfect time to practice some conflict resolution skills.

Don’t move onto these steps, however, until everyone is calm and collected—otherwise your valiant effort might be thwarted if another fight breaks out.

Also keep in mind, if you’ve entered sibling fights combatively and energetically in the past, it will take some practice to enter calmly and impartially. Your children will be thrown off the first few times you do it, so prepare yourself to stay the course and consistently implement these conflict resolution tools if you expect to see results.

1. Sportscast A Solution

A sportscaster simply calls the shots—he doesn’t place judgment, blame or issue a verdict. Instead, he uses phrases like, “What I hear you saying is it made you sad when your brother took the toy from you.” or “I see you felt annoyed when your sister kept repeating what you were saying.”

By encouraging children to use “I feel…” statements—I feel sad when…, I feel hurt when…, I feel frustrated when…—they learn to simply state the facts and share how the circumstances made them feel.

When sibling fights turn into a blame-game, it’s nearly impossible to make a plan for peace. On the other hand, when children express feelings, there is no arguing—you can’t tell someone “No, you didn’t feel that way.”

As you’re sportscasting, remain bipartisan. Let the kids express their frustrations without blame and simply moderate the discussion. If it starts to get heated again, take a break and come back later when everyone can calmly discuss what happened.


2. Practice The Re-do.

Once everyone has aired their feelings, help your children figure out what they could do differently next time, then practice it. This gives your children an opportunity to learn more effective ways to handle those big emotions in the future.

Be patient—emotions can be overpowering, and these new habits and skills take time to learn.

For younger kids, have each child role-play with a stuffed animal. Encourage your child to practice what to do when she gets frustrated—walk away, ask for help, use her words to say how she feels, etc.

When kids use stuffed animals to play out the situation, they are able to detach their own emotions from the scenario and see it as an outsider.

For older kids, role-playing works great and is often enjoyable when a parent or two pretends to be the kids. When children see what their behavior looks like from the outside and practice the appropriate behaviors, they will be better equipped to resolve a feud in the future.

Being able to use these conflict resolution strategies in the heat of the moment won’t happen overnight but practicing them early and often is the key.


3. Model Peaceful Communication.

The more respectful the environment is at home, the less likely kids will be to use aggression toward each other. Model kindness and respect, and train all your kids to do the same, and the levels of aggression-inducing stress and frustration will decrease.

Acknowledge your child when you see them managing their emotions without hitting. Point it out—say, “You really kept yourself under control when you were frustrated with your brother. I know that was hard. You’re really growing up!”

Remember, it won’t be easy at first, but as I like to saypractice makes progress and progress makes more peace in your home.

Practice makes progress and progress makes more peace in your home

Note: For Positive Parenting Solutions members, see the advanced module on Sibling Bullying if you need more resources to stop the physical sibling fights.


Final Thoughts

Sibling fighting can feel scary and frustrating—making parents wonder if they will EVER get along.

If you’re struggling with siblings fighting in your home, I’d love to walk you through a step-by-step roadmap that will reduce the stress, aggravation, and fear that comes with parenting sibling feuds.

I’ve been a parenting educator for 15+ years and have helped thousands of families solve this problem. I know this is one of the most frustrating power struggles families face which is why I dedicated an entire Session of the Positive Parenting Solutions course to this one issue.

I wish I could share everything you need to know about sibling squabbles in this one article, but there is so much to learn about sibling rivalry and fighting (which is why it takes me over 3 hours of instruction to teach parents how to handle the feuds well!)

Keep learning, my friend—you’ve got this and we’re here to help.

If you’re not quite ready to jump into the course, at least join me for a FREE ONLINE CLASS.

I’ll teach you how to get your kids to LISTEN without nagging, reminding, or yelling. You’ll start feeling relief within days!

As always, happy parenting!

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.