When children bicker: Stopping the fight before it starts

Guest Post by Dr. Laura Markham

when children bickerBickering is not yet a full-fledged fight, but it could become one. Or it could just go on all day long until it drives you crazy. Some amount of bickering is normal, since kids are still learning how to express their needs appropriately. But bickering is always a sign that something is less than optimal. You can think of it like a light on your car dashboard saying you need an oil change. The first time it flickers, you don’t have to take action. But if you ignore it repeatedly, the light will become constant, and at some point your car will break down.

How should you intervene?

  • Calm yourself
  • Describe the problem with empathy, without blame or judgment.
  • Set limits on meanness by restating family rules about kindness.
  • Coach each child to express their feelings and needs without attacking the other.
  • Coach kids to problem-solve s necessary.

Here are some examples of how to put it all together.

A temporary conflict of needs

Kids can often work this out themselves if the parent provides a little momentum.

Emma: “Move over! You don’t own the couch!”

Mason: “I was here first.”

Mom: “I hear two kids who both want one couch. This is a tough situation, because we aren’t getting another couch! What can you do to work this out?”

Mason: “I was here first. It’s still my turn.”

Emma: “I don’t like watching scary movies from the floor. The couch feels safer. Can we share it?”

Mason: “Only if you don’t touch me, and you don’t scream at the scary parts.”

Emma: “Okay. How about we put this pillow between us so I don’t accidentally touch you?”

Mason: “Okay. But don’t scream!”

A difference in temperament that grates on one or both

Your children need your help to learn to live with each other, which means articulating what each one needs and helping them figure out how both kids can get their needs met.

Leonardo: “Shut up! I can’t even think!”

Sofia: “I’m just singing.”

Leonardo: “You’re always singing!”

Mom: “I hear some loud voices. Sofia, I hear you singing with such joy. Leonardo, I hear you saying it’s too loud for you. We need a solution here. What can we do?”

Leonardo: “I just want some peace and quiet for once!”

Sofia: “I have a right to sing!”

Mom: “Sofia, you certainly do have a right to sing, and I love to hear you sing. And I hear Leonardo saying that right now he needs some quiet. What can we do so you both get what you need?”

Sofia: “Leonardo can go to his room.”

Leonardo: “I need to stay here to build my Legos! You could go to your room, too!”

Sofia: “I want to stay here where the music is!”

Mom: “Hmm…so one solution is that you could be in separate rooms. But it sounds like both of you want to stay in the family room with the music and Legos. Are there any other solutions?” Both kids look at her blankly.

Mom: “Well, for instance, Sofia could take the music with her into another part of the house….Or Leonardo could take the Legos somewhere else…Or maybe Leonardo could wear my headphones – they block out sound.”

Leonardo: “I want the headphones! I call a long turn!”

Mom: “You can use the headphones for as long as you need them to have quiet.”


State the problem, restate family rules, and redirect.

Noah: “Dad, Abigail is pestering me.”

Abigail: “I am not! I’m trying to tell you something!”

Dad: “Hmm…sounds to me like Abigail wants to connect with you, Noah.”

Noah: “Well, I don’t want to connect with her!”

Dad: “That’s okay—you don’t have to play with her if you don’t want to right now. But you do have to treat her with respect. Those words can hurt. Can you find a different way to tell her that you’re busy right now?”

Noah: “Abigail, I’m busy making my paper airplane. You can play with me later.”

Abigail: “But I don’t have anything to do! What can I do?”

Dad: “Abigail, I hear you’re wondering what to do with yourself. And Noah is saying that he’s not ready to play right now; he wants to play with you later. Why don’t you come outside and help me wash the car? You always have fun with the hose.”

Grumpiness or irritability

Intervene to help the child who is attacking with whatever feelings are making him so unhappy.

Luis: “Your picture is ugly.”

Maya: “You’re a meany, Luis!”

Mom: “I’m hearing some hurtful words. Luis, it sounds like you’re trying to hurt your sister’s feelings…And it sounds like it worked! Are you feeling angry with her, or are you just having a hard time in general?”

Luis: “I hate everything!”

Mom: “Wow! You ARE having a hard time. Come be with me on the couch, and tell me what’s so rotten.”

In each of these cases, the parent could have jumped in and shut down the child who was needling. But that would just have led to hard feelings and more bickering in the future. Instead, the parent responded to the bickering by realizing that the children had legitimate needs that they needed help to express.

Over time, this kind of coaching helps children identify and articulate their own needs, so they can problem-solve with each other. They do less bickering and settle fights before they even get started. And you get to listen from the other room. Smiling.

If you want more tips on how to transform sibling fights to brotherly love, Dr. Laura Markham’s newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, is now available for pre-order.


Dr. Laura MarkhamAnd now for the exciting part – just leave a comment below for a chance to win a FREE COPY OF PEACEFUL PARENT, HAPPY SIBLINGS.

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. You can find her online at