How to Stop Siblings Fighting: Bringing more Harmony to your Family.


Conflict between siblings is a common struggle for parents - when I was researching this article, one of the suggested search terms was "How many times an hour do siblings fight"! It is often something that parents find extremely painful and exasperating and parents often feel deep sadness that the relationships between their children is not what they imagined it might be. 

There is often also pain that comes up for us from challenges that we experienced with our siblings in childhood and beyond, trauma from how our parents responded to us in those times and cultural conditioning about how families "should" look, or how siblings "should" behave with each other. 

For the majority of parents, life is also frequently stressful,  managing multiple children alone without the support we all evolved to require. We not designed to be doing this work of parenting alone. In her book "Tears and Tantrums", Dr Aletha Solter, the founder of Aware Parenting, shares that studies of hunter-gatherer societies show us that children were born on average 3 years apart. This meant that each child would have received 3 years of considerable attention from multiple tribe members (both adult and children) and so children under 3 would have a built-in expectation of receiving individualised attention. Our current industrialised society is so different now, with young children often in daycare so their parents can work, where they are cared for in groups of children and often being raised by just 1 or 2 adults in our homes.

The good news is that Aware Parenting provides us with many very effective strategies to create more harmony between our children, to manage the stresses and to support ourselves as parents with stresses of family life, and to be reaching out for support to heal and release our pain and trauma so we can increasingly show up and be the parent we want to be for our children. 

Preparing for the birth of another sibling:

Supporting loving relationships between siblings starts before the birth of a new child. As always with Aware Parenting, we are thinking of the 3 ways that we support children to return to being cooperative and loving: focusing on their thoughts, their needs and supporting their release and healing of stress and trauma. 

In preparation for a new baby therefore, we are needing to provide our older child/ren with lots of age-appropriate information. We can read books and have conversations about birth and babies, answering questions honestly and offering age-appropriate information about sex and reproduction. We explain what will happen on the day of birth, giving them information about the plan and what might happen, who will be looking after them, whether they are able to be present or be looked after by someone else. If the child is going to be there, they need some basic information about the stages of labour and the time it's likely to take, and some warning about the sounds they may hear and focus of the mother. Children need an adult who is just focusing on them and caring for them during birth and to know that they can leave at any time. 

Children often need this information over and over again to make sense of it and they may have all kinds of random questions so it is most helpful to be honest about the unknowns in birth. We need to be listening to their feelings and reassuring them that we will still love them. We can help by meeting needs, for example to feel safe and connected to the father before birth time so they get used to being cared for by someone other than their mother. This might mean dad does special time or starts to put them to sleep. Anticipating that it is a time when our older child/ren are likely to be having big feelings can help us to stay compassionate and loving when they bring us their big feelings and just listen with love as they share. Sometimes the feelings might come out in the form of big meltdowns over small things, so again, if we anticipate that, we can respond with love "I so hear you sweetheart. You really wanted the blue cup. I am here and listening". 

This period before birth is often an emotional time for us too, as we anticipate what the changes will mean for our relationship with our first born child, perhaps we might worry that we won't have enough love for 2 children, perhaps we might have lots of unprocessed emotion about our first birth. Finding space to share these feelings is really important if we want to be able to be there for our children.  Dr Solter also talks about the significant impact on older children of having a new family member and gives a powerful analogy of our partner bringing home a new extra wife who they will be loving a lot and wants us to love too! With this in mind, it's helpful to avoid conversations that tell our children that "the baby will be a special friend for you to love". It means that we all need listening and support in the run up to the birth, and beyond.

It is also helpful to offer extra attachment play before birth, particularly role-play with dolls about birth and families and offering extra non-directive child-centred play so their needs for connection, safety with us and release through laughter and play can be met. 

Adjusting to the birth of another sibling:

There are many ways that we can then support older children after the birth of another sibling.  Attachment play is very powerful to remind our older children that we are still there for them, to support them to release feelings through laughter and to use symbolic and regression play to work through their stress and trauma. Offering more special time, particularly while the baby is sleeping, is very important, even if just 10 minutes. If we also use a timer for special time, it can help us to be really enthusiastic in the play (which is often hard when we are exhausted) and  to support the release of feelings that will be there  when the timer goes off. It is helpful to explicitly state how special it is to be getting time together now the new baby is here so they feel acknowledged. Symbolic play is also really powerful, for example giving them a baby doll in play and letting them do whatever they want. They will come up with games themselves because children are geniuses at play, and they might want to throw the baby in the bin.  If we give them a set of family dolls and let them take the lead in special time, while we follow along, they will work through whatever they are feeling. Other helpful games that are supporting are touch games to compensate for the fact that we are often now holding a baby instead of them and separation games to heal from moments of separation, such as "he's min/he's mine" game where both parents pretend to "fight" over the child, or hide and seek as a family. Power-reversal games are great too because it allows the older child to regain a sense of control and a safe outlet for their big feelings through laughter and competence. 

During this time we might notice our children spontaneously going into regression - they might start talking in a baby voice, or crawling around, or wanting to eat baby food. In a traditional parenting paradigm, that is often seen as children being deliberately annoying or needy. But in Aware Parenting we see that instead as our children spontaneously trying to heal. So joining them in play, where we pretend that they are our baby, cuddling them and rocking them and sining nursery rhymes, will support them to release painful feelings and then be more independent and cooperative again. 

At this time we are need to be listening to their big feelings of resentment, anger and jealousy, which don't always come out  immediately. We can anticipate some big melt-downs and broken cookie moments and again see them as our children spontaneously using their powerful healing mechanisms to release feelings rather than them being difficult and demanding. 

We can be mindful of them having unmet needs now and take steps to be meeting their needs, as much as we can, particularly needs for connection, attention, choice, agency, and reassurance that you still love them. If our children are older and their sibling was born a while ago, it can still be really healing for them to hear us acknowledge how hard that time was for them and the impact of having to share us. These beautiful conversations support more closeness and understanding between us, all of which help to deepen our connection.

Loving limits are helpful, especially if the older sibling try to hurt baby. We offer these limits without rejection or shame or harshness, but clear, firm and lovingly holding "no" whilst offering loving listening to feelings. We often need extra support ourselves at these times to not be activated by that behaviour, either our painful memories of our sibling struggles or "shoulds" about appropriate behaviour or telling ourselves there's something wrong with them or that we have failed as parents. When we remember that these big explosions in response to loving limits are exactly what we want to be seeing, it is reassuring for us because it is supporting our children in the best way, to release all the big feelings and return to being the kind loving big sibling that they want to be. 

If they say "I hate you" or "I hate the baby and wish they had never been born", again the best way to respond is with loving listening - "I hear you sweetheart. I love you so much" or "I really hear how much you hate your brother. at the moment. Of course you wish sometimes that it was just us again.  I am here and listening. Tell me more". This might also require us to be receiving listening too, as it can often be really painful to hear these kinds of words, and if we have had the chance to share our feelings with an Empathy Partner, we are much more likely to be able to respond to our child with loving kindness. 

One of the central aspects of Aware Parenting is not using punishments or rewards. This is so important to ensure the child feels unconditionally loved and supported. It might be hard for us, particularly at times when we feel very activated, as we may have received harsh punishments ourselves as a child. But, if we punish them, the big feelings of jealously and resentment won't be released and won't go away, they will stay inside and impact their sibling relationship, often into adulthood too. Our children also need to be living free of punishments in order to feel the emotional safety to be able to release and heal from stress and trauma. 

On-going support to encourage harmonious sibling relationships: 

It is inevitable that at times siblings will fight because it is almost impossible in our nuclear families for parents to give enough quality attention to our children, without the tribe around us that we evolved to live with. Some ways to support more harmonious relationships between siblings include:

  • If possible giving children some private space that they don't have to share, e.g. a toy corner that is just for them
  • Putting toys that belong to older children out of the reach of younger ones
  • Don't force them to share. They are more likely to choose to share and be loving with their sibling if we are listening to feelings and doing the attachment play described above 
  • Offering them regular special time individually with you 
  • Try not to compare your children to each other and instead trust that each child is on their own journey, with their own interests, skills and timings. 
  • Avoid using praise or rewards, both of which make resentment and jealousy more likely
  • Try to meet their needs for fairness - getting support and listening for ourselves where we can share honestly whatever is coming up for us, supports us to come back to feeling loving and appreciative of all our children and our big feelings and frustrations at times not impacting how we treat each of our children
  • Keep getting support for ourselves - places where we can share all the feelings, all the thoughts and all the pain and stress to someone who will listen without judgement, who understands, without advising or fixing
  • If they are fighting, are you able to get in the middle and offer listening, validating each of them in their feelings and holding space for the feelings? 
  • If it is getting aggressive, can you offer limits, intervening with the minimum physical force in order to hold and arm to catch a blow, a say "I am not willing for you to fight. I am here to keep everyone safe. I am listening". 
  • Can you allow them both to express their feelings, to share their impressions of what happened, and just listen without taking sides or judging? 
  • Can you move in with play if you sense there is tension coming between them, to bring laughter so they can release feelings before it gets to a fight? 
  • If they are frequently arguing over toys, can you have a family meeting at a time when everyone is calm and ask them what they think might help, e.g. creating a family rule that if you have it first, you get to keep it until you have finished. If they are able to find the solution themselves, it will be more effective. 
  • Inviting them into collaboration games where it is them against you, with lots of exaggerated "It's so unfair you two ganging up on me, I'll never win". 
  • If both children (or more) are releasing feelings at once, we often feel really overwhelmed. In these moments we really need at least one adult per child. But what we can do is keep everyone safe, offer closeness and physical contact especially for younger children, provide support and reassurance through eye contact, our facial expressions, using a warm loving tone of voice, compassionate words and loving touch where possible. Any time that we offer our children empathy and understanding, it is powerfully healing for them and makes future conflict less likely between them.

The single most important thing we can do to bring harmony to our family is to be receiving support for ourselves, especially when we often find ourselves listening to 2 children (or more) releasing at once in the moment. We need support and listening ourselves if we are to have capacity to raise our children this way. It is a huge thing to be having multiple children in our culture without support that we need. Often our children fighting is really challenging for parents and brings up lots of big feelings of frustration, exasperation, sadness. Having the opportunity to express these feelings will allow you to come back to supporting your children in ways that feel loving and effective and thereby support our children to have loving close connections with each other. 

If you would like more support bringing the practices of Aware Parenting to your family, I am here. 

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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