1. Show children how to get along
You are your children’s number-one role model. Your children will notice if you work out differences without fighting.
If you want your children to work things out calmly and respectfully, they need to see you doing this too. If you want them to be able to say sorry to others, they need to see you apologising too. It also helps if children see respectful differences of opinion. This helps them understand that not everyone will see things the same way, and that’s OK.
You can also role-model behaviour that makes fights less likely. For example, if fights start in your family when siblings don’t respect each other’s space, you can be a role model by knocking before entering your child’s bedroom. This helps your child learn this is the polite thing to do in your family.
2. Catch children behaving in positive ways
This means noticing and giving positive feedback to your children when they’re treating each other kindly, respecting each other’s space and property, trying to solve problems and so on.
When you tell children clearly and specifically what they’re doing well, you’re much more likely to see that behaviour again. Here are examples of clear and specific praise and encouragement:
- ‘I really like the way you’re both taking turns on the trampoline.’
- ‘You’re all sharing and playing really nicely together.’
- ‘You worked out that problem really well. How about we celebrate with a movie tonight?’
3. Set clear family rules
Family rules let children know what’s OK and what’s not. If you have family rules in place, it’s easier for you to remind children of how you expect them to treat each other.
Here are tips for making rules work:
- Involve children in setting up rules. When children help to make the rules, they’re more likely to remember and respect them.
- Write rules that include positive statements about how you want to treat each other. For example, ‘We use a polite voice when we speak to others’.
- Put a copy of your house rules on the fridge or somewhere everyone can see them.
- Follow through every time children bend or break the rules. Start with a friendly reminder. For example, ‘Remember, we always ask before touching or using other people's things’. Then give another chance. If children still break the rules, use an agreed consequence.
Prosocial behaviour includes showing kindness, comforting others when they’re sad, sharing, helping and cooperating. When you encourage prosocial behaviour in your children, it can also help them learn to resolve conflict constructively.
4. Set up routines
It’s much easier to handle disagreements about everyday things when you have a family routine. It means that everyone knows whose turn it is to choose a movie, who does what chores and on what days, and who’s first in line for the PlayStation, trampoline or bathroom, and so on.
A sample routine might look like this:
- Television: Samantha chooses the program from 6.30-7 pm. Jake chooses from 7.30-8 pm (after Samantha has gone to bed).
- Games: Jake chooses on Saturdays, Samantha chooses on Sundays.
- Bathroom: Jake uses the bathroom first in the morning, then Samantha.
- Chores: Samantha and Jake take it in turns to do the chores – garbage duty one week, drying the dishes the next week.
5. Coach your children
You are your children’s problem-solving coach. You teach them how to handle disagreements and guide them towards skills for managing angry feelings, negotiating and playing fair. This is better than being a referee who breaks up fights or steps in when they’re brewing.
Here are tips for coaching your children in problem-solving:
- Give your children opportunities to play with others. Playgroups, playdates and games help children learn to play well together and practise positive alternatives to fighting.
- Help children find ways to express upset or angry emotions through calm words or positive activities. For example, water play, painting and playdough help younger children express feelings. Older children might find that kicking a ball or playing music helps.
- Teach and model the social skill of ‘respectful disagreeing’. This involves saying something that you can both agree on and then saying what you don’t agree on. For example, ‘I agree that Grandma gave you the book for your birthday, but I don’t think it’s fair to stop your sister reading it if she asks politely’.
6. Cool down fighting hot spots
It can help to think ahead about how to handle fights in tricky situations. In some cases it might help to explain that if fighting breaks out, you’ll remove a treat or privilege (or whatever your family rules say). But it’s also a good idea to set up things so that there are fewer opportunities for children to fight.
Here are ideas to help you plan for common fighting hot spots.
- Make sure there are enough toys for everyone, so children can play together without always having to take turns.
- Allow children to have some special things of their own that they don’t have to share with siblings. A little bit of private space – even just a drawer that siblings can’t get into – is a good idea too.
- If you’re organising playdates, try inviting a friend for each of your children or organising for one child to go somewhere else if the other is having a friend over.
- Have children play close to you so you can step in quickly if disagreements turn into fights – especially for children under 5 years.
- Distract children or change the environment if you sense a fight coming. For example, suggest a new game, join in yourself for a while, take the children outside to play, or read a book with a child on either side of you.
- If you need to make a phone call, set children up with an activity (or 2 separate activities) that will keep them interested.
At the supermarket
- Create a special rule. For example, ‘No fights at the supermarket means we’ll go to the park after we get home’.
- Ask children to hold onto opposite sides of the shopping trolley. Or send them to opposite ends of the aisle to choose grocery items.
- Give each of your children a job. For example, one could hold the list and read each item, and the other could get the items off the shelf.
- If supermarket fights are very bad, see whether you can leave one of the children with a friend or family member while you shop.
Out and about
- Distract children if you sense a fight coming. For example, a game like ‘I spy’ can work at the supermarket, the beach, on public transport or in the car.
- On public transport, park yourself or a pram between children.
In the car
- If there’s a spare seat in the back, sit children on either side of it. Or put a grown-up or older child between the children most likely to fight.
- If your oldest child is old enough, put them in the front seat. Keep in mind that it’s illegal to allow children under 4 to travel in the front seat, and there are legal requirements for car travel for children under 7.
Always pull over if a fight breaks out while you’re driving. Turning around to talk to children or separate them is dangerous because it takes your attention off the road.
7. Let children work it out sometimes
Children with siblings can practise and build relationship skills like sharing, helping, negotiating, cooperating and resolving conflict. This can help your children get along better and deal positively with conflicts with other children.
Here are tips for helping your children work things out:
- Let children go if they’re trying to work things out. Talking, debating and even arguing are all signs that children are trying to work things out. Add some enthusiastic feedback about the way they’re interacting. For example, ‘I’m really proud of the way you’re trying to work this out on your own’.
- Give tips. A few well-placed suggestions might be all children need. For example, ‘Do you think that’s the best tone of voice right now?’ or ‘Remember to be fair and take turns. Whose turn was it last?’
- Give friendly reminders about house rules, what you expect and what will happen if a fight breaks out. For example, ‘Remember we all speak nicely’ or ‘Remember what happens if you don’t keep your hands and feet to yourself’.
Sometimes disagreements about a device or a favourite toy seem to turn into name-calling and arguing straight away. If this sounds like your situation, you might want to start the reminders and coaching as soon as the device is turned on or the toy comes out.