Squabbling at home? 4 strategies for sibling pandemic peace

Kids are sharing space 24-7, missing their friends and activities, and feeling bored out of their minds. No wonder they are fighting with their siblings.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

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If sibling squabbles at your house leave you wanting to mandate a 6-foot rule between brothers or sisters, you’re not alone. Millions of parents are caught in the middle of sibling spats as we all share close quarters during this pandemic.

In fact, it’s the perfect sibling storm: kids sharing space 24-7, missing their friends and activities, and feeling bored out of their minds. Even the most peace-loving little dude is going to be ready to fight anyone in his path during a stay-at-home order. And if his sister is of the same mind? Parents had better stay clear! Or should they?

With brother-sister brawling nearly off the charts during this pandemic, parents need effective — and easy-to-use — tools to promote peace.

What’s behind the brawls?

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening under the surface. Even though we’re at home with our kids —all day long — right now, simply sharing space does not meet the need for real emotional connection they’re craving. Picture our kids as having an attention bucket that needs to be filled every day. By providing positive attention, such as spending intentional quality time together — when we’re fully present and engaged — we can keep the bucket filled to the brim.

It's good to proactively encourage daily one-on-one quality time between siblings. Schedule it into the daily routine during a time -- but make sure it's when everyone’s in a good mood!Getty Images stock

If, however, we don’t fill the bucket with positive attention, our kids will do whatever they have to do to get our attention, including whining, clinging, interrupting, acting helpless and yes, fighting with their siblings. And when we eventually provide attention because it’s demanded of us in a negative way, we reinforce the behavior and virtually guarantee it will happen again.

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Bottom line: there’s always a reason why kids act out, and very often it’s because the child’s emotional or physical needs are not being met or they simply don’t have the skills to deal with the current situation. When you start to identify your child’s specific needs, a fight looks less like a fight and more like a cry for help.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to provide positive attention and teach kids the skills they need to behave better and just get along. Plus, good news, it won’t require major changes to your parenting to implement these tools. We’re all just trying to survive, right?

Use these four strategies to get immediate relief and stop some of the bickering in your home.

Strategy 1: The Essential Everyday-Better-Behavior Builder

Since we know our kids have this inborn need for attention from us every day, we need a plan to give it to them proactively so they don’t have to demand our attention by instigating sibling feuds.

At least once a day, or twice if you possibly can, plan to spend 10-15 minutes individually with each child doing something she wants to do. Find a way to give her your undivided attention during this time. Your kids will get their buckets filled, and you will gain so much time back from not having to manage misbehaviors. Your kids will no longer feel as strong of a drive to gain attention from a parent by fighting with their siblings, which will lead to more peace overall.

Strategy 2: The Sibling Social Distancer

In my Parenting Success System online course, one of our mantras is that you can’t control another person —you can only control yourself. And with this stay-at-home order, that extends to your schedule and your home. So whether you’re living in a tiny apartment or a house with a yard, and whether you’re managing littles or teens, you can create space between your kids to give them a much-needed break from each other.

Simply follow this plan:

  1. Note the tough times. Are your kids more likely to fight later in the day, when everyone’s tired? Or right before meals while you’re distracted in the kitchen? See if you can find any patterns in when your kids fight, and then be vigilant about distancing your kids during those times. For instance, if mornings are a problem, plan for one child to be in the kitchen eating breakfast while the other is getting dressed. Then, switch.

  2. Create space in the schedule. As you make a daily plan for schoolwork, routines, outdoor time and your own work, make sure some blocks of time allow kids to be in separate areas of the house to remove the opportunity for fighting. It could be that one child uses the dining-room table for schoolwork in the morning while the other spends time outside and practices the piano, and another gets it in the afternoon while the first gets outdoor and piano time.

  3. Widen the gap. Make it a priority to find everyone a personal retreat. If your kids share a room, make sure they have a spot that’s their own — probably their bed — that they can hide away in, and then schedule time for each child to have the room to themselves for some time every day. Consider creating extra hideaway areas within your home, too, using floor pillows or out-of-the-way spaces.

Strategy 3: The Sibling Quality-Time Creator

Just as kids need daily attention from their parents and caregivers, they also greatly benefit from quality one-on-one time with their siblings. Many sibling squabbles start because one child isn’t feeling the love from the other, and wants attention.

We can head this off by proactively encouraging daily one-on-one quality time between siblings. Schedule it into the daily routine during a time when everyone’s in a good mood — maybe first thing after waking up, during your outdoor time, or after a snack or meal. When kids enjoy positive attention from each other and put time into building their relationship, they’ll be less likely to pick fights.

Strategy 4: The In-the-Moment Squabble Solver

As hard as it may be, it's best for parents to stay out of fights as long as things aren't getting out of hand. If we solve every squabble for them, they’ll never learn to resolve conflict on their own. When we do need to get involved in an argument, we can do so in a way that doesn’t add fuel to the fire and models effective conflict resolution strategies.

  1. Step in with an “Oh wow!” Instead of demanding to know who started it or every detail of the argument, simply observe. Try, “Oh wow, it looks like you two are having a hard time getting along; how can I help?” Or, “Oh wow, it looks like you’re both super angry right now; how can I help?” This will set things off on the right path, and it’ll calm things down since you’re not placing blame on either party.

  2. Calm down and problem solve. Let your kids suggest ideas, and coach them to find a solution they can both agree to. If they’re coming up empty, offer a few thoughts on the subject, but don’t bend over backward to make everyone happy — instead, encourage compromise.

  3. Put them “all in the same boat.” If your kids can’t reach an agreement, tell them, “Either you can find a way to share the game or we can put it away.” By facing the same consequence, they’re more likely to work as a team to find a solution.

If sibling squabbles sound scarier to you than a certain virus, take heart: By equipping ourselves with a little knowledge and some new strategies and parenting tools, we can promote sibling harmony during the pandemic and beyond.

Today Parents contributor Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. Check out her free webinar, Get Kids to Listen While You’re All Stuck at Home for even more strategies to calm family chaos during the pandemic.