As much as we’d like to hope it’s possible for siblings to get along all the time, it’s not. Every home is filled with the sounds of arguing at one point or another. Slamming doors, raised voices, and exasperated grunts and eye rolls are a completely normal part of family life. Still, parents need to know how to be good mediators when it comes to conflict, and it’s especially important to understand how and why to stop small arguments—bickering—between siblings as soon as possible.
What is bickering, and why does it matter?
While large-scale conflicts about trust, personal space, and friendships, are sure to pop up between siblings every once in a while, most in-home arguments are actually about much smaller issues. Somebody might’ve left the TV on overnight, or perhaps the toothpaste tube is a complete mess every morning. A younger sibling might’ve borrowed somebody’s favorite shirt without permission. Or maybe your kid has a qualm with the family chore chart, claiming it isn’t fair they have to clean the kitchen two nights in a row. Any arguments surrounding these points would fit Merriam-Webster’s definition of bickering:
Petty or petulant quarrelling, especially when prolonged or habitual.
Because, in reality, issues like these don’t actually matter. The world isn’t going to end because one person didn’t do the dishes on their assigned night.
Rather, these conflicts are the surface-level conflicts of much larger concerns. Think of bickering like an iceberg—only the very tip is visible. Failing to turn off the TV might signify a lack of responsibility; borrowing clothes without permission can foster mistrust between siblings; and a messy toothpaste tube signifies a lack of respect for other people’s space. These underlying reasons are why it’s so important for parents to recognize and quell bickering as soon as it rears its head. Without settling these arguments, they can fester into long-time grudges and quarrels that seriously damage sibling relationships. With this in mind, here are some of the best ways parents can help mediate and end bickering between siblings.
Don’t Take Sides
If you get dragged into a sibling argument, it’s crucial for you to remain impartial. Remember, you may be the judge and jury, but you’re not the lawyer. If you decide to support one sibling’s argument over the other’s, you could unintentionally be creating trust issues and displaying favoritism. Not only will this spark more bickering, but it could damage you and your children’s relationship down the road.
Instead, ask for both of your children’s perspectives and listen intently. Don’t allow interruptions while someone is speaking, and wait for them to fully explain their point. This way, it’s clear to you exactly what’s going on, and your kids will be able to fully enunciate their feelings toward the situation. When they’re finished talking, encourage them to work it out on their own. You might try asking open-ended questions that force them to reflect on the larger issue at hand. “Why are you mad your sister borrowed your dress?” is a much better question than, “Why are you mad at your sister?” for example.
Don’t ask who “started it”
You might think it’s a good idea to get to the bottom of a conflict to resolve it, but this will likely backfire. During bickering, the argument at hand is secondary. Nobody really cares about the unwashed mug in the sink. The parties involved are primarily concerned with proving their point, defending their autonomy, and “winning” the fight—not admitting they were in the wrong. If you ask who “started it,” you’re asking to spark a whole new argument; instead, focus on the outcome of the situation and what’s really bothering your kids. Who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong isn’t necessarily the point of settling this kind of petty argument—it’s to teach your kids conflict resolution and clear communication.
Having your kids talk out their perspectives in the first place will likely make it clear to you—and to them—who “started it.” Asking outright will put both your kids on the defensive, so it’s best to avoid the question.
Have them work it out
Rather than doling out a consequence yourself, try to get your kids to resolve the conflict. Help them recognize the thing they’re bickering over isn’t actually that important by asking intentional questions that force them to explain their deeper feelings and concerns. Again, try to limit interruptions while someone is speaking and
Once it’s clear each understands how the other is feeling, give them a time limit. Tell your kids they have ten (maybe more, depending on severity) minutes to reach an agreement, and if they don’t, promise consequences for both of them. This will encourage your kids to realize winning an argument isn’t always the most important thing, and sometimes apologizing, compromising, dropping an argument, or owning up to a mistake is actually the right choice.
Having kids work out their own issues is especially important as they grow older. Young children need more parental guidance in figuring out what’s right and wrong, but teenagers and young adults need to know how to handle confrontation, conflict, and compromise on their own. If your teenagers are bickering, I’d strongly suggest playing the mediator and working to help them reach an independent agreement.
Set the ground rules
This is something to do before bickering even takes place. If you notice your kids have been on edge with each other lately, call a family meeting and establish some basic rules for arguments and conflict resolution. Name-calling, bringing up personal grudges and past mistakes, physical violence, and storming off should all be off-limits. There are likely other rules to implement depending on your own family situation, but the point is to create a sense of normalcy around conflicts and avoid escalation. If a rule is violated, make sure there are appropriate consequences.
Bickering is a hard situation to deal with because it’s important to teach kids to settle arguments and argue in a healthy way, but it’s also important to make sure they aren’t over-confrontational about small, surface-level issues. If bickering is a problem in your home, do what you can to uncover the true problem by asking open-ended questions, listening, setting rules, and encouraging independent conflict resolutions.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.