“Why can’t you leave me alone!”

“I AM, I just needed to get my phone charger”

“That’s MY charger!”

“No, it’s not, I left it in the bathroom this morning.”

“You’re always losing things. You can’t keep track of anything.”

“At least I can keep friends which is better than you!”

And so it goes.

The ‘argument over nothing’ turns to hurtful or toxic comments yelling, and even physical fighting. Most days you drop what you’re doing and go break it up but somehow that makes things worse and now your teens are angry at you as if you had anything to do with the argument in the first place!

Your head is spinning at the nonsensicalness of it all as you try your best referee tactics.

  1. The Private Investigator – you carefully interview each sibling to get their side of the story and sort through the facts before delivering your verdict doing your best Judge Judy.
  2. The Boxing Referee – you don’t care who did what or when, you’re breaking it up right now and sending them to their corners to cool off.
  3. The Enforcer – you have zero tolerance for this continued arguing so the minute you get a whiff of it you swiftly move in to take phones, chargers, video games, make-up, doors, etc. Now your teens are equally angry at you even though they’re pretending to be kind at least until they get their oxygen masks (phone+wifi) back.
  4. The Peace Maker – your only concern is your children see the best in each other and ‘kiss and make up’ to restore harmony (however fake or forced).
  5. The Therapist – your mission is to have each sibling each the other so they feel validated and can then work toward a compromise or collaborative solution (best case scenario but you’re a skilled parent, not a trained therapist).
  6. The Exhausted Parent – you’re so tired of trying all of the above and still hearing the same thing on the daily, you yell at them to stop knowing they likely won’t, and you’ll get to hear all about it at dinner anyway. Yay (this version is most likely).

I had a strong 1, 4, and 5 pattern going, or a combination of those. They all worked short-term but never really changed behaviour or helped our boys build conflict resolution or better relationship skills.

Why do siblings fight?

You don’t expect your children to be BFFs, yet you hope they have some form of relationship later in life. Sibling relationships are a testing ground on which all other relationships are built, which often means siblings try their worst on each other. Right now, they may also be sick of spending so much time together!

Reasons siblings fight:

  • They’re hungry, tired, or bored
  • They’re jealous or envious (usually underlying competition or comparison stemming from low self-esteem)
  • They want attention and they don’t know how to effectively ask for it
  • They’re upset and don’t know how to express what’s bothering them
  • They don’t feel heard or understood
  • They lack conflict resolution skills
  • They hold a right/wrong/fault/blame frame to feel safe and need to ‘win’ is the only acceptable outcome (there’s 8 sides to every story, so you can both be right)

Conflict is necessary for growth and learning about relationships and self. Conflict may also signal change is needed in some way. Think of every great show/movie…they would flop without a conflict of some kind.

Healthy sibling relationships provide an important framework for their social, emotional, moral, and cognitive worlds, promoting empathy, prosocial behavior, academic achievement, and providing a source of support beyond the parent relationship.

Unhealthy and toxic sibling relationships may be equally devastating and destabilizing as children naturally test their impact and influence using hurtful comments. Toxic sibling relationships have been linked to lower self-esteem, increased substance use, depression, and self-harming behavior. – Dr. Shawn Sidhu, January 2019

What can you do about it?

Let go of everything you knew about fairness. Every child is different – emotional needs, personality styles, communication styles, love languages, etc., so treating your kids the same in trying to create ‘fair’ outcomes gets in the way of what your teens might consider amicable and fair. As much as watching your teens argue hurts, the resolution is about them, not you.

Setting boundaries around how you and your teens and tweens treat each other in conflict is critical for creating the safety necessary to approach a resolution. I believe basic respect and dignity for everyone is paramount and it starts with you modeling that with your teens and partner.

How we agree to be when we’re angry or when we’re upset with each other

  • No name-calling
  • No blaming or criticizing
  • Equal opportunity to be heard
  • Don’t force a resolution if they aren’t ready
  • Encourage conversation with open-ended questions, including removing yourself from the conversation so your teens can do this on their own
  • Ask your teens what they’d like to add to this to create respect and safety

Now what?

  1. Let go of the ‘kiss and makeup’ Disney ending
  2. Normalize feelings including anger (watch the video)
  3. Help them clarify the issue to focus the conversation and resolution
  4. Demonstrate ownership using I language to move away from projecting feelings on others (watch the video)
  5. Praise equally, but for unique talents and gift (this isn’t about leveling the playing field or make them the same)
  6. Be careful of using comparisons that fuels competition
  7. Encourage your teens to talk a break to cool and agree to reconvene after 5-10 minutes
  8. Empower your teens to create their own resolutions so they take greater ownership of the outcome

And lastly, use The Talking Stick

Your brain is so complex that the unconscious processing of emotional/relational data happens in nanoseconds. Your conscious brain is only catching every sixth thought or so which is one of the reasons conflict escalates so quickly.

The Talking stick, used in many Indigenous cultures, is an ancient and powerful “communication tool” that ensures a respectful code of conduct during meetings to slow the conversation down and allow for more thoughtful responses and intentional, active listening.

In this case, use whatever object is closest – toothbrush, cat toy, earbud, pen. Let your teens decide who will go first.

  1. The person holding the talking stick speaks in short chunks, not a lecture, so the listener can keep up.
  2. When the talker is complete their first turn, they put the talking stick down or give it to you (reducing contact can help keep things calm).
  3. The listener picks up the talking stick (or you pass it to them) and they can either respond to what was said or share their own thought.
  4. This process goes back and forth until one or both of the following occur
    1. The situation feels deescalated because they both had a chance to speak and be heard, but aren’t ready for or don’t need a resolution
    2. They’re ready to name the issue and brainstorm a solution, continuing to use the talking stick to make clear requests and negotiate

If this all feels complicated and overwhelming, I understand. Until my coach training, I was never taught these skills. 

You’re doing the best you can, and it still feels hard and defeating some days. You don’t have to do it alone, click the link below to join my FREE masterclass and learn my 3 pillars for creating an honest, connected relationship that lasts a lifetime, WITHOUT having to be a perfect parent.