How Do I Get My Kids to Stop Fighting?
After more than a year of being stuck at home in a pandemic, it’s no surprise siblings are getting on each other's nerves. Should parents step in - or step back - when kids start fighting? Dr. Lisa tackles this question and also explains how parents' approach to conflict can influence how kids fight with their siblings. Reena asks how parents can keep their cool when heads are getting hot, and whether kids can really learn to manage their own conflicts. Dr. Lisa describes strategies that work having seen them in action during a unique summer job.
May 11, 2021 | 29 min
Transcript | How Do I Get My Kids to Stop Fighting?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 39: How Do I Get My Kids to Stop Fighting?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I like that despite the pandemic there are some things that will continue. I can’t say I like it, but sibling rivalries, issues with brothers and sisters, and sisters and sisters, oh my gosh it never ends.
LISA: I know. I know. It is very common in households that kids go at it with each other.
REENA: So, we need help, especially the summer’s coming, and more time, more time together, and we got this letter it says: ‘Dear, Lisa, needless to say I love your podcast and I’ve already learned so much about my kids and myself. Thank you. It’s all been very helpful. I’m a single mom of two pre teenage boys, 10 and 11, and a full time self-employed photographer. They don’t fight that much, but I find myself clueless on what to do when they do. They’re together almost 24/7 and although they have their own rooms it’s getting electric. They have different personalities and being so young they don’t understand each other and don’t care about trying. They always feel it’s unfair. I feel that it could escalate as they get older. Do you have any recommendations on how to manage sibling relationships in today’s situation? Thank you.’
LISA: Man, I am hearing this so much. That in the pandemic, especially, sibs have really gotten on each other’s nerves a lot.
REENA: Why do they fight so much?
LISA: There’s a lot of reasons. One is just boredom. They’re bored. And a lot of kids have been very bored in the pandemic. You’ve got two kids. I’ve got two kids. Don’t you sometimes just like watch them start something just for the heck of it?
REENA: It’s over nothing. Absolutely nothing, and it drives me bonkers. Like why are you guys doing this? And at what point, Lisa, should I step in?
LISA: Well, actually that’s a really important question, right? If they’re bored, if they’re just doing it because they’re bored, I think we want to be careful about how we react to that because one of the rules that we’ve talked about plenty of times in the podcast is that kids like us to pay attention. They like us to tune into what’s going on, and so if they’re bored and then they start something with their sibling and then we get into the mix now it’s gotten a lot more interesting, right? And it may not be altogether pleasant but it’s certainly not as boring as it was. So, if it’s boredom fighting, right? I really do think there’s such a thing as boredom fighting. I’ve even talked with my own daughters, I’m like you guys doing like fun fighting. LIke this is your idea of a good time right, and it is annoying. It is annoying. I will say to them, this is annoying, go do it somewhere else, and it’s my way of saying, I don’t want to watch this. This is not entertaining to me. I’m also not going to pour my energy into it. So, in that situation if you just think like a kid was starting something just out of looking for something to do, and you think no one’s gonna get hurt, and you think that they can basically hold their own if they need to, I think in that moment, and of course there’s a million contexts and a million situations so there’s no one right rule, I think in that moment actually saying, like take it elsewhere or knock it off, like I don’t want to watch thi, is a pretty decent option.
REENA: And do you find that works when you say that? Because in some instances I feel like they go to the next room and will strangle each other and then I have to intervene again, but just in another room.
LISA: Exactly. Okay, so then the question is like when do you have to step in? And certainly strangulation would be absolutely a good time to step in, and I do think that’s the dilemma as a parent is like, what am I supposed to do right now?
LISA: And so if you have the option of being like, knock it off or take it elsewhere, I would encourage that just out of the do not encourage it with your own attention quality, but if you feel like this could get ugly or it’s gotten ugly and kids are laying hands on each other, you know, that’s I think a real bright line that should exist in families. Like you can’t get physical. You can’t go after each other with your hands or legs or whatever. If that happens I think a parent needs to intervene. I think also that should be a very clearly established rule that once somebody lays hands on somebody else like all bets are off. I’m going to be involved and you’re not going to like how this goes. If a kid is really, if it doesn’t feel like I can hold their own, like if you feel like one of your kids is bullying the other kid where bullying for us is where the power differential isn’t even. Where one kid has a lot of power and the other kid is unable to defend themselves. Well, l then you should step in, but you know these are all good guidelines. I think a lot of it is going to just depend on what’s happening in the moment and where people are at and whether it was a fun fight where you know kid wanted to start it you know just for the heck of it, and you say, guys that’s annoying, and then they’re onto the next thing. Often they’re on to the next thing, and the thing that’s amazing to me often is then they’re suddenly being really sweet with each other.
REENA: I know.
LISA: That’s the thing that cracks me up about watching, at least my kids, is how interwoven the fighting and the playing together is.
REENA: So, tell me about the research. Why do they do it? I mean I get I get what you’re saying about boredom fighting, but like why do they come at each other like this?
LISA: One thing we have to think about that explains a lot of it is that they irritate each other, and they irritate each other because they’re roommates. You know how you had an irritating roommate in college sometimes, or whatever? LIke living with somebody is irritating, and you know sometimes when kids fight it’s because one kid was using the bathroom and the other kid busted in without knocking. Like that’s annoying. So, the busting in without knocking, like that doesn’t look like fighting, but it causes fighting, and part of what happens is they are not as gracious as we might be with a roommate, and they’re not as gracious as we might be with a roommate because they’re siblings, and so part of it is just the combination of the realities of living with someone who doesn’t always extend full courtesy, right? And the realities of that someone being a sibling where you can have a pretty unfiltered reaction to their annoyances.
REENA: You told us about when you should step in and intervene. When should parents step back? Can I tell you that’s hard to step back. It drives me nuts not had not intervening.
LISA: Yeah, I think parents should step back more than they think they should. I think, you know, as a parent our default can be like, you guys knock it off, or you know okay what happened? Tell me what happened? And then you’re, you know, legislating the whole thing. You’re trying to figure it all out. What we really do believe most of the time if you can do it, and again, so many variables involved, but if you can do it, most of the time if you feel like the kids have an even chance of being able to defend themselves or being able to sort it out, most of the time it is probably best for everyone if the parents says look, you guys are having a hard time with each other. You were going at it. I’m going to trust you to work this out, and what it does is it puts the pressure on them to try to resolve the conflict. If we’re jumping in every time then the work is divided, right? They start the fight, we figure out how to finish and resolve the fight. We don’t really want to be in that business. We really want them to be in the business of if they’re going to start a fight, they have to figure out how to get themselves through and out of it, and how to resolve the conflict in a decent way.
REENA: But so often it’s really not a fair fight. You’ve got an older sibling with the younger sibling. I feel like the younger sibling really just wants to be loved by the older sibling. The older sibling finds the younger sibling annoying. What do you do when it’s not a fair fight?
LISA: That does happen, and actually it’s one of the more common questions I get around teenagers about, you know, what happens when you have a teenager who, you know, let’s consider maybe pre-pandemic conditions, had a long day at school and walks in the house and maybe the younger kid is like so excited to see them, you know, maybe there’s a significant age gaps so that child is maybe, you know, two or three or four years younger, adores the teenager, admires the teenager, gets excited when the teenager walks in the door, and the teenager just lets it rip, you know, just is already annoyed and has held it together all day and then the younger sibling, you know, asks if they want to play or does something that is an invitation of some kind, and the teenager is nasty. Right? Like can be really, really nasty, and one of the ways among described it to me is that the teenager does something that cuts deep, and I thought that was such a beautiful description, and so then the teenager has thrown their weight around hurt a younger sib, who really, really did not have it coming. Like whatever the overture was, it was a well meaning overture from the side of the sibling, and then the parent who watches this is in a terrible position because they’re usually really mad at the teenager for just letting fly on the little kid, and the little kid is really hurt. Like did not have a coming and is really hurt. Okay, so in that case I do think, you know, it’s not a fair fight. You probably should step in.
REENA: So, what would it look like to do that?
LISA: Okay, so in the heat of the moment I think what it would look like is basically to say to the teenager, take yourself out of this. We’ll talk later. To actually stop them and give them a chance, and in fact ask them to remove themselves. Then, having bought that time, take care of the little kid, right? Just a little kid, you didn’t have a coming. I am really sorry I know she didn’t mean it. I know he didn’t mean it, kiddo, it’s okay, right? Whatever comfort the little one needs to not take it as personally, not take it as personally. I mean I’m articulating the ideal scenario, but this is I think the way we want to try to aspire towards. Go find the teenager and appeal to the side of them that we know exists.
REENA: Which is?
LISA: Which is that they don’t feel good about this. Like they just teed off on a little kid, right? They just, you know, picked a fight with someone who was not their own size, and we have to assume that there’s a part of them that really is not okay with that, and let’s start there because our impulse, right? In the moment is to come down hard. Like what was that? Like she loves you. Why did you treat her that way, and I’m not saying we can never do that, but my first pass, if you have your wits about you, would be to say that the teenager, are you okay? Like that was not like you, and to give them the benefit of the doubt that their impulses got way out ahead of them. They did not mean to speak to their sibling that way, and that they are already upset. They don’t need you to make them feel bad, they already feel bad, and, to see if we can align with them around fixing it as opposed to getting all mad at them and then telling them to go fix it, which of course any self-respecting teenager would be defensive and bitter in moments if we go at it that way.
REENA: It’s so tiring, though, regulating the battle between your children, right? Does it ever go away on its own? Like how long do we have to keep meddling and tinkering with this relationship?
LISA: It is exhausting, right? It is exhausting, and I would say in the pandemic it’s become so much more exciting because we’re on top of each other. We are totally on top of each other and our kids are on top of each other. So, when we look at the trajectory, and we’ve studied this a lot, there’s a lot of, lot of fighting with little kids. In fact, one study, this cracks me up so much, looking at very young children found that there were 56 skirmishes an hour between small children in the same home, right? Okay so but the nice thing is when they’re little it usually doesn’t get totally out of hand, okay. Then you get into middle childhood right? You know like 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and you see a lot of fighting. You see kids really do kind of go at it quite a bit. The general trajectory is that it eases as they move into adolescence. That, especially if they’re near the same age, right if you don’t have a teenager who’s going after a little kid, that it eases as they get older, and a lot of that has to do with them having more space, having more connections outside the home, spending less time together just because they are off doing their own things. I mean the reality of being a teenager under non-pandemic conditions is you’re often out and about quite a bit. You’ve got your own friends, you’ve got your own life that’s sort of starting to develop. And so what it does is it literally creates space, and the literal creation of that space between siblings does actually cool this off under most conditions.
REENA: What do I do about the tone? Because when they start getting under my skin, I cannot control myself. I’m losing my mind. I can’t talk in a calm voice. They’re like, Mom, Mom, you’re raising your voice, you’re talking really loud. Of course I’m talking loud. You’re driving me nuts. I can’t get anything done and you keep doing it every 10 minutes. This is driving me nuts. What can parents do to help tone it down?
LISA: Okay, well there’s a few things we can do. One is, interestingly, this is not going to come as a surprise, when we look at the research parents who go at it with each other in an unpleasant way have kids who fight more.Right?
REENA: Oh that’s interesting.
LISA: Yeah I mean it’s one of those things where you’re like, oh that makes sense, right? And a lot of it is we’re teaching kids how to do conflict, and if we are going to engage in unhealthy forms of conflict, if we’re going to be nasty, if we’re going to be passive aggressive, if we’re going to play the part of the victim ourselves in the relationships that they can observe, well then they’re learning from us, and that then translates into how they fight with each other, and fighting more with each other. So, we do see data showing that when parents handle their conflicts well and are assertive and straight forward and try to keep the temperature down, that lowers sibling fighting overall, does not eliminate sibling fighting, but it doesn’t contribute to more than is typical. So there’s that. I think we can try to start with you know, hey you guys knock it off or take it elsewhere or you know I’m going to come talk to you in a minute or separate, we can try all of those things. I do think and I’ve said this before, I think every once in a while it’s okay to get mad, right? That it’s important for kids to know when they’re acting in a way that no one will tolerate in your house, out of your house, I do like to give kids a warning before getting mad. I do like to say you know what I’ve asked you three times. If I ask you again it’s not going to be pretty. I think that’s fair, but there’s something else I learned, which really seems improbable, but, Reena, it actually works, and I learned it when I was in graduate school. So, I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, and I did my first couple years. It was a long program, it’s a you know doctoral program to take a long time, and I got through the first couple of years and I’d actually checked all of the boxes I needed to complete and ended up with the summer that I could do with what I wanted, and I worked on an inpatient unit for teenage boys, like young teenage boys. We were taking care of 12-year-old boys. There were eight of them at a time on the unit, and these were guys who were really having such a hard time that they could not be seen out patient, that they needed to be cared for in the hospital, and I was their day-time mommy. I was within eight hours a day just, you know, managing their time, getting them from program to program, making sure they were going to their therapy appointments, things like that, and, Reena, not like there was a lot of fighting. Like you can imagine.
REENA: Oh my god. 12-year-old boys. Are you kidding me?
LISA: 12-year-old boys, eight of them, right? All of them with psychiatric diagnoses. These are kids who had been through a lot. These are kids who actually often witnessed a lot of really difficult things, witnessed adults, you know, engaging poorly with one another, and so I get to the unit and I’m getting oriented and they’re teaching me the system by which we regulate kids’ behaviors, the point system for managing kids behaviors, and we docked points for all sorts of things and one of the things that we docked points for was provoking. That a kid could get in trouble for provoking another kid, and I remember like when they were teaching me this, I was thinking how do you bust provoking? Like how can you even tell how a kid’s provoking, right? Can you really tell? I have to tell you it’s really obvious when a kid is provoking another kid, right? The kids on the unit very quickly figured out how to push the other kids’ buttons in the same way kids in our homes very quickly figure out how to push their siblings’ buttons, and on the unit whenever a kid was feeling bored or irritated or just I think had a stirred up inside feeling that they wanted to turn into a stirred up outside event, they’d go push another kid’s buttons, and so I was like, this is amazing. So, very quickly I started to get really good at busting provoking. I’d be like, dude you’re provoking you know take five minutes in your room. And the guys were used to it, you know occasionally they’d bristle at it, but it is incredible, Reena, how much quieter things get. It does not eliminate it. How much quieter things get if you make provoking a punishable offense in your home.
REENA: But how do you do that? What do you say?
LISA: What you say to your kids is you are not to provoke your sibling or your siblings. Like provoking is a punishable offense, and then you say to them, both of them, all of them, you say here’s the deal, if your sibling provokes you come to me and I will deal with it. If you react to the provocation you’re kind of on your own. And this takes time to establish in the home. Kids have to sort of figure it out and play with it, but what does start to work, and the height of this is probably going to be younger kids, maybe tweens. Usually by adolescence they’ve stopped doing the kind of provocative stuff as much, but the height of it is really where you want a kid where, you know, one kid starts with another, and either that child says to their sibling, you’re provoking me, like I’m going to go get a parent, or the child says to the sibling, like walks away and comes to the parent and says, like he’s provoking. Or you’re watching it, right? Sometimes you see it, like you don’t even have to have a kid report it to you, like you’re sitting at dinner and you see your kid do something that they know is going to push the other kid’s buttons and then you can say, that’s provoking. Go take two minutes in your room. Come back when you can act like a civilized human in the family.
REENA: And you said that works? You know, having them identify what provoking is, and when they do it send them to their room and then they’ll knock it off, really?
LISA: It takes it down a few notches.
LISA: Nothing solves this, and they can go to their room. I just am a big believer in the like, I need to leave and come back when you can be better. I need you to leave and come back after you’ve got yourself pulled together. So, part of me feels like, I don’t care where you go, and part of me feels like I don’t care how long you’re gone. What I want you to establish is the self-regulatory capacity of understanding that when you act like a turkey, no one wants to be in your presence, and when you pull yourself together, you’re totally ready to come back, and we want to be with you, right? That that’s part of what we’re establishing, and so you know sometimes kids come back and they just are provoking again, and then you say, okay clearly you are not ready to be back. Take yourself out again, come back when you’re ready, but the aim over time, right? And you know siblings fight enough that you get a lot of practice with this as a parent and they get a lot of practice with getting busted for provoking, the aim over time is actually that a kid stops themselves before they provoke. That since provoking has now become problematic for them, right? Has stopped being the gratification of getting their sibling to lose their mind, has instead been replaced with the parenting being like, alright you’ve got to get out here for a minute, that they’ll overtime, hopefully, provoke at a lower rate. Doesn’t mean provoking goes away, but what you’re trying to do is just take down the overall volume of siblings antagonizing each other.
REENA: So what would your big takeaway be, Lisa? It drives us nuts when they fight, drives us nuts. If there’s one thing we can keep in mind in those moments, what should it be?
LISA: Use your attention wisely. Use your attention wisely. If you think that they can sort it out, tell them to go sort it out. If you think they’re doing it just because they’re bored, tell them to take it elsewhere if they’re that bored. You don’t want to watch it. If you think one kid has started something that does not need to continue, say to them, please leave, come back when you’re ready. But be very cautious about assigning yourself the role of the person who gets them out of the fights themselves into. That like why wouldn’t they let you do that work?
LISA: Make it their problem, if they’re fighting, as much as you absolutely can. Not your problem.
REENA: Well, I’m going to try these tactics. I need all the help I can get. All the help I can get. But it’s also interesting about what you say about provoking. I’m going to try it. I’m going to give it a shot and report back.
LISA: If it works on an inpatient unit of 12-year-old boys, it can work in your home. I promise. I promise.
REENA: Well said, well said. Boy, we are so excited to tell everyone about an upcoming guest, who actually was just on the Ellen show, and is going to be on our show, Lisa, tell me about him.
LISA: I know. I am so excited. So, our next podcast guest is Emmanuel Acho, and he is formerly of the National Football League, he played for several teams including here in Cleveland, where I live, and he then has really made a name for himself with this fantastic YouTube series called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” where he takes on topics of race and does it with such respect and such safety for people to have very hard conversations, and he has then since written a book of that name and just just recently published a book called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy” about how we talk with kids about race, and we note, you know, obviously this is a topic we have addressed at several points along the way with the podcast, but, you know, I think you and I both felt like we need a pro.
LISA: This is such an important topic, we need a pro, and so we’re bringing in this fantastic pro, and what we want our listeners to do is send us your questions for Emmanuel. So send them to asklisa(at)doctorlisadamour(dot)(com). What questions do you have for Mr. Acho about how to talk with your kids about race?
REENA: I love it and, you know, he’s just such, like his book is so funny. It’s such a serious topic but it is a great easy read. I read it by the pool recently and just could not put it down. He has a great story, so please send us your questions, whatever you want to ask. It’s a great opportunity.
LISA: All right, and, Reena, I think you’ve got For Children Everywhere for us today?
REENA: I do. I do. I don’t know if you guys have been following closely what’s happening in India, and how the country has completely unraveled because of COVID. Hospital beds are hard to find. Oxygen tanks are even harder. So, we’re going to highlight giveindia(dot)(org). They are sort of a bridge between individuals like us and NGOs. They help take money from individuals to then push towards the right NGOs to help funds, and it’s all transparent. You’ll get an email saying where your money’s going to and a receipt back as well for your taxes, and they’re very eager to help what is a catastrophe that is beyond just government help that really needs individual help, but I also want to plug the South Asian Journalists Association, saja(dot)(org). If you want to learn more about what’s happening in South Asia, particularly in India, check out their website because there are just a great resource, and and one thing you’ve always For Children Everywhere that giving back, especially with a heart of gratitude, makes a difference, and the fact that we’re living in a country where if you want to vaccine, you can get a vaccine is such a privilege, and it just made me realize that as we’re watching the coverage in India over the past few weeks.
LISA: Yeah, I know. It’s been painful and I think of you. Do you have family who are there?
REENA: We do. We do. And, in fact, my father’s college roommate’s son, 42, died of COVID in the hospital.
LISA: I’m so sorry, Reena.
REENA: It’s just story after story like that. So, if you have a little bit of money and you want to give, consider going to www(dot)giveindia(dot)(org). So, Lisa, what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: For parenting to go today I want us to remember that one of the tools in our parenting tool belt can be having a sense of humor, and I’m thinking about a time, one time when I was on the van with these 12-year-old boys from the inpatient unit, one kid started something that was just unbelievably dumb with another kid, and it was just like it was truly boredom and I was really in a good spot that day or had like a lot of energy, and so I looked at the kid and then I turned around and looked at the guy driving the van who was a friend of mine, and I just jokingly started with him something as dumb as what that kid has just done. I don’t even remember what it was, but I was just like I basically was playing with the kid, of just being like , et me show you what you just did, the guy who was driving the van knew me well, played along right away, and it completely diffused the moment. The kids thought it was funny. I thought it was funny, and I did not have to come down on him. I did not have to bust him for provoking. In that moment I was able, I had the energy to use humor to appeal to the better side of this kid. Give them a little mirror about what he had just done, and we moved past it. So, what I would say, as a parent, you know, we get into tight spots all the time as parents. If you have a good, gentle, playful, non sarcastic sense of humor, and you’re feeling a bit in a jam, see if you can make it funny. See if you can make it sweet. See if you can make it tender and kind of amusing, and that can be a pretty short path out of a rough moment and into a better place.
REENA: It’s the opposite of what I would think to do in the moment because they drive you nuts. They drive you nuts.
LISA: They do. They do.
REENA: It’s a good tactic. I’m going to try it. So, I’ll see you next week?
LISA: See you next week.