Practice, practice, practice! Parents have to explain, model, and repeat themselves, over and over. It can seem endless. But there are ways to help children learn faster, by taking advantage of the problems that come up in every family on a daily basis. Next time there's a squabble between your children, remind yourself that you don't need to sigh and wish it wasn't happening. You can welcome it as a teachable moment!

1. Talk about feelings.

When parents talk to their children on a daily basis about what everyone in the family feels and needs, siblings become more sensitive and emotionally generous to each other, as well as more likely to understand each other’s point of view. This is true even when children are very young; when mothers talk to their toddlers about what the baby might be feeling, the toddler develops more empathy for the baby and is less jealous. [i] (But remember that this can't be a lecture. We always need to begin by empathizing with the older child. Then we can wonder aloud what the baby might want or need.)

2. Ask questions about feelings, needs, wants, and choices.

We all learn by having the chance to reflect, if we don't feel defensive. Ask your child "coaching" questions that help them explore and discover.

  • “How did you feel?”
  • “What did you want?”
  • “What did you do?”
  • “How did that work out?”
  • “Did you get what you wanted?”
  • “Did your brother (or friend) get what he wanted?”
  • “How do you think he felt?”
  • “Would you do the same thing next time, or do you think you might try something different?”
  • “What do you think you might try?”
  • “What would happen then?”

Listen, nod, repeat to be sure you understand. Stay warm and non-judgmental. Keep your sense of humor, so when your child says "Next time I'll smash him!" you can simply answer "Hmmm....what might happen then?" Try not to jump in to evaluate or lecture. Reflection is how children develop judgment. Good judgment often develops from bad experience.

3. Explain and model. Expect to repeat yourself.

“When they were fighting over ownership of something I would say ‘Jake, say... ‘Excuse me Sofia, when you're finished may I have a turn please?’’ and then wait for him to repeat my words. And then I would turn to Sofia and say ‘Sofia, say... ‘Sure, Jake.’ I did this many, many, many times and then one day to my delight I was cooking dinner and overheard them use these exact words unprompted to resolve an issue... It was a proud moment : )” – Deanne

4. Practice finding win-win solutions.

There are daily opportunities in every family to point out differences in needs and consider solutions that might work for everyone. “Hmmm… You want to go to the pool and he wants to go to the park… How can we find a win-win solution?”

5. Model “I” statements,

which means expressing what you need, rather than judging or attacking someone else. So, for instance, when your daughter yells at her sibling “Well, you’re stupid, too!” you might teach her, instead, to say “I don’t like it when you call me names.”

One formula for “I” statements, a version of Marshall Rosenberg's NonViolent Communication, is to describe what you feel, what you need, and how you see the situation.

“I feel______ because I want (or need) _________and I observe that _________.”

Rosenberg suggests that you then ask the other person if they would be willing to take action to give you what you need. With children, however, I suggest that you not "ask" unless the child's compliance is truly optional. Most of the time, if you're upset, it isn't. So simply instruct your child to take a specific action, kindly but clearly:

So, for instance,“I feel worried because I want to get there on time and I see that you aren’t ready to leave yet….Please put on your shoes now.”

6. Model pro-social behavior.

The way the adults in the home relate to each other sets a powerful example for the children. Use that to your advantage by role-playing how you’d like your children to treat each other. For instance, you might say to your partner “There’s only one banana left; shall we split it?” Or model how to set healthy limits respectfully, by saying things like “Excuse me, I was using that. You can have it as soon as I’m done!” with a smile and a hug.

7. Teach Repair.

In every relationship, there are times when someone feels hurt. Often, that's unintentional. Sometimes, we feel that the hurting is unavoidable because what we need or want at that moment is more important than how the other person feels. (Every adult at times says something hurtful to their partner.) Of course, later, we're sorry, and realize that the hurting was an intentional choice.

So when one of your children hurts their sibling, make it a family policy that there be a repair as soon as possible, and definitely before bedtime.

This is when you say "Your brother was very upset that you knocked down his tower. I wonder what you could do to make things better with him?" This is not a punishment. Children who are punished feel resentful. Children who aren't punished and don't repair feel guilty. Both blame the sibling. Children who find that they can help their sibling feel better are empowered, and the sibling relationship is strengthened.

Once they're no longer angry, humans often look at the wreckage caused by their anger and wish they could make things better. You want your children to get in that habit early. So instead of trying to extract an apology, which will just make your child feel like they "lost," help them feel like a hero -- someone who makes things better!


For more on Repair, don't miss this article:

Should you make your child apologize?

The article above is adapted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.

 “This book walks parents through sibling scenarios – even ones for very intense children – and breaks down the specifics of how to approach common struggles, without making parents feel guilty or overwhelmed. It is a wonderful resource that gives parents the tools to not only help our children while in the midst of conflict, but also helps us to teach our children how to be the loving, kind and respectful brothers and sisters we know they can be.” — Gina Osher, The Twin Coach

[i] Dunn, Judith, Brown, Jane and Beardsall, Lynn. “Family Talk About Feeling States and Children’s Later Understanding of Others’ Emotions” (1991). Developmental Psychology, V 27 (3) p 448-455.