“Don’t touch me!”
If your day is filled with this kind of bickering among your children, you’re not alone. Sheltering in place has led to rising family tensions in many households.
It’s hard to be in close quarters day in and day out, but there’s a silver lining: this is an opportunity to nurture some of our kids’ longest and most important relationships. Without playdates, playgrounds, sports, or school, siblings are a lifeline for each other right now. And they have a lot to learn from one another, including life skills such as problem-solving, cooperation, and anger management.
So how can you turn fighting into learning during lockdown?
Here are a few ideas:
Take Care of Yourself
With coronavirus, work, homeschooling and more, parents’ anxieties are running high. Children detect these stresses in subtle ways like your tone of voice. They don’t know how to manage their fear, so it may manifest as arguments with their siblings.
You may not realize the impact all of this has had on you, so check in occasionally on your anxiety levels. Finding ways to be gentle on yourself and lowering your expectations while you’re juggling so much can help create a calmer environment at home. If you can find time for for a walk or phone call with a friend or therapist, you’ll be in a better position to handle frustration and model resilience for your kids.
Lean on Your Social Network
Talk about coronavirus news and fears with a friend or spouse in private rather than in front of your kids. This will help limit their exposure to news that might be confusing or scary to them, while giving you an outlet to process how life has changed. Even if they seem like they’re otherwise occupied, children are always listening and trying to understand what’s happening around them.
Talk About It
Encourage your kids to talk honestly about how they’re feeling, and validate whatever they’re feeling. Acknowledging and sharing feelings makes them more manageable. If you’re open and calm, they’ll feel calmer too. You don’t need to have solutions – listening and validating how they’re feeling is often enough.
It’s easy to relax timelines when the kids are homeschooling, but children thrive on routine. Set times for academics, unstructured play and screen time so they know what to expect each day. If your kids fight for their turn with a toy or electronics, give them predictable solutions like setting a timer. When they’re competing for limited attention and resources, it’s important that each child can count on getting their share without arguing about it.
As part of the daily routine, be sure each child gets a few minutes of quiet time alone in their own space so they don’t get overstimulated and take it out on each other. It’s also important that they get a few minutes one-on-one with a parent so they can work through any issues and be reminded that they’re important.
Help the Younger Ones
A lot of frustration comes from misunderstandings when children can’t explain what they want or why they did something. It’s healthy to let kids work things out themselves, but they may need help at times. You don’t need to be the arbiter of justice, declaring which child is right and which is wrong. Instead, reflect back their feelings, explain why certain behaviors aren’t allowed and help them find solutions.
Look for the Underlying Ned
Stress affects children in different ways. Some will be irritable, others will be clingy, and others may become rigid and controlling. Rather than shouting and punishing, which are hard to avoid during stressful times, try to understand what’s fueling your child’s behavior. Is your child upset because their sibling took their toy or are they really trying to get your attention or needing reassurance? If you understand the need, you can address it and stop the fighting.
Focus on the Positive
Have your children hunt for opportunities to collaborate and be kind to one another, and offer positive reinforcement in those moments. This can help minimize their need for negative attention. For example, ask your child to imagine being their sibling. How are they feeling? What do they need to feel better?
Instead of fighting it out, teach them productive ways to problem-solve. For example, they can walk away from a situation and get your help, or use tools like distraction (e.g., getting younger siblings interested in a different toy).
Get them Moving
Children naturally want to move their bodies. Exercise is a positive way to get their energy out and manage stress. Whether it’s running, chasing, roughhousing, or playing sports, try to get active every day, if it’s safe to do so. Exercising outdoors gives your child the dual benefits of moving and getting green time, which has proven to bolster mental health.
There are some things that have to be done whether the kids like it or not, like sleeping and eating. But grant them some control on the things that don’t matter as much, like what time they study or which of their games they play. A sense of control can help reduce stress.
Having a goal and achieving it makes time in quarantine feel more productive. Ask your child to make a list of things they’d like to accomplish, whether it’s learning an instrument, beating their time in a physical activity, or completing a long-standing project like organizing their closet. You could also start a family project like painting a room or building something together.
Play games as a family, kids versus parents. Being on the same team helps them see how fun it can be to work together.
For the times when fighting can’t be prevented, there are several approaches that can help resolve conflicts:
- Encourage your family to express themselves using “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You did this,” the statement would be more constructive if phrased as “I felt hurt when you….”
- Insist that everyone take a break to calm down when arguments get heated.
- Set hard rules against name calling, profanity, and bringing up the past.
- Instead of intervening in every argument, talk your children through how they can stand up for themselves and try to resolve the issue before reporting to you.
Distance Physically, Not Socially
Most kids miss the range of social interactions that are part of school, extracurricular activities and playdates. Video calls and supervised social media use can help kids stay connected and prevent social isolation during quarantine.
Keep an eye out for significant changes in behavior like irritability, sadness, or withdrawing from friends or family. If you’re worried about changes you’re noticing in your children’s behavior, talk with a therapist. Many are offering virtual therapy visits that you can do from home.
Sibling fighting can push any stressed-out parent past their breaking point. It can also be reframed as an opportunity. Children need some structure and guidance to realize the benefits, but with your help quarantine can be a time to develop the skills to navigate the world and grow stronger as a family.