My children are fighting all the time

boys_fightingQ. I have two boys. One is 26 months old and the other was four last week, and they seem to be squabbling and fighting all the time. In particular, the older boy seems to resent the younger one and won’t share any of his toys with him. They can’t seem to play together and any time I leave them alone they start to fight. The little one always abandons what he is doing and tries to play with the big one’s toys which ends badly, with the older guy hitting out and making him cry. While I appreciate this is normal to a degree, I sometimes get very frustrated and wonder will they ever get on.

A. Sibling disputes and rows between young children are very common in families, and are particularly acute at the ages of your two children. At 26 months, your younger boy is likely to try to play with the toys or games of his older brother, yet he may not know yet how to play the games properly or how to ask nicely or to share. As a result he might intrude upon his brother and grab his toys, leading to frustration.

At four, your older boy is likely to be only just learning to share and might find his brother’s attention difficult to manage. He might also be resentful of his brother, who he could see as a competitor for his parents’ attention. Both children are likely to be sensitive to how you respond to their disputes and to be very upset should you take the side of their brother over them.

Try not to take a side in their fights
A common reaction when two children are in a fight is for the parent to become a referee to decide who is at fault, and then to punish that child. Most often parents take the side of the younger child and give out to the older one: “You should know better”; “Don’t shout at your brother”; “Give him that toy now”; and so on. However, in that case the older child usually feels the parent is favouring the younger and this makes him resent him more and actually less likely to share in the future.

Where possible, the key to addressing these rows is to not take a side and instead to support the two of them sorting out the underlying dispute. For example, if you hear them fighting, you might calmly intervene and say, “Let’s calm down now, and sort this out.” Even if you think one child is in the wrong it is generally best to address them both for this behaviour: “In this house there is no hitting. We all have to be gentle”; or “In this family we ask nicely and don’t grab”, and so on.

When you do use consequences, rather than singling out a child try to have consequences that affect them both such as that the game stops until they play nicely, or that they have to separate for a few minutes until calm etc. Keeping your voice warm and soft, and not punitive and angry, is key to being successful.

When one child is definitely in the wrong
While sometimes you have to intervene to help one child over the other, it matters greatly how you do this. For example, if you think the older boy has been rough with the younger one, it is important to focus him on the behaviour you want to see: “Come on, keep your hands to yourself and play nicely”; “You are usually very kind to your brother, let’s see more of that.” Call a child aside to correct him rather than doing this in front of his brother, which can increase resentment and competition.

If you do correct the older boy, you need to be absolutely fair and at other times take action on his behalf. For example, if you see that the younger boy is about to grab his older brother’s toy, you might lift up the younger and take him over to another group of toys to distract him: “Let’s give your brother space, and we will play with the cars over here”.

Coaching the children to sort out problems
In the long term the important thing is to teach your two boys how to resolve conflict and to learn to share. Sometimes this can be done in the heat of the row, by inviting the children, particularly the older one, to stop and think: “Hold on now, we have one set of Lego and two boys – what can we do?” Or you can specifically guide them: “let’s take turns now. J, you play now . . . And now it is P’s turn”.

Also coach the children at other times in order to prevent rows in the first place. For example, when chatting with the older boy you might help him to positively understand his younger brother’s attention: “He loves playing with your toys because he looks up to you and wants to learn from his big brother,” as well as exploring things he can do in challenging situations, such as involving his brother in the game or distracting him with a different toy.

Teach the children how to play together
While parents often assume children naturally know how to play with each other, many children need support to learn these skills. Take time to sit and play with your children together, gently guiding them and encouraging any positive play: “You waited your turn, well done”; “You shared the pencils, that is kind”; “That was lovely the way you asked politely,” and so on.

In the long term you want to help your children discover each other as playmates and companions and realise the many advantages this will bring them. See related articles in this website on helping children get along.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, August 2013. John writes in the Health Plus of the Irish Times every Tuesday.