Jun 12, 2015

Dealing With The Nuts and Bolts of Sibling Conflict

By Drusha Mussmann

How is a mom to address the fighting, quarreling, and tattling of conflict-prone siblings? On the one hand, intervening in every disagreement can create wimpy tattletales who use you, their mother, as a weapon against each other.  On the other hand, leaving them to fight it out on their own, while easier in the short run, allows the stronger ones to lord it over the weaker, and the more determined to beat down the more compromising. The wronged child may learn to take revenge as a way of correcting the injustices. The stronger will not learn to consider those weaker than he is. When there is no justice in a home, bitterness, resentment, and anger may find their place in sibling relationships and persist even into adulthood.

My husband, David, and I certainly had to answer this question with our first four children (all boys born within six years). With all that testosterone and energy and a range of very different personalities, conflict, contention, and competitiveness were a daily challenge. There were arguments over who gets what toy, who hit whom, who gets to sit in the front seat, whose Duplo guy is the best, et cetera ad nauseam.

Often the arguments developed into physical fights. The apostle James could have been describing our family when he wrote, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” Sin is at the bottom of all these actions, but ignorance makes the problem worse: kids often do not know the right way to get what they want. We knew that we did not have children so that we could watch them argue. We wanted them to appreciate each other’s gifts without  constantly trying to cut each other down to make themselves look good. We wanted them to have fun together and to basically get along. Clearly, we had a lot of parenting work to do.

Although it is not wrong to want something that someone else has, kids must keep their desire in bounds so that they do not put their wants ahead of their neighbor’s. We needed  to vigorously teach our children how to balance their interests and desires with those of others. Not only did  we need to confront and correct the sin, we also needed to give them tools and skills to direct their desires in a God-pleasing way. Using all the opportunities the boys were giving us to resolve conflicts, we found some effective methods to head off conflict and to repair their relationships when things went bad.

Heading-Off Conflict

As the kids play, keep your ears attuned for developing fights, and intervene before real damage is done. In other words, let the kids work out their differences until it becomes apparent that they have reached an impasse, and step in before they start actually fighting. Loud voices, rising emotions, and crying are cues that your help is needed. Since you want them to learn how to work differences out, give them as little help as they need to resolve the issue. Sometimes your friendly presence will be enough for them to get over the hump, but more often they will need you to help them see the other guy’s point of view or come up with possible solutions.

Since fights often begin with words, cut things off at the pass by outlawing insults, name-calling, or dismissive talk (“Shut up,” for example). If your kids are in the habit of dissing each other, it will take a while to break this habit. They may not even realize how much this is part of their everyday speech. We started out using a number of “inconvenient” consequences to help them remember to zip the lip. For instance, if a kid insulted someone, he had to compliment that person for three things. When you first start building new habits as a family, the consequences serve more to remind than to punish. As the standard becomes a part of your family life, the cost of unkind words should increase. Instead of asking the insulter to speak the compliments, have him write them out, pay the person he insulted, or do one of their chores.

Lowering the Emotional Temperature

Removing the object of contention lowers  the emotional temperature enough to make it easier to reach an agreement. I used to put the contentious toy or book on top of the refrigerator--no one got it until they all agreed on a plan for how it was to be shared. For instance, “We’ll set a timer and John can play with it for twenty minutes and then it will be Luke’s turn,” or,“Sally can have it now and then George gets it after lunch.”

Everyone needs a break sometimes, and a period of separation can be very effective at reducing conflict. When one kid is grumpy and contentious, or they both can’t seem to get along, separate them. Having them do something by themselves allows them to cool off and regroup and helps them learn to be happy and occupied alone. Depending on the situation, they may be able to be in the same room while working on different activities, or they may need to be in separate rooms. This little break can also be refreshing for you!

Dealing with Physical Escalation

If you watch Judge Judy, you’ll see that whoever makes the first physical contact is always wrong. No matter the provocation (offensive words, tone of voice, or the provocative making of faces), it doesn’t justify throwing a punch. Whoever escalated the conflict into a physical one could expect to feel the hand of the law in our house (although that’s not to say that the instigator didn’t also face consequences).

Teaching Christian Ways to Resolve Conflict

Despite all of our efforts, life will bring fights and sins and offenses, and we need a means of restoring peace when damage has been done. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus laid out a plan for the church to deal with conflict between members, and we use the principles given there to develop a method of resolving conflict after an offense.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

The first thing to notice is that it is the responsibility of the offended brother to bring the offense to the offender. The offended one is not to stew on the offense, complain about it to others, or to take revenge. If he feels that he has been wronged, then he needs to go to the offender and explain what has offended him. Notice also that it needs to be done privately. This accomplishes two things. First, neither person can play to an audience, which cuts down on the complexity of the interaction. Secondly, there is no ganging-up, and the offender’s dignity is protected, so he is more likely to admit his wrong.

If the offender agrees that he wronged the offended, then his repentance should lead to a confession.  He should receive forgiveness, correct the offense, and become reconciled so that peace is restored. At first, this is not going to happen very often between your kids. It takes time, guidance and practice for them to learn to step back and look at their actions impartially and to admit where they were wrong. If the offender does not agree with the offended, they will need to move on to step two.
Step two involves bringing in a witness. When the children are small, that will probably be you. When they get older, they may bring in another child who saw the offense. Again this is done in private. If the offender agrees, then there is repentance, forgiveness, making it right, and reconciliation. If not, then the offense is taken up in front of the judge (that’s you, Mom).

A lot of teaching is required to get these two steps in place. When I was raising my kids, one of my Bible study leaders used to say, “You have to go slow to go fast,” and this is a case in point. When you start resolving issues within your family this way, it is going to take a lot of your time. You are going to need to be included in the private conversation between the offended and the offender so that you can guide it. The kids need training in how to present the offense, how to admit they’re wrong, how to work out restitution, and how to forgive. It will seem onerous and difficult and you will wonder how long does this actually have to take. Yet if you persevere, the process will get faster, the kids will be able to do it themselves, and your docket as judge will decrease.

In step three, you are officially called in as judge. Before doing anything, you need to ask the following two questions, so that you are not wasting your time on frivolous cases.

1. “Have you talked to your brother about this privately?” He needs to do that before he can bring it up with you. Many cases die at this requirement. If the child only wanted to tattle, he will not put in the effort  to make things right. He also may decide that the offense isn’t worth the trouble of talking to his brother about it in private.

2. “Do you really want me to be the judge of this? I may decide that you are both wrong and need to be punished and you will have to abide by my decision.” Often this warning sends them back to the negotiating table and they resolve the issue themselves. If not, we continue.

Once the child can answer both questions with a “Yes,” you’ll need to hear both sides of the story. Have the offended person talk first with no interruptions. During his turn the alleged offender needs to listen without comments, corrections, eye-rolling, or other dismissive body language.

Kids usually need help in explaining what happened without using inflammatory descriptions or imputing motives. For example, “He was mad because my plane was better than his, so he slugged me and made me drop it. Then I tapped him back to defend my plane,” should become,  “After my plane won the race, he punched me and then I hit him back.” I often ask a lot questions to clarify what happened and to make sure things are not left out. At the end of his turn, I restate what he said and check that he agrees that I got it. Next, the alleged offender gets to tell his side of the story while the offended listens. Again I ask questions for clarification and then restate what he said at the end.

Once we have the two versions set out, we work on meshing them together to make one story. Going through this, I ask them a lot of questions, such as, “Why do you think he did that? What were you thinking when you did that?” to help them understand why they got the result they did. As we bring the two stories together, often the kids can see the causes of the misunderstanding or the offense. Again at the end, I recap what happened. Then I ask, “Do you see anything that you need to ask forgiveness for?” If the answer is yes, then the forgiveness is asked for and given. If the answer is no (a pretty frequent occurrence especially at the beginning), I render judgment, explaining what the offenses were, what they should’ve been, and what the punishment(s) will be.

Once I know about the whole dirty deal, I correct whatever wrong behavior occurred. Although I may rule in favor of one child or the other, it is not unusual for me to give consequences to both. I do not ask the participants to agree with me. Although I work hard to have them admit guilt and give forgiveness, I do not force them to do that. I will point out what the Bible says are the consequences of hiding sin and withholding forgiveness, but then leave the punishments to do their work. When there is confession and forgiveness, I rejoice with them and point out the good things that God promises to the repentant and the forgiving.

This takes a lot of time, effort and patience on your part. It is hard to do, but you and your family will reap the benefits of a loving, more peaceful home as you train your children to look out for the interests of others as well as their own.


After studying agronomy and entomology at Purdue University, Drusha turned her attention to raising and educating seven children. She lives in Indiana with her husband and youngest daughters. Now that she is no longer busy teaching Calculus and overseeing meals for nine hungry eaters, she studies French, and recently completed training in Christian counseling.  


  1. Thank you for such an insightful post from a seasoned mom! As a younger mom, I thank you!

  2. Yes, thank you! This is really helpful! We've started up homeschool here again this year and the sibling fighting has seemed to increase! Thank you for the reminder on how to handle this. It will take time!


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