Arguments between siblings are a natural part of growing up – but when they dominate family relationships or turn aggressive, fighting between brothers and sisters can cause real problems.
Our foster carers know this all too well. Not only do they often have their own biological children’s spats to contend with, they’ve also experienced adding other children – often with traumas of their own – into the mix. Compass carer Kate has fostered children for over 20 years, and her birth children were only 6 and 8 years old when they welcomed their first foster child into the family. She’s learned some valuable lessons on dealing with fighting between children – biological and foster – over the past two decades.
We’re sharing our top tips on handling and preventing fighting between siblings, backed by behavioural science and real-life Compass Fostering experience.
Be clear about family rules
Children of all ages and backgrounds cope best when they know what’s expected of them. Work with your children to set clear family rules and decide the consequences for breaking them – involving the children will help them feel a sense of ownership and agency over their own behaviour.
If you’re bringing a new child into the home, be careful to introduce rules slowly so you don’t overwhelm them. Be consistent in implementing rules and consequences, and keep a copy where everyone can see them, such as on the fridge.
Respect each child’s boundaries
Every child is unique and will react to the same situation differently. Some children are comfortable expressing themselves verbally (sometimes too comfortable!) while others may find it difficult to put their feelings into words.
Be understanding of your children’s personalities, and respect their boundaries – as Kate learned to do with her first foster placement. “She was about 14 or 15 and didn’t want to engage at all,” says Kate, “and my children didn’t understand why.”
“Sometimes a young person just doesn’t want to talk to anyone and that can be difficult to navigate. I had to explain to my children that it wasn’t their fault she didn’t want to talk, but it wasn’t her fault either.”
Reward good behaviour
When you see your children taking steps to get along, give them praise and encouragement. Reward consistent good behaviour with positive affirmations and activities you know your children enjoy.
Help siblings bond over things they have in common
Finding common ground can help children develop stronger bonds. Kate has often used this trick over the years to establish a relationship between her biological children and new foster children.
“If a foster child is holding something of their own, for example a teddy or a toy,” says Kate, “I’ll say, Oh! my daughter has one just like that! Why don’t you go and get yours too? Then they find that they have something in common – because it’s difficult for young children to find things in common with one another.”
Reduce sibling rivalry
Sometimes parents stoke the fires of sibling rivalry without intending to do so. Take care to reduce sibling rivalry by:
• Avoiding labels, such as ‘the smart one’, ‘the sporty one’, etc – even positive labels can create friction between siblings.
• Treating each child with compassion, even when one has been aggressive towards the other. Try not to treat them as if there is a ‘victim’ and a ‘perpetrator’.
• Not taking sides and staying calm when an argument breaks out – this will help you react with a level head.
• Not comparing one child to another.
Don’t place blame
Squabbles are normal amongst siblings, but it’s important not to place blame when rows break out.
“As soon as you blame any of the children for anything that’s happened that’s when it can get hairy and you’ll get pushback,” says Kate.
“I turn it around a little bit – instead of saying you’ve started a fight so go upstairs, you can say why don’t you go upstairs and play by yourself for a bit and the others won’t annoy you? Don’t use blame or punishment, as it can be really damaging for everyone involved.”
Reduce opportunities for fights
Pay attention to when and where arguments tend to happen, and take steps to prevent fighting. If your children often squabble over who gets to pick what to watch on television, set up a schedule so they each get a chance to choose. If they fight over toys, make sure there are enough toys to go around.
While you’ll never be able to prevent every fight, reducing these ‘hot spots’ in the home can help create a more peaceable atmosphere.
Give children tools to work it out themselves
Learning to get along and resolve conflicts is a valuable lesson for children – in fact, it’s one of the long-term blessings of having siblings. Encourage your children to work out their differences on their own by giving them the tools to do so.
Give suggestions and ask questions, such as is there a way each of you gets a chance to play with the toy? and let them set up their own arrangement. Over time, they will hopefully only need gentle reminders to find their own ways to resolve problems.
While sibling relationships sometimes take a little work – and go through the occasional rough patch – the bonds that your children form when young will last their entire lives. Kate’s children, who are now in their 20s, have benefitted greatly from having foster children in their home.
“My daughter has grown up with fostered children so she’s fantastic with young people,” says Kate. “She’s a football coach now, and teaches our foster children in the garden. The relationships carry well on into their adulthood and I think it’s amazing.”
If you’re considering becoming a foster carer like Kate, please get in touch and our team will be happy to answer any questions.