Q&A | How do you handle sibling fights?

Do my kids fight? YES. Today I’m sharing some of my favorite tools and thoughts around sibling relationships. I’ll be honest, this is one of my biggest challenges in parenthood. But with time, I’ve been able to develop empathy that gives me the ability to stay calm in times of crisis with my kids–and that has made a huge difference. How do you handle sibling conflicts?

Hi there. And welcome to episode 193. Today I'm answering the question. How do you handle sibling fights? Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler more intentional life. In this show, we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience, raising kids, but also rooted in my Ph.D. In child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us.

Hi, welcome to the Simple Families podcast. If you're new to the show, these Tuesday episodes are shorter Q and A format. We started each episode with me sharing something simple that I'm loving and then move into the Q and A portion. Now, the question for today, how do you handle sibling fights is something I could go on and on and on about. I could probably spend a full hour podcast on it and maybe I should at some point, but today I'm going to be answering Anna's question in particular about her kids who are very similar in age to mine. Before we dive into that, I wanted to share that tomorrow I will be doing my babies, eat real food workshop, which is a quick one hour workshop that teaches you a more intentional approach to introduce babies to solid foods. I haven't done this workshop in three years and I was so excited when I saw that I was offering it again.

I had a couple of my previous participants come out after three years and give me an update on what was going on with their former babies who are now four years old. And two of these families told me specifically that their kids are eating so well. And they credit a lot of it to getting started on the right foot in the first year. So, that is tomorrow, February 5th, at 2:00 PM. You can go to simplefamilies.com/babies. And that's tomorrow, February 5th at 2:00 PM Eastern time. Now, if you're listening to this later, you can still go to that website and get the replay. You just won't get it live, but you will be able to watch the live session and the recorded Q and A. So if you have a baby child under the age of one or you're expecting, or you know, somebody that is, I would love to have you all there, it's simplefamilies.com/babies to register.

Now, it's time for our something simple this week. And I want to remind you that these are never sponsored. Sometimes I'm covering a favorite product, a favorite app, a favorite book. Today, I'm going to be sharing one of my favorite simple parenting concepts. And I chose this one because I do consider it to be my best tool. When it comes to managing sibling relationships. This strategy is called expansion and contraction. Now I've been using this for a couple of years with my kids, and it's so empowering to have one more tool like this in my tool belt, but I have struggled to explain it and sometimes I'll explain it to families and they'll say, but I still just don't get it. Now, the reason I think it is difficult to explain and difficult to understand is because it's something that we as adults do naturally without ever thinking about it.

Last year in episode 134, I had author Gretchen Rubin on the podcast, and I was sharing more about expansion and contraction with Gretchen. And she immediately connected this concept with something that her husband does. She shared that when she goes back home to visit her family who is very close knit, sometimes her husband starts to get a little overwhelmed and needs some space. So he's always the one that runs to the grocery store when something needs picked up, that is an example of expansion and contraction on the adult level at its finest. When you're contracting, you're in close spaces, you're spending intimate time together. Sometimes you feel like you're on top of one another. And when you're expanding, you have space to spread your arms, to take a deep breath, to breathe, to move more freely for an adult that might mean running to the grocery store, just to pick something up or maybe just to get out of the house, just to get that space, to breathe with the vast amount of movement that our kids have every day, they expand and contract constantly, but in their early years, they're not quite as in tune with knowing when they need to move from one to the next.

So, okay, parent, we can make it our role to help facilitate this movement back and forth between expansion and contraction. Now, let me give you a couple examples. My kids wake up early and Saturday mornings, we started today's at 6:15, and we're often in the house for a few hours in the morning. My kids are doing Legos. They're playing with Magna-Tiles more or less. They're within two feet of each other for several hours. Now, sometimes they're playing well together for several hours, but sometimes they're only playing well together for a few minutes and they're on top of each other. They need to expand. So we throw on our coats. We go outside and go for a quick scooter ride, run around to the backyard, get room to run and expand and move away from one another. When they're contracting too much, I don't view it as bad behavior or fighting.

I view it as this need to expand without actually realizing it. So, my job isn't to run in and to solve all the arguments it's to help them find the space that they need to breathe, reset, and then eventually come back together. Now the same happens when they're expanding for too long. If they're doing anything without structure and they're playing wildly. Now, some kids can do this for hours and hours and be fine. I noticed in particular, my little one who loves unstructured play, but if she's doing it for too long, sometimes she gets a little bit out of control. And that's my sign as the adult that I need to bring her back in and to contract and do something a little bit quieter, a little bit more focused. Now, as they get older, they start to understand the need to expand and contract more so, and they need less of us to help facilitate that.

But in the early years, thinking about these disputes and arguments more as a change in energy and a need for a shift in space and movement, it can take us as parents from feeling frustrated and irritable, to feeling empowered. Oh, I see you guys are fighting over the Legos. Looks like it's time to move. Looks like it's time to take space from one another. So take that, try expansion and contraction with your kids. File that away as a really amazing tool. It takes a little bit of practice tuning into what your kids need. But once you start to think about these disputes in terms of need for movement and need for space, it can really change things for you. All right, before I move into our Q and A section, I'm gonna bring you a quick one minute word from today's sponsor. The sponsor for today's episode is Derma E.

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And you can use the code "simple 20" to get 20% off your order. All right, let's get to the question for today. This is coming from Anna in San Francisco and has a five and a half year old girl and a three and a half year old boy. She wrote hi Denaye. I'd love to learn how to navigate a situation that occurs at our home on a pretty daily basis with my two kids, my kids spend an hour together in the mornings and about two and a half hours together in the afternoons weekends, they are together all day with my husband and I often they play together well and are able to solve conflicts, but almost every day, we get to a point where one child is not able to regulate themselves and seem to do anything and everything to annoy the other child. It doesn't seem like they have a goal such as to play with them, but rather getting a rise out of making the other one mad.

The behavior often feels out of control. Do your kids ever do this? How do you intervene? Thanks so much for all you do. I love, love, love your podcast. Warmly Anna, Anna. Yes. My kids do this all the time. My kids argue and bicker all the time. So, I'm being fully transparent here. Yes. I would say it's one of my biggest obstacles as a parent is dealing with the sibling relationships. It is a struggle, but it's also not a struggle that I own. The relationship between my kids is the relationship between my kids. I'm not responsible for it in many ways. This relationship is the teaching ground for future intimate relationships. And it's really important for them to bicker and to problem solve and to manage conflict. Even though it looks really ugly sometimes. Now that being said, I don't view it as my role to fix all their problems and to make them like each other.

But I do view it as my role to make sure that everybody's safe. So assuming there's not a safety risk and then working out these conflicts, then I do try to let a lot of it play out when I can't. Now first and foremost, the concept I shared in my something simple today, expansion and contraction is my very favorite tool for managing these relationships. And Anna, it sounds like this might be something that you desperately need as well. You said that your kids play well together, but it gets to a point where they start to annoy each other. They may be contracting and contracting and contracting and then need expansion, but not able to recognize that need and not able to facilitate that need on their own. I think one of the common mistakes that we make when kids get to this point where they need expansion, as we say, stop fighting, or if you keep fighting, you're going to go to your room and sending two kids to their rooms who are fighting.

That works because that's a form of expansion, but it doesn't need to be so punitive. And it doesn't need to be so shameful because the need to expand. Isn't a bad thing. It's a human thing. So when my kids are contracting too long and they start to argue and they start to get under each other's skin and push each other's buttons, instead of getting punitive and getting upset and saying, go to your room, stop fighting. I try to keep my attitude positive. And I say, Oh, it looks like we need to get outside. It looks like we need to expand. I view this as an opportunity to shift the energy and shift the movement in the house. Now I find that working with parents, everybody wants strategies, right? Just tell me exactly what to do. And I do love strategies. I love giving you strategies, expansion and contraction is definitely a strategy that I use all the time.

But empathy in many ways is kind of like a strategy because when I have empathy for my kids, it makes me much calmer. And if I'm calmer, situations don't tend to escalate quite as quickly. So, I gave you the strategy of expansion and contraction, and now I to help to build a little bit of empathy and understand more around the idea of why sibling relationships are so tricky. I shared this example on Instagram, around the holidays, because it was something we were really struggling with. And I'm going to share it with you again today, because I think it really easily illustrates my point. So I have two kids. My son is newly six and my daughter is almost four. And my daughter is incredibly inventive. She loves to create, she loves to make something from nothing. She is truly an innovator. Now she's inventive. And my son is inflexible.

He's a rule follower. He does things by the book. He does things the way that things are supposed to be done. He thinks very, literally this comes to playing with toys as well. So over the holidays, every year we have this plastic little Fisher price nativity scene that we get out. And it is an Epic battle year after year. And I think that this nativity scene very much illustrates the differences in worldviews between my kids. This difference between being inventive and being inflexible. So my son sees this nativity scene as there's one way to set up a nativity scene, right? The baby Jesus goes in the middle. Mary and Joseph are looking down on him. The animals are all standing around the outside. And nativity scene has one arrangement. My daughter, on the other hand, my inventive one, doesn't see it. So literally she likes to switch the baby Jesus out for a gnome.

She likes to bring in unicorns, other fairytale creatures. Sometimes she just likes to lay them all down. That really gets under my son's skin, but she sees this as a toy. And this is a toy that's meant to be played with. The fun of playing is coming up with new ways to play with it, switching things out, changing it up. My son sees this toy as something that is to be played with in one way. Now, this is a difference between being inventive and being inflexible is something that is nearly, constantly at odds between the two of them. My daughter likes to make invitations for a future birthday party where she will take a piece of paper and she doesn't know how to write yet. So, she just scribbles on the paper and she'll bring it to me and read it to me and tell me, it says, mama, I love you really much.

Please come to my birthday party. And then she signs her name, which is just a bunch of scribbles. And when my son sees her doing this, he's like, no, no, no, no, no. That does not say that because he is an early reader. And he knows that these are not words, they're just scribbles. So he very quickly corrects. It does not say that that is not a birthday invitation. That is just scribbles on a paper. There's that inventive versus inflexible. Is he right? Is there a proper way to set up a nativity scene? Yes. Is he right? Are they just scribbles on the paper? Yes, but these constant soul crushing realities are not what my daughter wants or needs to hear. I love her spirit and I love her creativity and I want to nurture that. So it gets to be really complicated when my son is less than nurturing about these traits in his sister.

So, the result is usually him getting upset about her, not doing something correctly, her breaking some little arbitrary rule. Usually he is right in one way, shape or form, but it does impede upon her ability to live and to have fun and to play and to be herself. This is where the empathy comes in. It's not as simple as him just being a jerk or her just trying to push his buttons. I can't just say to them, don't fight because when you have two kids who are so different and disagree on fundamental worldviews saying, don't fight is basically saying two things. Don't talk and don't feel, if you felt really elevated about an argument that you had with your partner or with somebody else. And someone said, don't fight. How hard is it just to cut off your words, to shut your mouth and to shut off your feelings.

It's pretty hard. Even as adults, when we have good develop self-control I like in these two different worldviews in my kids too, having Thanksgiving dinner with a liberal and a conservative at the dinner table, when you're trying to have a relationship with someone who has a very different outlook on life than you. It's tricky. Now, that's as an adult, but as a kid, not only are you trying to have a relationship with someone who has a different worldview than you, but they also have underdeveloped social skills because they're still young. They're still learning how to manage conflict, how to solve problems, how to speak kindly to one another. So those underdeveloped social skills, along with the different worldviews can collide to be really problematic. So in addition to expansion and contraction, I do some role modeling. We'll practice saying things in different ways, and I will sometimes verbalize and give words to help the other child understand the conflict a little bit better.

Here's an example of that. When my daughter was frustrated about my son changing the nativity scene, because he would always come back and quote unquote, fix it to the right way. I would explain to her, he thinks that there's one way to put the nativity scene together because he's seen that way in books. And he seen that way in churches. So he feels like this is the right way, but you'd like to change it up. You like to do things a little bit differently to bring in new characters and switch them other ones out and okay, too. That's how you like to play. I'll try to bring a little bit of understanding on both ends of the spectrum. And then I'll turn to my son and say, I know you think that there is one way to set that nativity scene up. And I know you've seen it in books, and I know you've seen it in churches, but the truth is she loves to play in new and creative ways.

And it's really fun to see what she comes up with. And we have to give her the space to learn and to play and to grow. And that means stepping back and letting her play with it the way that she wants to play with it when it's her turn. Now, you could call these teachable moments, but sometimes teachable moments don't always feel very effective because the next day they go back to the same argument all over again. So we have to think about them as planting seeds, we're planting these seeds to understand that people view things differently and people have different motivations, but it is baby steps, teeny tiny baby steps. As our kids are learning how to be socialized. They're modeling the relationships that they have around them. They're starting to develop a tolerance for other worldviews. So this is a big, big task. And as parents, we need to take a lot of deep breaths, give them space to work it out when we can and help them to understand that yes, intimate relationships are challenging. They will always be challenging.

And sometimes We get frustrated with each other, but we still love each other. And that is a quote that I try to end every argument with in our house. Sometimes we get frustrated with each other, but we still love each other. I hope you found this helpful. If you have screenshot this episode, post it to your Instagram stories and tag me. I'd love to see you listening to it and hear more about your thoughts. If you want to stay in touch with Simple Families, go to simplefamilies.com and leave your email address at the top. You'll stay in touch with what's going on in the podcast, on the blog and in the community. And remember tomorrow is our babies eat real food workshops. So February 5th at 2:00 PM, Eastern simplefamilies.com/babies. If you're interested in joining in on that as always, thanks for tuning in. Thanks for listening. And I'll talk to you soon.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.