Fights (Part 2/2): Preventing Them in the First Place

Fights (Part 2/2):

Preventing Them In the First Place

In the first entry, we laid out a plan for dousing a physical flare-up between siblings.

Over time, that kind of calm leadership models behavior kids take on themselves. They learn that conflict -- the unavoidable marker of human interaction -- is a chance to get in touch with feelings and needs; to express them assertively; to open up to another's perspective; to make repairs and, finally, to grow closer. 

Now, what else can we do to keep the landscape so well irrigated that fires are less likely to occur?

The most important thing is to keep practicing all of the P.E.T. skills! 

When parents have better relationships with their children, those children have happier relationships with each other. When parents have more negative or punitive relationships with each child, the children behave more aggressively and selfishly with each other.
— Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, page 1

Dr. Laura states that all of her Chapter 8 "Tools to Prevent Rivalry and Nurture Bonding" are just "icing" that "won't help much" unless we've baked a cake laden with parental self-regulation, empathic listening and peaceful conflict resolution methods.

So reread (or listen to - see below) Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, take the course or attend a refresher! Or gift yourself the delicious sensation of being Active Listened by a personal P.E.T.(+) coach like mine, Kathryn Tonges, and the chance to think through solutions with her.

Strengthening connections with each child grounds them in love so they feel emotionally generous with each other. As I draw on the wisdom of parenting experts, I'll illustrate using my favorite guide, the Behavior Window. 

Get Good at Active Listening

“. . . unless children experience feeling understood, they don’t learn to feel safe with emotions, so other people’s upset feelings scare them. Your commitment to empathize with your child, therefore, is an important determinant of his ability to offer understanding to his sibling.”
— Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, page 13

If our daughter is upset -- regardless of whether her siblings are involved -- we can strive to Active Listen, that is, to reflect back what she is telling us along with the difficult emotions she is experiencing. This acknowledgment releases her from the grip of negative feelings and she comes to realize that the key is to accept them and let them run their course. Afterwards, she is better able to unravel her problem and absorb other viewpoints.

AL also helps her to feel securely attached: "The experience of being heard and understood by another person is so satisfying that it invariably makes the sender feel warm toward the listener." (Gordon, P.E.T., page 66)

That closeness and the experience that gives rise to it is so basic that it topped the list of five recommendations of the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard School of Education:

1. Empathize with your child and model how to feel compassion for others.

Kids develop these qualities by watching us and experiencing our empathy for them. When we show that we truly know our children by understanding and reacting to their emotional needs, exhibiting interest and involvement in their lives, and respecting their personalities, they feel valued. Children who feel valued are more likely to value others and demonstrate respect for their needs. When we treat other people like they matter, our kids notice, and are more likely to emulate our acts of caring and compassion.

So even when they're fuming at their sibling -- and we very well might want to label it as pettiness, meanness, smallness, ridiculous nit-picking or endless score-keeping! -- we try not to be triggered. Letting them have their feelings is healthy and gets us, paradoxically, to our goal:

Insisting upon good feelings between the children [leads] to bad feelings. Allowing for bad feelings between the children [leads] to good feelings.

-- Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Siblings Without Rivalry, page 49

Let me be clear. We're allowing all feelings, not necessarily all behavior. They may not be fighting yet, but how do we set limits? We still have to meet the needs of our other children (as well as our own), and there is a way to Active Listen while doing just that.

"You're upset that the baby is still crying and your ears hurt. Shouting is not ok -- it scares her very much." 

"Oh, honey, you're so sad our Special Time is up. It's hard because you loved playing together. Sometimes it's nice to imagine how it would be to have me all to yourself all day, every day. And I do have to run to pick up your brother from school; he gets nervous when I'm late."

So Active Listening is #1 to work on! If you need extra help because sometimes you're just so darn annoyed or angry, check out the Active Listening SOS section below.

Know When to Facilitate When Children Own Problem

In line with P.E.T. -- which encourages us to see sibling strife as a Child Owns Problem scenario -- is Faber & Mazlish's grading of different scenarios:

Level I. Normal Bickering.

1. Ignore it. Think about your next vacation.

2. Tell yourself the children are having an important experience in conflict resolution.

Level II. Situation Heating Up. Adult Intervention Might Be Helpful.

1. Acknowledge their anger. "You two sound mad at each other!"

2. Reflect each child's point of view. "So Sara, you want to keep holding the puppy, because he's just settled down in your arms. And you Billy, feel you're entitled to a turn too."

3. Describe the problem with respect. "That's a tough one. Two children and only one puppy."

4. Express confidence in the children's ability to find their own solution. "I have confidence that you two can work out a solution that's fair to each of you . . . and fair to the puppy."

5. Leave the room. [You may decide to remain close by for support.]

Level III. Situation Possibly Dangerous.

1. Inquire. "Is this a play fight or a real fight?" (Play fights are permitted. Real fights are not.)

2. Let the children know: "Play fighting by mutual consent only." (If it's not fun for both, it's got to stop.)

3. Respect your feelings: "You may be playing, but it's too rough for me. You need to find another activity."

Level IV. Situation Definitely Dangerous! Adult Intervention Necessary.

1. Describe what you see. "I see two very angry children who are about to hurt each other."

2. Separate the children. "It's not safe to be together. We must have a cooling-off period. Quick, you to your room, and you to yours!" (For another run-down of a possible response, see my first post in this series.)

-- Faber & Mazlish, Siblings Without Rivalry, pages 143-144

When kids are expressing themselves only using blameful You-Messages -- "Get away from me, you stupid slob. Look at the mess you made!" -- we can become a "transmission belt" to help each child identify his or her feelings and needs in the presence of the sibling. 

"So, Diana, you are exasperated by your sister's spilling the water near your painting! And Karen, you don't like being called that name because you were just curious and didn't mean to knock over the cup."

Sometimes, especially with little ones, it's not enough just to AL them to each other. We may have to move in with a suggestion for how Diana can solve her problem. "Oh darling, you are very worried your sister is going to harm your watercolor painting. And you're really proud of it! Let's find a place where you can work safely and look for something fun for Karen to do while she's waiting for her turn!"

(Later on, you can help both of them use I-Messages with each other. (See #7. Consulting in my first post.) Diana, for example, can say next time, "Karen, I'm nervous with you here! I really love my painting and I'm not finished yet!" She can also decide to call you if she needs help.)

Prevent While in the No Problem Area

This is where a lot of work gets done. I've heard parents groan that this entails "destroying" perfectly good time but if we think about it -- or even recall our own childhood -- stress between brothers and sisters can be intense with long-lasting implications. Upshot? It makes sense to be proactive.

Consider the advantages of this kind of "preventive maintenance:"

  • Your child feels treasured just for being herself, which is the best possible antidote to sibling rivalry.
  • Your child feels deeply connected to you, which helps him want to cooperate with you, so your life is more peaceful.
  • Your child feels safe, which helps him regulate himself.
  • Your child gets your help with her emotions before she falls apart, which minimizes those crisis moments when both children urgently need you.
  • Your children enjoy more frequent positive interactions with each other, which research shows leads to a closer sibling relationship, which leads to less conflict, which leads to more frequent positive interactions -- a positive cycle.

-- Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, page 37

Not only do we think of ways to change the environment or schedule, we also consider the words we can use when we are speaking to our children. Moreover, Consulting (discussed in the first post) is best done while in the delightful No Problem box.

MODIFY THE ENVIRONMENT                        

Become a sleuth. After a fight has been resolved, reflect on what might have been done differently to meet needs beforehand.


Is one child particularly prone to low blood sugar? Then add high-protein snacks and drinks to keep energy levels up. (One mom regaled us with how her son finally asked her to stop with the chicken breasts in the car after school!)

Do all the kids need a safe, private spot? Perhaps you can create a peace corner where kids can use a fidget spinner, practice an inversion with legs up the wall or draw a picture of their upset.


Hyperactive sibling getting on another's nerves? Forgo the nightly juicebox perhaps.

Do your kids need more personal space? One couple put up a half wall in the shared bedroom of their sons.


If we're still in the NP area but we sense something brewing, consider calling a time-out in the sports sense. Think about it -- coaches don’t give time-outs to the other team; instead, they use them to regroup before things get worse, to redirect the team. They're non-punishing & non-isolating and give us a chance to -- especially important with younger ones -- anticipate needs and change things around to fulfil them. (Read more in Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting, page 236.)

So with a “Time-out! Freeze!” we might decide to:

  • Tone down the activity level -- Meet under the fuzzy throw blanket or let one child have some alone time with a special baseball cap signaling that.
  • Redirect behavior before it gets destructive -- I sure wish I had known this. I distinctly remember passively watching little Jake toddle up to Harrison and bite his hand. Today, I'd swoop in! "Oh Jake, you seem upset about something. And we don't bite in our family. You can tell Harrison how mad you are using your words! Say, 'I don't like that Harrison!'" It's not a punishment to stop a kid from attacking his brother, it’s setting a limit to help him gain control, express his feelings and be guided toward another way to express his frustration. By speaking calmly, making eye contact and holding Jake as gently as possible, I could have prevented an escalation.

A really important way to change the environment is to work the schedule to meet everyone's needs for different types of time. When we are out of balance, children and adults will try to get their time needs met, no matter what. One young son started acting up whenever the mother sat down to nurse the baby -- negative 1-1 attention was better than none! 

Here are three considerations to keep in mind as you manage your family's schedule.

Get Alone Time Yourself

I love the image of cups that runneth over.

Of course, if we're the fountain filling everyone's cups, we must ensure that we are squarely situated over a source of water. That's done through finding time on our own to recenter.

It's not selfish at all. It's obligatory. And smart. if there ever was a gift that keeps on giving, this is it. When we return with a lower Line of Acceptance, we are more able to take things in stride and be patient and big-hearted when our kids need it.

Miss painting? Miss writing? Miss dancing? Been meaning to go to the local trampoline park for some jumping? What on earth are we waiting for before we do the things that bring us joy?

Consider mindfulness too. First, it's zero bucks so can't beat that. Second, it makes the "P.E.T. pause" -- to ask Who Owns the Problem? and then to choose a response -- that much easier. This is on top of its myriad effects on well-being

Schedule Child's One-on-One Time with Each Parent

Right after we get some time for ourselves, we should be proactively setting aside time for each kid to connect with each parent.

At the heart of sibling rivalry is a set of profound and universal questions: Am I loved? Truly, absolutely loved? Am I wanted? Am I special? Am I powerful? Will my parents stop loving me if they start to love that other kid?
— Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting, page 259

Before groaning, let me challenge you to realize that fuzzy warm feelings make our job a whole lot nicer too! Why else are we pulling the crazy hours if not for those yummy moments where we want to stop time?

Plus, "[w]hen children feel liked, seen, and enjoyed by us, their natural instinct to cooperate and connect is awakened," says Stiffelman in Parenting with Presence, page 146. They are better able to control impulses because they want something more -- to stay in our good graces. Such self-regulation makes our job so much more enjoyable.

Here are some ideas for implementing one on one time but please don't just take my word -- check out the books below!

  • Schedule "special time" with each child into your phone -- 10 minutes a day is a good target. Ask your child what he wants to do, follow his lead and play without having any particular agenda. Screen time is out. So is reading. So are projects like baking muffins. 
  • Plan to spend an extra 15-20 minutes at night if your child tends to open up at bedtime.
  • When we pick them up after a separation, we want to emotionally collect our child, not just their bodies, so turn off the podcast before they jump in the car.
  • One participant decided that, because her son was born on June 5, she and her husband would take turns on the 5th of every month to have a dinner date or living room camp out complete with sleeping bags.
  • Work in some roughhousing (not tickling) -- check out Patty Wipfler's roughhousing games and their rationale.
  • Morning love fest -- If you surprise each child with a snuggle meant just for him or her, you reconnect after the separation of nighttime and fill his or her cup without them having to ask.

Schedule Child's One-on-One Time with Each Sibling

Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson cite recent studies that indicate:

"[T]he best predictor for good sibling relationships later in life is how much fun the kids have together when they're young. The rate of conflict can even be high, as long as there's plenty of fun to balance it out. The real danger comes when the siblings just ignore each other. There may be less tension to deal with, but that's also a recipe for a cold and distant relationship as adults."

-- The Whole Brain Child, page 133

This may involve mixing and matching if you have more than two siblings and especially if you are trying to shake them free of a triangle situation. Here are some ways to create positive vibes and memories:

  • Campout on the balcony just the two of them every first Friday of the month 
  • Sibling holiday (halfway between their birthdays) where you toast their relationship
  • "Special Sibling Time" -- This can be hard if there's an age spread or a great variance in interests, but look for some way they can engage in a common activity every day. If the time can involve oxytocin -- like laughing, romping outdoors, dancing, singing, roughhousing or snuggling -- all the better!
  • If they are playing happily, let them be! (Almost as sacred a rule as Don't wake a sleeping baby.)

Be Liberal with Positive I-MESSAGES

I-Messages describe our feelings and experience -- they let children come to know us and what we want and value (and that includes them!). We can use this form of honest communication as another route to more sibling closeness.

Positive I-Ms strengthen relationships by sharing our gratitude for or pleasure in our kid's behavior or mere existence.

"I love starting my day singing silly songs with you like this."

"Thank you for waiting while I replied to three emails!" 

"I noticed that you ran and got Mr. Bump from the refrigerator for Paolo. I appreciated that help! I bet he did too." (That last bit is more like a Declarative I-Message stating what you believe.)

Be generous with these! Research shows healthy relationships need 5-9 positive interactions for every negative one. Try Stiffelman's "Love Flooding" exercise: Write down at least 10 things you cherish about your daughter, read it aloud and then gift her the list. (I don't think that's headed for the circular file!)

And there's the one that each child wants to hear, the one that is sorely needed to replace "I love you all the same." (Faber and Mazlish explain: "To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely -- for one's own special self -- is to be loved as much as we need to be loved." (page 69))

“I fell in love with you before you were even born! There’s a spot in my heart that’s so big and only you can fill it; it's always there no matter who else I let into my heart! I’m so glad to be your daddy/mommy!”

Remember to Use Preventive I-Messages

You can use these to start a preventive Problem-Solve, e.g. "I'm worried that when we get to the park, you both are going to want to use the special twirly thing like last time. I wonder if you have any ideas for how it can go smoother this time and we can all have fun."

That brings me to . . . 

Use the NP Area for Problem-Solving

While I did discuss Problem-Solving as a response to fighting in the first post, let's remember that we also have the option of a planned Method III Problem-Solve.

In P.E.T. in Action, Gordon showcases how a mother helped her three children (8, 6 and 4) address what she called "more and more physical and verbal abuse" among them. She started on a morning when all were feeling good and reports the following:

"[T]hey labeled it . . . Name-Calling, Teasing, Hitting, Kicking, Complaining. Incidentally, the boys were not satisfied to leave it at just the physical, more overt interaction. My daughter does very little of this. But she contributes her fair share more subtly and, hence, the labels of 'name-calling' and 'complaining.' I was delighted as the problem really did involve all of us and if one felt they didn't contribute to the problem, then a vested interest in the solution wouldn't be there.

Anyway, using the blackboard and the same process, we arrived at some conclusions. They felt that they needed to do some 'rough-housing' as long as it was in fun, and that was to be done outside. When they were fighting and using any of the above labels, they were to separate and go to their rooms to 'cool off.' And instead of calling names or complaining, they were to practice stating 'I-messages' -- what really upset them -- instead of using names or inappropriate griping.

I transferred our conclusions to a chart, which is not in the playroom and we refer to it frequently. I'm not pretending that there are never any more hassles, but there has been a lot of improvement and I'm convinced because we shared in the process rather than Mom handing down an ultimatum . . . 

Incidentally, using the blackboard seemed very effective, particularly for my younger ones. They could actually see each step rather than trying to absorb it all auditorily even though they couldn't read all the words."

-- P.E.T. in Action, page 241.

I hope this prevention post has helped! Please comment below with other strategies you are using with good results or ask me any questions you may have.

Active Listening SOS

It can be hard, especially on a day that hasn't been going our way, to summon up the qualities of an effective helper.  

It's difficult sometimes to make room in our heart for the stuff that can happen between brothers and sisters. We just want to Roadblock! ("Can you get a grip? Do you understand how awesome your life is? Stop complaining and man up to be the big brother. Once your little brother is old enough, I'll ask him to pitch in too!")

We know it makes sense to Active Listen but our Line of Acceptance is jacked way up. How do we get ourselves to a better space? 

What comes to mind, always, is self-compassion:

The truth is, parenting as well as we can is always hard — really, truly, the hardest thing any of us has ever done. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. Too often we’re pushed to put our own needs second, or third, or — unsustainably — even off the list. Raising children challenges us to rise above our natural human feelings of need and want, to give, give, give to another human who is too young to show any gratitude.
— Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, pages xxi-xxii

Along with being gentle with ourselves, we can set a strong intention because, at some point, each of us is in charge of managing our own emotions.

This involves deciding which thoughts we are going to believe. Is it going to be: 

This child must be taught a lesson RIGHT NOW and it better sink in this time, or else!


Oh boy, this is really bad but it's actually not an emergency. Let me calm down by breathing in "1-2-3" and breathing out "P-E-T." Where's that Behavior Window so I can look at my options?

If Active Listening is impossible because you are just so annoyed or angry with your child's state of being, make a plan to support yourself. There are many roads to self-regulation and self-healing -- find yours and keep on it because it can only get easier!

One thing to consider is this:

"The basic method of getting our own cup filled is pretty simple: Find someone who will listen to you . . . Most of us have not been listened to enough."

-- Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting, page 275

See my Perfectly Good Day series for other tools that have worked for me.

This commitment to ourselves is a must if we're serious about helping siblings get along:

“Children of parents who regulate their emotions learn to manage their own feelings, and therefore their behavior — including towards their siblings. They can calm themselves more easily, so they fight less. They still get jealous, but they have more internal resources to manage their mixed feelings in a healthy way, so the affection has a chance to win out over the rivalry.”
— Markham, page 4

Sending fortifying thoughts your way!

Catherine xo


Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Thomas Gordon -- I hope I've convinced you that practicing P.E.T. day in and day out is the best thing you can do for your kids' relationships with each other. I've linked you to instructions for getting the audiobook.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life by Laura Markham. This book builds on the foundation set in her first book which is truly a must-read -- Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems & Encourage Confidence by Lawrence Cohen.

P.E.T. in Action: How Parent Training Dramatically Improves Family Functioning by Thomas Gordon -- out of print but definitely not out of sync.

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.

Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids by Susan Stiffelman. "We each carry with us the influence of our own upbringing and the often unhealthy strategies we developed to protect our tender hearts." (page 81) No wonder she tells her clients, "Until you begin taking care of yourself, whatever work we do together with regard to your children or family is irrelevant." (page 100) I lapped this book up and look forward to taking her online course soon.

Credits -- Siblings pic (; Peggy O-Mara quote (