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How do I get my kids to quit fighting with each other?!
My two daughters fight all the time. They can't be anywhere near each other without a conflict that ends in someone getting hurt. The oldest is seven. She used to be so sweet and good. Now she is horrible, constantly having tantrums that disrupt the entire house.
The four year old has always been tough to manage but she has grown out of the tantrums. Put the two of them together and I want to pull my hair out.
We've tried everything. Spanking. Taking away toys, TV, treats. We've had them in the same room. We've put them in separate rooms. Nothing works. In fact, punishment now seems to make things worse and only escalates my seven year old's bad behavior. Most recently she began swearing at me and told me she hates our family and wants to run away.
I'm at my wit's end.
The immediate reaction from most outsiders in this kind of situation is "Separate them...spank them...beat them...take away everything they like...assert yourself as the parent and let them know who is boss!"
Easier said than done. Obviously.
This kind of immediate discipline in such an escalated situation is going to be completely useless, as you have already admitted. And here is why.
What is Really Going On Here?
My first thought is that there is a basic issue of major disrespect going on here, both to each other and to you. (Because "respect" is such a buzz word in the school system, using it at home is one of those double whammies that gets kids' attention.)
These girls are clearly old enough to know better.
Yes, you need to assert yourself and demand that they change their behavior, but it isn't going to be as simple as a quick spanking or a time out. Because traditional punishment isn't working, you can assume the problem is much deeper than you might suspect.
It sounds like your 7 year old is genuinely angry about something and is seeking control in other areas as a result of something she can't control.
Figure out what is really bothering her. Ask her.
Step One: Identify the Problem and the Consequences
I actually suggest you tackle this problem by sitting down and hashing it out when they aren't fighting. You need to schedule this problem, so that you are the one who has complete control. Pick a time, sit them down, and tell them we (as in "The Family") need to have a serious discussion and to solve a serious problem.
Lay out the behaviors and the attitudes behind them. Guide the discussion toward how this behavior is affecting everyone. Allow the girls to share how they are being affected and you share too. Talk about the real-life consequences of these attitudes, not just the punishment you can create for them. In fact, get the girls to talk about the real-life consequences of the attitudes and resulting behavior.
Step Two: Identify the Reasons for the Problem
This will naturally lead to getting each of the girls to share their feelings. When you can paint a picture of the way the fighting looks from the outside, they will be more likely to focus on why the fight started in the first place. A great tool to use here is the "I feel statement." Teach your girls to express themselves using this sentence:
I feel [insert emotion] when [insert action].
I feel [insert emotion] when you, [name person specifically] [insert action].
A few things to be aware of when using "I feel statements":
- Only one person speaks at a time. No interrupting.
- No arguing with another person's feelings. (No defending yourself.)
- The person speaking must be honest, direct, and objective. Note that the second half of the statement defines an action. Do not let the kids accuse each other of things based on assumptions.
- Use a separate "I feel statement" for each emotion, or each different action.
- Help kids define their feelings by supplying them with the words: frustrated, angry, hurt, lonely, put down, etc.
Step Three: Rebuild
Once each child has had an opportunity to vent a little, discuss the way things should be. Have them paint a verbal picture of the way they want things in the house to look and feel. Have them talk about their expectations for each other, you, and themselves. You need to lay out everyone's "job" in the family.
The four year old is not too young to understand this. But it won't work if it is coming in the midst of the conflict, obviously.
You need to do this (and maybe you will have to do it a lot, or with regularity, don't be surprised if it doesn't work immediately) with as much calm, control, and authority that you have inside you as the mom. Also, do not be surprised if at first, they are not very good at verbalizing how they feel. This is a new approach and is much more difficult than hitting, kicking, screaming, and swearing.
Step Four: Establish Reasonable Consequences
This is now the time to lay out the parental consequences for the next time such behavior is repeated. Review with your kids that their behavior was an inappropriate way to express their feelings. Say, "The next time you are angry at your sister, what are you going to do? And what are you definitely not going to do?"
Follow your child's response with, "That's right, because the next time you choose to fight instead of talk about how you feel, here is what will happen: [insert age-appropriate consequence for each child.]
End by setting a small and immediate goal. This might be something as simple as saying, "If we can make it through bath time tonight without fighting you will receive [insert age-appropriate reward.] Re-evaluate each time you hit a goal check-point. Talk about what is working, what is not working, what needs to change.
Most of all, make them part of the plan, rather than just directing them as to what to do. They need to have some ownership here. They need to be held responsible for the consequences of their behavior, but also have some input on how to change.
Timing is Everything
When sibling fighting in a house has become the norm, it may seem like sitting down and talking calmly will never happen. When you are dealing with issues of anger and control, in-the-moment discipline will simply never work. Your child is not only thriving off the power she feels while beating up her sister, but the power she feels by making you angry as well.
So when is the best time to settle everything?
I have found with my own children, that one of the best times to do it is when they want something else. Not necessarily when they are hungry (and cranky), but maybe right after breakfast on a Saturday, when mine would normally get cartoons. The cartoons get turned off and I tell them, "If you want to get back to cartoons today, you both need to sit down and listen to what Daddy and I have to say. You need to be respectful, you need to listen all the way, and you will not fight with each other or with me and Daddy while we do this. Otherwise, no cartoons, and, we'll try again later."
Another good time for us to "have problems" on my time is just after dinner but before bathtime. Again, this is usually a downtime where mine either play with toys, watch a movie, or play with Daddy.
If you start to inconvenience their fun times, they'll take you even more seriously.
Most of my advice is adapted from the theories of William Glasser, outlined in his book Reality Therapy. Though it is not specifically a parenting book, it is a very short read with very applicable ideas for behavioral change. I have used his approach with great success for six years as counselor, high school teacher, and parent.