“One of my children is having such a hard time that he’s making everyone in the family miserable. How do we keep our kids from each others’ throats when we’re all home, all the time?!”

Family life is hard enough in ordinary times, because kids are still learning basic skills to get their needs met without attacking others …. and, truth be told, so are parents.

So right now, after a year of forced togetherness, it’s not surprising that many homes feel like a pressure cooker. If your children are at each others’ throats and you’re getting fed up, you’re not alone.

It’s natural to snap and start shouting threats. But since all humans rebel against control, you just end up escalating the drama. And since punishment doesn’t address the emotions and needs causing your children’s “bad” behavior, this approach ends up creating more antagonism.

Luckily, there’s a better way. Address the needs and feelings that are driving the behavior, and you can nip it in the bud. Here are five family habits you can structure into your life in quarantine to help with emotions, meet needs and heal sibling rivalry. These family habits insure more peace and affection all around, whether your kids are still at home or back to school and activities.

1. Disarm Sibling Rivalry and Teach Social Skills.

No matter much siblings love each other, most will at times experience a twinge of worry that their parents might love their sibling more. At times of threat (and yes, a pandemic qualifies), this worry intensifies, and fighting may intensify. You can address this by making sure that each child feels uniquely appreciated, and that you’re not unwittingly increasing sibling rivalry by comparing your kids or intervening in conflicts so that one child feels like they “lost.” This is also a terrific opportunity to teach your kids the skills to work through their differences in ways that bring them closer.

Special Time with each child is more important than ever, so they feel connected, seen, valued and safe. It also gives them a safe place to play out their worries, or bring them up verbally.

Empathizing with each child — without making the other one wrong — helps kids feel acknowledged, even when they can’t get what they want. “It sounds like YOU want some peace and quiet. And YOU want to dance to your music! This is a tough situation. I wonder how we can work this out?”

When tensions start to rise, step in to uphold standards of respect, without shame or blame: “You two sound really mad at each other. You can tell each other what you need without attacking each other.”

Instead of rushing in to correct and protect, coach your kids to stand up for themselves. “I hear some words that could really hurt. You can tell your sister ‘I don’t like it when you tease me.'”

If one child persists, be your child’s backup to uphold your family rules and teach repair: “Our family rule is Be Kind. Your brother is telling you how he felt when you used those words. I wonder what you can do to make things better with your brother now?”

Never compare your children, which increases competitiveness.

Parents often increase sibling rivalry because they don’t know how to intervene in conflicts without creating more resentment. The articles linked to at the end of this post will help you take your parenting game up a notch. And don’t miss the section of the Aha! website that’s devoted to Parenting Siblings.

2. Insure personal space.

One effect of being cooped up together is that it’s easy to get on each other’s nerves. Everyone needs some downtime to “just be” with themselves and replenish their batteries. Yes, extroverts need this time too, although they often don’t need as much of it. Without some downtime, all children get over-stimulated, which eventually leads to crash and burn.

Teach your child the words to help them disengage from siblings when they’ve had enough time together: “I really like playing with you. Right now I’m starting to feel crabby so I need some time by myself.”

Be your child’s backup by diverting the sibling: “Your brother loves you and will play with you later. Right now he is going to read. What would you like to do?”

Be sure that everyone in your family has a way to withdraw to a quiet, cozy space when they need to. You may want to designate one room of your home as the “Quiet Room.” If your home is big enough, each person can have a room that is theirs, to withdraw to.

This is the time for headphones, so no one is subjecting the rest of the family to their screen and music preferences.

You do need a family schedule to stay sane. Be sure that Quiet Time or Me Time is part of each day, for everyone.

3. Address Social Isolation

Many children are suffering because of the social isolation. They miss playing with their friends. They miss being part of their group of schoolmates. Unfortunately, playing with their sibling sometimes isn’t much of a substitute — it just reminds them of what they’re missing, because the sibling can’t hope to replicate their friendships.

Set up regular video “playdates” or hangouts for your child who misses their friends. It’s not the same, of course, but there are ways to help kids past the awkwardness so they can connect. Younger kids might each use clay to create monsters, demonstrating for each other how the monsters roar or fly. Older kids can play chess, or chat while they draw. Kids who are into pretend play can come up with stories together; kids who are into building things can show each other their latest creations. Kids can even do science experiments or baking while their friend follows the same instructions, chatting, keeping each other on track, and comparing their results.

If your child’s school has a remote school Morning Circle or an afternoon Closing Circle, it’s worth structuring your day to be sure your child gets to participate. (Don’t feel guilty about keeping schoolwork to a minimum in between, especially for kids who need more supervision. Your whole family might be better off spending a couple of hours outside.)

Step up your connection time with your children to help them play with each other, which meets everyone’s need for contact — even if it isn’t your child’s first preference. That means working WITH them to build a fort, so you can smooth the rough edges in the way they relate. Remember, the more fun they have together, the better their relationship and the more they’ll want to play together. So think of yourself as the fun fairy who’s helping them find more positive moments together.

4. Balance Individual Needs

Your children’s needs may well clash right now, so try to articulate and address those differences without making anyone wrong.

“You are just full of energy this morning, aren’t you? It looks to me like you sister isn’t really awake yet, and she needs a little time to herself. Why don’t you and I head up to the park for awhile? You can play with your sister later, when she’s ready.”

If one child wants more interaction than the other one, try setting up daily “Special Time” between these two siblings. You may have to help them find an activity that they’ll both enjoy, but research shows that when children have fun together, their relationship improves, even if they fight at other times. Of course, after their “Sibling Special Time” you’ll need to protect your child’s right to time without her sibling, which will mean that you find a way to keep the sibling occupied.

When one child is bugging another and you suspect they’re just bored, step in to meet their need for connection: “Are you out of hugs again? Let’s see what we can do about that!”

In normal times, it is not your older child’s job to babysit your younger child. They’re busy with schoolwork, peers, activities and important developmental tasks. But these are not normal times and we all need to pitch in as a family. If you need to work to keep your paycheck coming in, there’s nothing wrong with enrolling your older child to watch over younger sibs for short periods of time. But give clear guidelines so they know how to guide the younger child’s behavior appropriately, how to handle specific issues, and when to interrupt you. And be sure to make it worth their while, with appreciation, special privileges, and an increase in allowance.

5. Help with Big Emotions.

If your child is surly to everyone, they’re clearly having a hard time. Children are not immune to the fear infecting our entire society, even if they seem more concerned about that party they’re missing. They may not be able to articulate it, but every child picks up on the tension their parent is feeling, and it makes them anxious. A few positive family habits can help kids work through their worries, reduce everyone’s anxiety and make it easier to get along with each other.

Roughhousing reduces the stress hormones circulating in the body and should be on your daily schedule. Since roughhousing and laughter also increase bonding hormones, find ways for your kids to laugh as they’re physically active together.

Talk to your child about their feelings about the virus pandemic. Many children are still secretly worried that their parents could get sick and die. Expressing fears, even unreasonable ones, to a caring witness has a way of making them more manageable. And when we allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge our big emotions, we start to gain conscious control over them, so their power begins to dissipate.

Welcome all emotions. Remember that behind anger you will usually find fear or sadness, so if your child is angry, resist taking the bait. Breathe deeply, stay calm, and invite your child to show you all that upset: “You must be so upset to speak to me like this… Tell me more, Sweetheart…. I’m listening.” The more safety you can create with your tone, the more likely that your child will move past the anger to the tears and fears beneath. (If your child gets stuck in anger but can’t cry.)

Keep reminding yourself that kids pick up on what we’re feeling. If you’re a nervous wreck, or fighting with your partner, your children will feel the stress. Take responsibility for what you’re radiating. That means developing a repertoire of practices to manage your own stress. 

  • Turn off the news. It just increases everyone’s anxiety.
  • Teach kids to manage their worries, with skills like Stop, Drop Breathe, Focusing on what they CAN control, rather than what they can’t, and noticing how upsetting thoughts lead to upsetting feelings.
  • Start a family mindfulness practice, like listening to a guided meditation together every day (see #9 at this link for resources: 10 Solutions To Save Your Sanity During the Coronavirus Pandemic School Closures)  or a gratitude practice at dinner every night.

This has been a grueling year, which means that you’re a saint if you’re not more tense than usual. That means that you can expect tension between yourself and your children. Between yourself and your partner. And of course, between your children, who after all have a less-developed prefrontal cortex, meaning they have a harder time managing their impulses.

So build in family habits that help everyone work though big emotions. Be disciplined to do whatever you need to, to keep yourself centered and your courage strong. And most of all, give yourself and everyone around you some grace. We can get through this hard time in a way that makes us stronger: With love.

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.


Image courtesy of cottonbro.