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My daughters, aged 6 & 3-and-a-half, go through phases of intense rivalry. I generally hold an attitude of not getting involved, but sometimes the fight either

  1. requires intervention as tempers flare out of control or someone may get hurt, or,

  2. I simply cannot stand listening to incessant arguments any longer (e.g. in the car, where there is limited opportunity for physically giving each other space).

I'd like to provide guidance on helping them work things out, but I often feel out of my depth and find it tricky to do so without appearing to take sides (or end up joining a shouting match!).

Any pointers?

  • Gwen, welcome to the site! I can relate... Did you see this related question? Perhaps that would be a good start until more answers start comming in. – Stephie Jul 23 '15 at 10:01
  • Don't worry... Let go with time. Everything changes with the time. :) – apm Jul 23 '15 at 11:05
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    One minor question: Do they share a room? (There are always going to be times where they need to be in the same space, of course, I'm just wondering if there's anywhere that is just theirs.) – Acire Jul 23 '15 at 12:40
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Kids aren't very good at listening or telling exactly what they need. This can get confusing/frustrating, especially with two kids try to talk to each other. Solving problems is something that needs to be learned.

  • girl 1 has a need
  • girl 1 doesn't say her need very well
  • girl 2 doesn't listen well to what was say
  • girl 2 understand something completely different
  • rivalry occurs between the two

Your job isn't to solve their problem (even if it's tempting or seems like the easy solution). Your job is to be the mouth and ears of each kid. Repeate what they say, tell them what you see, clarify what they want to say, verbalize their feelings. It'll take time and you shouldn't need to punish anyone but be strict if they hit or call names.

"I see girl1 is not happy"
"Seems like girl2 wants to play with a toy but girl1 is already using it"
"girl2 wants to play with girl1 but girl1 wants to be alone"

Also, learning to wait their turn, asking before taking, stopping when someone says no; are important. You shouldn't need to force someone to share either. I haven't been in a situation with strong rivalry, but these worked well with small one.

When they understand each other, they can start finding solutions. Let them try to find solution and decide if it's good or not but guide them.

It's also good to talk about these things when they are calm/happy. Together and alone 1-on-1 time. "You know, yesterday you had a big fight with your sister. What happened? What would you like to happen?".

Since you say the rivalry is intense. It might be built up of over the years. It can be hard for a 4-5yo to understand the behavior of a 2yo that wants to touch/see everything. Or a 3yo to see more attention given to a 1yo.

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    +100 for "When they understand each other, they can start finding solutions." – user7678 Jul 23 '15 at 13:37
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Facilitate communication between them. A preschooler especially is still figuring out how to articulate feelings, wants, and needs, but a six year old isn't perfect either. (The hardest part of this is that you have to decipher what the true feeling/want/need is that underlies the argument!)

Try to redirect when you see a conflict beginning. This can be:

  • a simple distraction (asking about something completely irrelevant to their conflict, like "what snack should we have" at home, or "how many bananas do you think we need" at the grocery store)
  • a verbal warning to stop a trigger behavior ("stop poking your sister," "don't make rude faces," "that isn't your toy and you need to give it back")
  • setting a limit if there's a sharing dispute ("you can play with the tablet for ten minutes, then it's your sister's turn")
  • removing the object of contention if they won't get along ("since you could not agree on taking turns, nobody gets to play")
  • enforcing a physical separation (at least a few feet so they can't reach each other — quite hard in a car, but is feasible in most other situations)

If one or both is tired/hungry, they will lose their temper significantly faster and be harder to calm down. But the quicker you can redirect, the less situations there should be that escalate into very serious fights (ones that risk damaging children, property, or your peace of mind).

One long-term idea that may help is defining and defending personal space. Sharing is hard for most kids, but it gets harder when there are few things they really feel is their very own — my sons share a room and have arguments about toys, clothes, and space that they'd never consider arguing about with their sister (who has her own room). The need to fight for these things are mine seems stronger when the personal space is smaller, and trespassing (even accidentally) will get a stronger reaction. If they share a room and toys, this gets more challenging — find ways to emphasize some things that are "just theirs" and help defend that personal space ("you know that this is your sister's [thing], please respect her property and ask permission if you want to borrow it"). Sharing is an important skill, but so is respecting ownership or right to privacy.

If there seems to be a lot of underlying resentment about inequitable treatment, be honest about differences that lead to different privileges and responsibilities.

Why does OlderSister get to watch that TV show / stay up later?!?
She's older and so she can do different things. But she also has to do more work around the house!

Why does YoungerSister not have to do homework / set the table?!?
She's younger and so she doesn't have as many responsibilities. But she also doesn't get to do some fun things that you can!

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