Conflict and divisiveness are at the forefront of our news. It is with this uncertainty and instability that we might be more easily drawn into conflicts. Opposing views can lead to posturing with others, while our children, as well as those around us, learn from our example.

Stress in our lives certainly causes us to react rather than thoughtfully respond, although we’re usually more careful, more intentional in suppressing this around our friends and colleagues. It’s often our children who witness and absorb the brunt of our stress, the fallout of our “overflowing plates.” We’re modeling to them how to handle this in their own lives, which translates to having shorter fuses, undermining their ability to tolerate frustration, leading to more conflict.

How we, as parents, treat our children and react to conflict can make a huge difference in how well siblings get along. The same tools can also apply to all our relationships, addressing differences with mutual respect.

So the question is typically: How can I help my kids get along better? Here are some basics, which could probably apply to many relationships:

Don’t play favorites. Parents quickly reveal who they perceive as the “victim” and the “perpetrator,” based on their own childhood experiences and/or agendas. So many factors affect how we filter their conflicts, as well as our own. If you reflect on a recent disagreement you’ve had, perhaps there’s something about your perspective, or the position you assumed, that resonates with childhood memories. We can easily become stuck in the same role, posturing on the same issues, without consciously considering a different approach.

Don’t compare your children to one another. For example, it’s important to avoid saying something like this: “Your sister excels in math. Why can’t you do the same?” Comparing them only germinates resentment, bitterness, competition. Children don’t get to choose their siblings, or when they arrive in the family. Temperament plays a critical role in how well they will adjust to or clash with each other. Even more importantly is how parents respond to their conflicts, whether they play “judge and jury” or support the children in working out their differences.

Each child is unique. Embrace the differences, allowing each child to be who he/she is. Don’t label them or try to fit them into a certain category. Enjoy each of your child’s individual talents and successes.

Provide an environment in which your children can cooperate and collaborate, rather than compete, with each other.

When there is trouble, pay close attention to the time of day, or the activity pattern, to observe when conflicts usually occur. Does fighting often take place before dinner when children are likely hungry, tired, needy (the “arsenic hour”)? Perhaps changing the routine, with an earlier dinner, or a late-afternoon snack, and distraction, might help alleviate the tension.

Being fair is not the same as being equal. If parents believe they need to do or give the same to each child to make it “equal,” they’re not honoring each child’s unique needs, based on age, level of responsibilities, and demands. As children get older, they typically earn more privileges, which can evoke jealousy in younger children. Rather than trying to “fix” those feelings, acknowledge it’s hard to see an older sibling having something that they would also like, connecting to the strong feelings. There’s no way you can give your children what they consider their “fair share” of attention, discipline, time, or responsiveness.

To help encourage more collaboration and peace, plan family activities that are fun for everyone. The more shared activities that provide positive experiences together, the more there’s a buffer when they get into conflict. It’s always easier to resolve differences with those with whom  you share warm memories.

Children need their own space and time for themselves, just as adults do, without sibling involvement. Be sure your children have opportunities to do their own thing, be with their friends, without interference from siblings. It’s important to respect their space, property and boundaries, and for them to know their parents support those.

Listen, truly listen, without judgment or lecturing, to your child’s complaints. See if there is anything you could do differently to ease what’s going on in the family. They might not be so demanding if they know you at least care how they feel and understand their perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their view, just listen and acknowledge their feelings.

When we help children develop the skills to work out their conflicts on their own, their self-esteem and confidence grow. Learning how to compromise, respect one another, divide things fairly, and reach their own solutions will provide important lifelong tools. If parents haven’t learned conflict mediation and they model aggressive behavior with intractable positions when they have differences with someone, children will follow the same course. Our words are never as powerful as our actions (“Do as I say, not as I do!”).

Keep in mind, it doesn’t matter “who started it,” because it takes two for a quarrel. Hold children equally responsible when ground rules are broken. If you are constantly angry at your children, it is no surprise they’re angry at each other! Anger and aggression breeds more of the same. In noticing this, learn how to manage your anger, to ensure you can teach your children how to manage theirs.

With older children, having family meetings is an ideal way for all family members to listen to each other and to work together to make family decisions. If there is frequent fighting between your children, have weekly family meetings to hear what’s at the root of the conflict, focusing on past successes in reducing tensions and engaging in problem-solving to support them reaching resolution. Identify any family dynamics that could be fueling their conflict, also recognizing their need for some time apart from each other.

Keep in mind that sometimes children fight simply to get their parents’ attention. When parents are constantly distracted with screen time, avoiding connecting with their children, it’s no surprise that their behavior becomes more demanding, challenging, aggressive. Just as adults want the attention of a partner, spouse, sibling, or friend, to listen and be fully present, wouldn’t we expect children to want the same?

May this time of transition increase our awareness of the importance of connection and collaboration. Wishing you peace and happiness in the coming year!

“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.” — Fred Rogers