When Kids Fight: Are they Really Angry or Afraid?
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Here's a parenting challenge that came up in a recent client session I had; tell me if this sounds familiar:
Mom's morning rules include the car pulling out of the driveway on time, regardless of how ready kids are. Brother is always ready on time, but sister often lags behind. He hates it and badgers and nags her to get ready. The closer departure time gets, the more he freaks out: sister is upset and stressed, they end up fighting, and of course she's not ready! They both end up in trouble; her for being late, and him for antagonizing his sister (sometimes WAY too aggressively).
Morning time has become a daily battleground. "I know to let her make her own mistakes and not interfere, but what do I do about her brother? It's like he's stepping in and doing all the 'wrong' stuff I'm trying so hard to avoid, and he's being a jerk to his sister!"
Sibling fights are the worst! Once, when I complained about my kids' constant bickering to a therapist I love, she told me something that sucked to hear: When kids are angry, they're usually feeling unsafe.
My kids felt unsafe?!?! OMG how? They are totally safe - how could they feel otherwise? But, we all feel threatened sometimes, even when we're really perfectly safe: when we're rejected, embarrassed, excluded, criticized, defeated... we often feel threatened and, let's face it, it can come out as anger: road rage, bickering, passive aggression, snapping at people... humans (including kids) are so good at protecting their tender vulnerabilities with some blazing guns.
So when your child is angry or fighting, they might be feeling insecure.
My client's morning mayhem was a perfect example. Instead of telling her how to consequence the brother for meddling and antagonizing his sister, I wondered, "What is he feeling when he's screaming at his sister?"
She thought he might be worried that she would be upset, lose her temper, or give them a big punishment. Giving him a punitive consequence would only have proven his worry true, ironically! Instead, if she decided that next time, she would immediately take him aside (BEFORE he did something unacceptable), sit with him for a few minutes, give him some love, let him see how calm and un-affected she was by sister's tardiness, and when the time came to leave, send him into the car while she went back to get sister.
Being late, neglecting responsibilities, attacking a sibling, screaming at each other, of course these behaviors need a consequence! But, it's still important to ask: What is the emotional driver behind the behavior?
That is a really hard question to answer. My client couldn't do it at first, and at one point looked me in the eye and said, "How am I supposed to know what he's feeling when he's acting like a crazy person?!?!" Good question! That's why some 3rd party objectivity can be really helpful! You don't have to be one of my clients to get some perspective from me; just email me and let's talk (firstname.lastname@example.org)! I promise you'll walk away with a new view of what's possible for you and your kids.