By Seth Meyers, Psy.D.
When it comes to parenting kids who simply don’t get along with each other, research on divorce comes to mind. Most experts on the topic of divorce—specifically, whether divorce harms children—have found that divorce does harm children unless the marital relationship is extremely conflictual. In other words, if two adults can’t help but to constantly fight and argue in front of the children, the stress of divorce on the children is better than the stress of having to listen to two parents tear themselves apart. I find a similar truth in parenting children who can’t get along.
Overall, I have two such children. Having adopted my two children from the foster system, my little boy was four and my little girl was two when we first fostered and then ultimately adopted them. Understandably, my four-year old was far more impacted by the losses and changes in his early life; my daughter, in fact, doesn’t remember anything before she came into our lives. I have found that my son feels angry and envious that his younger sister didn’t experience some of the negative things he experienced in his early life—for example, his mother breaking his arm when she was high on methamphetamine. The difference in my two children’s early experiences may be a source of anger for my son for years to come. This issue fortifies a major reason why my children overall do not get along. For many parents, the reasons are different.
Sometimes children don’t get along because their personalities are so different. A hyperactive child, for instance, will often get into endless mini battles with a passive child. Another child whose mood is prone to sadness or anger may face similar conflict with another child whose mood is more level and peace-prone. The point: When parents have children who tend to argue more than they tend to get along, it’s important for parents to step in.
Write the house rules and post them in a room for the whole family to see.
Kids are concrete. They need expectations delievered clearly or else the expectations will not be met. You can’t include the house rule “Everyone must get along,” but you can include “If you can’t get along, find an activity that you can do by yourself.” I tell my children that they have to learn to live together, but they don’t have to always play together. I tell them they need to give each others space when they can’t get along. After all, isn’t that what adults do? Parents and parenting experts sometimes preach that every issue must be worked through and that the children must always find a way to make it work, but such rules are too absolutist when it comes to children whose personalities (or anger toward each other) are at vast odds. No matter what, make sure you include a rule in your (written) house rules about what to do when arguing continues and have regular family meetings where expectations are reinforced.
Encourage independent play.
One of the best things parents can do—regardless of whether their children get along or not—is to encourage activities that require focus. When your kids are younger and aren’t getting along, set one child up with a new activity and tell them they can each have a turn in half-hour increments. This is a great time for activities that require play with their hands; pull out clay, paints or concrete chalk. Set your other child up in the bathtub or get that child focused on another activity in a separate area. Solo play like this is a great way to relieve children from the stress of fighting and to encourage self-soothing play.
Mediate play with your children in intimate, supervised activities.
If there were a purple heart for parenting, it would be presented to parents who spend a lot of time with their children engaging in cooperative, healthful activities: gardening, cooking, making small household repairs, and creating arts and crafts. Another very helpful technique to try when your kids are fighting—and you have the time—is to set up a shared activity that you can do with your arguing children. For example, if you’re painting, ask one child to get two paint brushes for everyone, and ask the other child to get cups of water for cleaning the brushes. Modeling how to help the other—as opposed to seeing him or her as competition—reminds everyone involved that they belong to the same group, that they are on the same side.
Point out mood issues if your kids are older and they constantly argue.
With older children, things can spiral out of control much faster. With older kids, the situation can get far more aggressive quickly, resulting in name-calling marathons or even physical violence. If you can figure out the root of the argument, point it out the aggressor. “Listen, if you’re in an angry mood, is it fair to take that out on someone else? If you feel angry, go for a run around the block, call a friend to vent, or do something else.” Helping adolescents to better understand their mood and feelings is critical. Because they are older, they have the capacity for greater insight into their behavior. Make your bottom line clear: “If you can’t get along, separate yourselves.”
My heart goes out to the parents of children who, for the most part, don’t get along. This sad reality makes life at home much more stressful, and it requires much closer parental supervision. If your kids don’t get along and you and/or your co-parent model a good enough relationship, don’t beat yourself up by telling you that they should get along. The truth is that some personalities are so discrepant that two people may always be challenged to get along. Tell your children that you hope that they learn to accept each better as they get older, and then hope for and model peacefulness as much as possible.