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Blended Families: When Children Fight

Ron Huxley LMFT


As a parent of a blended family, I often get people asking me how my birth children and my stepchildren get along. After seven years together, my answer is not very glamorous: "Just like brothers and sisters. They love each other and they fight with each other." Sounds a lot like your children? That's because fighting between siblings is a common problem or as one comedian put it: "Sibling rivalry is putting any two children in one room together."

While fighting may be common, bloodshed is not necessary and parents can use this difficult situation to teach some important social skills. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in their book "Siblings without rivalry" offer a three step model for dealing with fighting children:

Think of Your Next Vacation

If children are fighting over a toy truck and they are at the point of verbal disagreement but not physical warfare than the best choice of the parent at this time is to not intervene but allow the children to try and work it out on their own. This gives children the opportunity to learn negotiation skills, conflict resolution, and creativity in working out their own problems. Children might decide, "You play with the truck for a few minutes and then I'll play with it for a while." The usual reaction, by the child, is to draw the parent into the fray creating a triangle. Faber and Mazlish suggest thinking of your fantasy vacation versus getting involved at this time. Simply redirect them to work out the problem and restate their problem by describing the issue instead of offering a solution (e.g., "Both of you want to play with the truck at the same time").

Stay on the Edges

If the battle escalates, then the next step is for the parent to physically be present over the confrontation but not to physically intervene. The goal here is to prevent one child from hitting the other child with the truck and dominate the situation. Further describe the problem by stating each person viewpoint on it. For example, one child feels that "they had the truck first" and the other child feels that "he put it down and was playing with something else." This still gives children the opportunity to resolve the situation and keeps the parent from creating a triangle with the children.

Get Involved

The last step is to physically intervene if the battle becomes dangerous by words or actions. At this time it may be necessary to remove the truck since "it is causing so much trouble" or having both children play separately for a while. After a cooling down period, the parent can have the children try again to come up with a solution to the problem and the truck can wait on top of the refrigerator until they reach an agreement.

Parents can use these three steps, regardless of the family type, to cope with a frustrating but perhaps necessary interaction between brothers and sisters. Parents make the situation worse by intervening too early. They mistake a normal developmental struggle as negative. When fighting does become abusive or dangerous, parents can and should step in. Until then, let them work it our on their own.

Ron Huxley is a Licensed Marriage, Family & Child Counselor and owner of

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