For the Audiobook versions of most articles go to:

One of the more difficult situations for parents is when one child hurts the other. It can often feel like you have to choose sides. Society has led us to believe if you give any attention to the offender you will only be reinforcing that violent behaviour is acceptable. This view only starts looking at the situation from the point following the aggressive act. In order to find the most effective way of coping with this situation and meeting both children’s needs, we must look to why the incident occurred.

Was there a dispute?

Was the child being too rough while trying to play?

Was the child trying to connect with their sibling?

Were they over stimulated?

The goal here is to help them learn more effective coping strategies when they are feeling defensive, playful, loving and overwhelmed. Each emotional need would require a different approach, which is why this information is vital. If the intent was to connect with their sibling, you can suggest next time they offer their sibling a hug, instead of being so rough.

When you free yourself from the obligation to punish your children for making typical childhood mistakes, you become less tense in the situation. It can be hard to change the way your mind works so I like to think of a friend or colleague instead. I ask myself “what would I do if my friend did that?” Punishment is almost never in the equation. I would be happy to make amends quickly but with our children we feel this obligation to stay angry and disappointed in them. Hanging our judgement over them, and for what purpose? What is the objective? To make them feel remorse for what they have done? When do you feel remorse? When you make a mistake? Or when someone points out you made a mistake? If someone attacks you about making a mistake, most people become defensive, leaving no space for logical reasoning or empathy, these pieces reside in the higher brain, the part that gets switched off when we start to panic.

Just think about how illogical our plan is; your child makes a mistake that they are likely aware of before you notice. You begin yelling, shaming, berating. Your child instantly becomes defensive. Their higher brain switches off. Conveniently so does our’s, because we are now triggered. Then we insist that they calm down, feel remorse and make amends after we just sent their nervous system into overload.

It is not as simple as just not punishing your children; a change in perspective is required. It can be one of the hardest ones to accept, given the punishment focused upbringing many of us had. Punishments are pointless, they are worse than pointless, they are detrimental. No matter what your child does, punishing them is not the most effective way to handle the situation.

I love this story that I’ve heard over the years, of an African tribe. When someone in the town makes a mistake, such as lying or stealing, they all gather and make a circle around the offender. They take turns reminding the person about all the good they have done and all the good that they are. In this way they bring the offender back to their true self. If we can take this attitude with our children, imagine the world we could live in.

The second shift in perspective is no longer believing that affection and compassion is a reward. That is conditional love. You are sending the message that “even though I know you are having a hard time I will not show you love because I am mad” chances are your child is mad too and you are asking them to calm down and show compassion and remorse, prior to you doing the same thing. As a parent we should model these behaviours instead of expecting our children to demonstrate them for us before we are able to achieve them ourselves.

The behavioural perspective is “showing love to a child who is misbehaving reinforces the message that their behaviour is acceptable” Are you saying “I love the way you’re hitting your brother!”?? No, you reinforce unwanted behaviours by laughing at them, modelling them and exposing children to them either in person or in the media. By acknowledging the offenders feelings, after tending to the victim, you are validating that the feeling that caused the behaviour is real and is healthy to feel. The idea is to learn new coping strategies together.

As I was writing this, my younger son started to cry. He can’t talk yet but I could tell what happened by how my five year old was curled up in a corner, looking guilty. I asked him what happened and he told me he smashed his head on the shelf. I asked if he was upset or being silly, he said silly. From the time he confessed, he was professing his remorse and compassion for his brother. He was kissing his head and apologizing. I could tell he felt bad. So what would be the point of a “punishment?” for him to learn from what he did? He did learn!! He learned in the best way possible, by making a mistake that hurt someone else and then feeling bad about it, all I did was choose not to shame him and guilt him so he was able to process his own feelings of remorse without the influence of my judgement.

Children often become defensive when we begin to scold them for their behaviour. As an adult, yes, bashing someone’s head on a shelf is a pretty serious offence but they are not adults! They are children with a lack of impulse control and an inability to foresee consequences. You know who’s fault it is that my older son hurt my younger son? It’s my fault for not supervising well enough. They are children, they will act like children, to expect anything more or less is unrealistic.

Here is a list of steps that you can follow to guide your children through their own conflict resolution.

-tend to the child who is physically hurt: “oh my, you look like your head is hurt! Are you ok?”

-ask them together what happened, be careful to use a concerned tone, instead of an angry one: “what happened?”

-then you can ask each of them how the incident made them feel and how they think their sibling felt: “how did you feel when this was happening?” And “how do you think your brother felt?”

-then you can ask: “do you think we could have done anything differently?”

-then finally, “what should we do now?”

Having a sibling gives a child such great access to practicing these conflict resolution skills. Outside the home, you are not always there to guide them and the children and adults they interact with may not approach these issues in the same way. Practicing at home gives them the skills they need to handle similar situations in the real world, without you.

Want to learn more about how to approach sibling squabbles? Get our When Toddlers Hurt People Workshop Session for a variety of strategies, scripts and a deep understanding of why these behaviours happen. Click Here

Looking for co-regulation exercises you can do together? Click here

Looking for other Responsive Parenting workshops? Click here

Would you like to become a Member of our Responsive Parenting Community on Patreon? Click here to get access to all the workshop sessions and resources including access to a private Facebook group.