When Bickering Is Out of Control

by Hal and Melanie Young | January 1st, 2014

A friend asked recently:

Ok ladies, it’s time for me to do some major/drastic behavior boot camp in this house. I am committing to staying home for several days, going nowhere and do nothing but set straight some major behavior issues we have here. I need some advice, though…How do I handle/tackle my 4 and 6 year old who fight CONSTANTLY all day, everyday? The tease each other non stop. They fight, yell, scream, hit, bite one another. They cannot seem to get along. 

Here was my response:

Six Ways to Beat BickeringHere are a few thoughts from an older mom who has felt just the same way so many times over the years… and still does! 

First, children need to be held to account. They need firmness and discipline and consistent standards. We’ve got to tell them what to do, give them little chunks they can manage and hold them accountable when they don’t. Be *sure* to differentiate between rebellion (which must be dealt with swiftly and firmly) and irresponsibility and childishness, which needs more natural consequences. For example, a whiny child may not be allowed to speak for a minute, then the second time he whines he can’t speak for two minutes, etc. That addresses the issue right at the heart – if you want attention, get it the right way or you can’t get it. On the other hand, a child who bites his brother has got to be punished.

Also, though, children desperately need you to delight in them; to light up when they come in the room, to hear that you love them, to hear that you like them and are grateful God put them in your family. This is the number one difference I see between Christians with rebellious teens and those with happy teens. The ones with happy teens do a great job of loving *unconditionally.* It’s super hard when they are acting like brats, but it’s even more important then.

You’ve got to praise progress, too. If they make any movement in the right, virtuous direction, praise it. They will work hard to earn your praise, but we tend to reserve it too long, praising only for perfection. Hint: We never reach that. 

For bickering, some things that are particularly helpful are:

1 When they are speaking in an ugly way to each other, make them repeat what they’ve said until it’s the right words said with the right tone of voice with the right facial expression. If you can do this in a cheerful, smiling, but persistent way, all the better. Just say, “Let’s try that again,” until they get it right. Usually they break down laughing before long!

2 Use role play to show them how to handle conflict. The Young Peacemaker is wonderful for teaching this. Sometimes they really, seriously don’t know what to do. Make sure they do know. :-)

3 Make them partners. Give them a task to do together. This is especially good if you can find something they really want to do, something that is a treat. That way they will want to work together to do it more than they want to fight.

4 Don’t allow name-calling. I always heard “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” when I was growing up. It is a lie. Words hurt much worse for much longer than physical pain. Don’t let your children hurt each other this way.

5 In severe cases, making them stick together (using a ribbon or string between their belt loops, for example) for a time can make them madder at you then each other.  :-) Seriously, eventually the humor of it gets to the most incorrigible bickerer.

6 Finally, those who provoke their brothers until a fight starts need to be punished as seriously as those who fight. We shouldn’t be leading one another into sin. Remember, causing trouble among brothers is something the Lord hates.

I hope that helps a little, my friend. Some children seem to bicker more at certain stages of life, though with others it’s a personality thing. We have a couple of children that have struggled with bickering between the two of them their whole lives. Amazingly, now as adults, even though they *still* get torqued off at each other, they frequently make real sacrifices to help one another because they love each other so very much. They just have a personality conflict. Kids like that need help understanding it’s okay for their sibling to see and do things differently than they do, really.

Just be sure to spend enough energy on delighting in them, I’ve noticed among those two that the more uncertain or insecure they feel, the more they lay into each other. {{{hugs}}}

Related Resources

For more real, practical help in raising godly sons, get our book, Raising Real Men, Christian Small Publishers Book of the Year. You can get the Mom & Dad Special (Book for Mom to read in the bathroom and Audiobook for Dad to listen to on the commute) in hardcopy or downloadable format. Check it out here.




How do you deal with bickering at your house?

Melanie Winter Pic (c)2010 John Calvin YoungMuch love,


Lion Cub Photo Courtesy of Kimberlee Kessler Design

14 Responses to “When Bickering is Out of Control”

  1. Just curious – do you think those tactics are likely to work with teenagers (that you haven’t already been doing this list of things with)? My two are 151/2 and 171/2, and they are like your two who have never gotten along well. They have only come to blows once or twice in their entire lives, but they argue several times most days…

  2. Thanks for asking, Lolly! With teens, you need to focus more on persuasion and less on coercion as they should be moving toward more self (inner) control. It helps with them to sit down and help them talk through their issues with one another. Don’t let them interrupt each other! Instead, insist on letting each one have his say and encourage them to use “I” statements, such as “I feel angry when he says that because it sounds like I’m incompetent.”

    We do ask them to repeat what they’ve said in a godly way. When you say with a smile, “Uh no. Try that again,” lots of times they’ll eventually let it go and get it right.

    We do call down name-calling, even if it’s an adult in our house, “Not here. We’re not going to call each other names. We’re all Christians here, let’s cool down and act like it.”

    With older teens like yours, sometimes sending them to do something big together (like drive a few hours) will encourage them to work it out. Independence and responsibility often bring out the best in our boys. They appreciate our trust and don’t want us to be disappointed in them.

    Wow, that was a long way to say, yes, the same principles work, but you have to adjust them to respect the budding adulthood of our older children. :-)

  3. My concern with the approach of having kids apologize and saying it “right” is that we may be unwittingly teaching them to lie. I wonder if that creates kids to grow up like “white washed tombs” where they look great on the outside, but are dead on the inside. What are your thoughts?

  4. We do talk about this with them, “Look, son, the goal is not to fake it. In fact, that’s exactly what you are doing right now. You are claiming that you’ve repented and apologized to your brother, but your facial expression and tone of voice are telling everyone that is a lie – that you are just saying it to get out of trouble. So… either show us it is true by doing it right, or I’m considering that you haven’t really apologized at all.” Of course, they can fake it like a white-washed tomb, but really children tend to be kind of bad at faking it which gives us more opportunity to teach. :-)

  5. Something we learned a while back is that punishment is from anger and discipline is from love. That application alone has helped us tremendously.
    I have 7 and 4 yr old sons that are at it constantly right now. :( The younger has taken the role as the provoker and the old regresses to tears and even whining. It has had me busy for a few months now. I know it will pass in time, but I am doing my part correcting, loving, disciplining, being consistent. I am tired! *sigh* This is for the best and I will continue with the Lord’s strength. :)
    I even had a talk with my 4 yr old about showing the love of Jesus and kindness. That led to him accepting Jesus into his heart. It was amazing! It has been better since then, a lot actually, but they still get into it quite a bit.

  6. Your parenting wisdom has blessed me many times over, and this has been another blessing. Thank you for this post! Your godly perspective is just beautiful.

  7. Thank you for writing this! My kids are boy, 13, and girl, 12. Some days, I find myself at my wit’s end. We’ve tried some of these things. It’s nice to know we’ve been on the right track but I do see some things we should also be doing. We’ve been somewhat disconnected since we moved and it seems to have gotten much worse. Now, we’ve committed to reconnecting and not letting that disconnect happen again. They’ve acted better toward each other just by us spending more time with them as a family. We’ve been playing games and reading the Bible together. It’s made a nice difference.

  8. […] When Bickering is Out of Control […]

  9. I have a funny, creative, (not book-smart), but intelligent, adventurous boy who is restless, to say the least. He has a wonderful father, my sweet hubby, who isn’t adventurous. Yikes! What to do with my boy who constantly needs activities. He is wearing himself out and me. Any ideas?

  10. Dear JJBloom- try the Glenn Doman approach to having him become physically superb…belly crawls increasing up to 600meters, on all 4’s 1600meters, running 5K, brachiating, etc…My 7 yr. old and I are gradually training for a triathlon…little bits at a time, and building more and more each day.
    If he is still restless, check his water intake, does he gulp down more than a liter a day? Drink bathwater?

  11. Although I only have a 17 yo son at home, there is still bickering in my house (husband, son, mom). I hate it. I can’t use the same tone with my 17 yo that I could when he was younger but I will try some of these ideas. The one I had to speak on was “making them stick together”. I tried this with my older children. It Did Not work. They still speak of it with no humor. My daughter was still bullied by her older brother, even while I was watching. Though now that I think about it, it was the only time I had to do it. Hummmm, maybe it did work. 😕 Thanks for the encouragement and advice.

  12. This sounds like my two older boys (12 and 9). I know they really love each other, but being in the house all the time together and not having a whole lot in common they get on each others nerves, or more so the oldest.
    They were at it again Monday morning and one of their favorite things to do is play Roblox on the computer (which they enjoy doing together), so I told them they are grounded from the game until they can learn to get along and show love to one another. They immediately started being nice to one another, so my 9 year old says, “can we play now, we are getting along”, and I said, “you are just getting along because you want to play. I did’nt mean for five minutes, I meant for a while”. The look he gave me was priceless and he agreed that that was the case and left it at that. Since then they have been playing outside together and getting along well.
    My husband has resorted to tying them together in the past, and they still laugh about it. My 9 year old has even asked to be tied up with his older brother. It’s sweet really, you can tell he just wants to be with him. I know the feeling, as I was the younger one always being left out by my older siblings.

  13. I used many of those techniques with our kids, especially our two older boys. Some other things I did, was have them set facing on a rug with noses touching, usually resulting in lots of laughter in sort order, and also washing our door windows, one on each side of the door. This also resulted in lots of laughter shortly! Other times, especially if all of them (we had four at the time) were really at it, a couple of laps around the house cooled tempers and brought about the attitude changes we needed. Then we were able to do the training and teaching needed with full attention.

  14. With children who are old enough to understand, (5 or 6+ ish) teaching them about personality types and love languages is vital. Helping them to see why the other person acts or reacts like they do can lead to understanding and getting along better. More ideas here: http://angathome.com/2012/06/05/sibling-relationships/ and here: http://angathome.com/2012/10/17/filling-their-love-tank-the-5-love-languages-of-children/

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