Question

I have three of eight children left at home, and it seems like they are constantly fighting with each other. They tease and aggravate and provoke each other, and they seem to have very little concern for each other. We have talked about how the Savior wants them to treat each other, I have shared scriptures and quotes, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. It is a constant thing. How can I help them to genuinely care about each other and stop the incessant fighting?

Answer

Contention is one of the most instinctive things we do as natural men and women. We require regular reminders to not allow contention in our relationships.[i] You’ve taught these things to your children, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through. And I’m sure after launching five children, you probably feel like a broken record as you remind your children how they are to treat one another. You’ve taught your children the principles, so let’s talk about what else you might do so they can practice what you’re preaching.

While some of what your children are doing is developmentally normal, you’re concerned about a deeper pattern of contention that isn’t resolving easily. I’m sure you’re no stranger to bickering and struggle with eight children! When I see a troubling pattern that isn’t resolving, instead of pushing for peace, I find it helpful to zero in on the unacknowledged individual needs that may be driving their behaviors. Even though you can double down and require peace in your home, there may be more information from each child that can help them join you in creating peace.

When I served as a bishop, there were times I was asked to help resolve contention and disputes among the good members of my ward. I quickly learned that revelation was aided by good information as I slowed down and made time to listen carefully to the different perspectives and needs. I learned that it was unhelpful to try and force peace and unity before the individuals involved felt heard and respected.

Even in the highest councils in the Church, there is a pattern of respectful inquiry and deliberation. Elder M. Russell Ballard shared the following insight about this process:

“…none of the Twelve are shrinking violets. We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion.”[ii]

In his first General Conference address as President of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson further reinforced how the Quorums of the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles seek unity while working through complex issues:

“When we convene as a Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, our meeting rooms become rooms of revelation. The Spirit is palpably present. As we wrestle with complex matters, a thrilling process unfolds as each Apostle freely expresses his thoughts and point of view. Though we may differ in our initial perspectives, the love we feel for each other is constant. Our unity helps us to discern the Lord’s will for His Church.

In our meetings, the majority never rules! We listen prayerfully to one another and talk with each other until we are united. Then when we have reached complete accord, the unifying influence of the Holy Ghost is spine-tingling!”[iii]

This example from our leaders communicates to me that there are firm boundaries and expectations about the type of culture that creates unity and peace. I believe it’s possible to create this kind of culture in our homes. I recommend you start by spending individual time with each of the three children to give them time to talk through their feelings about each sibling, their relationship with you, and anything else that may be on their mind. You can share your observation that they seem agitated and troubled in their relationships with their siblings. Counsel with them to see if they’re open to doing something different to help create peace in their home. Invite them to share their needs and thoughts with their siblings either one-on-one or as a group. You’ll know what’s the best format to help create understanding and unity of feeling. This takes tremendous patience, time, and wisdom to guide these discussions, but it has the potential to help your children feel more known and understood.

If the approach I outlined above doesn’t invite your children to show up differently with their siblings, it’s worth looking more closely at the culture and expectations you’ve created in the home. As you analyze and consider the culture of your current family, recognize that something in your family culture has allowed your children to believe that their treatment of each other is acceptable. I recognize that you’re constantly teaching and redirecting their behavior, but something isn’t quite getting through to them. It can be helpful to establish clear boundaries around what’s expected in their family relationships.

For example, I’m certain they don’t torment their friends, teachers, co-workers, and other people outside the home in the same way they do their siblings. They are clearly capable of appropriate behavior but are choosing a different way. Perhaps you let them know that socializing with friends or doing extracurricular activities where they give their best to others will be on hold until they resolve the problem of why they’re giving so little to their siblings. You can let them know that the life they’re living doesn’t prepare them to function well in society or in a family.

They can learn that they will be unprepared for life if they’re allowed to bypass the consequences of being a poor family member while showing up to dazzle others with their kindness and respect. This is the time to teach them with appropriate boundaries so they don’t leave your home believing it’s okay to live a double life.

In the Book of Mormon we learn that it’s best to be humble on our own, but we still receive blessings and growth when we’re compelled to be humble:

“And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved.”[iv]

Your children can be compelled to learn these important lessons on creating peace in their home. I started out my response by suggesting and invitation to your children to consider their own reactions and work with you to find a solution. If they won’t do the internal work to show up differently in their family, you can still compel them with healthy limits so they have opportunities to practice a different way. Of course, I recommend you follow the powerful counsel found in the Doctrine and Covenants to guide your children by, “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, by love unfeigned…by kindness, and pure knowledge.” And, don’t forget to make sure you “[show] for afterwards an increase of love toward him who thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” [v]

Your children can learn that it’s not healthy to feel entitled to be treated as a responsible and respectful person outside the home when they are acting irresponsible and disrespectful inside the home. They can learn the critical skills of taking another person’s perspective, listening, sacrificing, negotiating, asking for what they need, showing empathy, and teamwork.

Please don’t give them a pass on this. They simply haven’t learned these important skills and need a reason to care about mastering these things. They haven’t internalized it because it’s not been required. The late Haim Ginott’s writings on working with children’s strong emotions will give you solid guidance on how to navigate this with your children.[vi] Two of his students also wrote a fantastic book on sibling rivalry that can also give you additional support.[vii]

Author’s note: I’m grateful for the wise counsel and ideas shared by my wife, Jody Steurer.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

You can connect with him at:

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[i] 3 Nephi 11:14-30

[ii] https://www.ldsliving.com/Elder-Ballard-Attacks-the-Idea-That-Church-Leaders-Live-in-a-Bubble/s/83312

[iii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/04/revelation-for-the-church-revelation-for-our-lives?lang=eng

[iv] Alma 32:13 

[v] D&C 121:40-43

[vi] Haim Ginott’s book, “Between Parent and Child”, was revised by Meridian author Wally Goddard: https://amzn.to/2Whqu7x

[vii] “Siblings Without Rivalry” https://amzn.to/3Bag08t