Subscriber OnlyYour Family

My children are fighting all day under lockdown and it’s wearing us out

Have a family meeting with your children to discuss how the dynamic could improve

Question: My children are fighting all day long and it is wearing us all out. It was bad before the Covid-19 lockdown, but now it is 10 times worse. My eldest is a 12-year-old girl and then I have two boys, eight and 10.

The main problems are with the middle boy, who often starts the day fighting his younger brother – so that I have to physically pull them apart. This can happen several times a day. He also then constantly winds up his sister with stupid jokes and sarcasm until she screams at him. It is like he is constantly seeking my attention.

I try to set them up in the morning with their home study, and that only lasts 10 minutes before the middle boy is disrupting the others. My daughter is a bit of self-starter with studying and the youngest is not bad, but the middle fellow keeps interrupting and winding everyone up until I end up shouting.

At the end of day my wife and I are exhausted and we can’t get anything else done.


Answer: Tensions, fights and rows between your children are amongst the most stressful and draining problems to deal with as a parent. Now in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown with families pushed intensely together, these tensions are aggravated and tempers are rising and reaching boiling point. Without the balance of school and the safety valves of outside social activities and time apart, families can be pushed to their limits. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, sibling fights and rows were amongst the most common and disruptive family problems I would encounter and I have written several times about this before. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to help your children even within the confines of lockdown.

Understanding what is going on

As you rightly speculate, sibling rivalry is fuelled by the attention of parents. Your children are literally fighting for your attention. However, be careful that your reaction does not reinforce and increase these fights. When you get involved in an angry way as “the judge” and single out your middle son as the culprit, this is likely to make the rows worse. Being constantly identified as the “baddie” makes your son feel insecure in his relationship with you and also more resentful of his brother and sister. This lets his brother and sister off the hook (they are usually part of the problem too) and makes the rows more likely to happen again. Instead, a better approach is to not take a side and “get in early” to help them all proactively sort out their dispute.

Arrange a family meeting

A good way to start this proactive approach is to regularly sit down with all your children to sort out the problems and to agree how you can make things better. The key to make this family conversation successful is to avoid blame or finding out who is at fault and instead to focus on positive goals such as or “how can we survive the lockdown together as a family”.

You can follow the steps below
1 Pick a good time – for example, after a nice family meal.
2 Start positive – say something nice about each of your children.
3 Acknowledge how hard things are during lock down and listen to how everyone
is feeling.
4 Set a positive goal for the discussion – "how can we set up a home-school routine that works for everyone".
5 Invite each child to contribute ideas and write these down.
6 Agree some solutions that might work.
7 Make a time to have a family chat again to review progress.

Don’t pick a side in the fights

When a fight happens, try to be impartial as you help your children sort it out. You might say – “lets take a break and talk about what happened” or if you set a rule you address it to both of them: “look no name calling or hitting out… you have to sort things out a different way”’.

If you do use a consequence, it is best for this to be a shared one: “look, no screen time until you agree or sort things out”.

If you do need to discipline one child, it is best to do this privately and not in front of the others. For example, you might take one child aside later and say “listen you have to find a better way of dealing with your anger” or “what can you do differently when your brother winds you up?”. This thoughtful, impartial approach that supports each of your children will lead to less resentment and encourage them to resolve their disputes themselves.

Support your family relationships

The Covid-19 restrictions are putting family relationships under pressure. It is important to take time to proactively support each other and keep some fun and enjoyment in relationships. It sounds like your middle son needs your quality attention. Try to arrange the daily routine so that you get some one-to-one enjoyable time together each day. Ideally, it is important for you and your wife to do this with all your children. This might mean you arrange to do a daily walk with one child or cook a meal with another or play a game or watch a favourite TV programme with another. Review when you get these times of enjoyable connection each day and try to increase them.

Support your children’s relationships with each other

While his sister and brother have a good relationship it sounds like your son is a little lost in the middle. Think how you can help him get along better with each of them. Essentially, this means setting up one-to-one times and positive connections between them. One mother I worked with who was dealing with a similar dynamic, got her middle son involved in a household painting task with his older sister (which they got rewarded for), which helped reduce tension and improved their relationship. Another bought her two youngest a small snooker table which they learned how to play together. Think of things that might work for you.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charityand an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See for details of courses and articles.