Christina Noyes Baird
Mom of: Katie, 5, and Ashley, 4
When the fights started: About a year ago, once Ashley could talk well and follow Katie around. They'd duke it out over a toy, or Katie would refuse to play with Ashley or insist on doing everything first.
The pattern: Spats typically started with demands from both girls ("I want to play with that doll!" "No, it's mine!"), followed mostly by yelling and crying and occasionally grabbing or hitting. It would usually come in phases -- it'd be pretty constant for about a week, then die down for a few weeks before it started up all over again.
What we did: Since both girls were toddlers, we've used time-outs whenever they've acted up. We'd have the offender (who was usually hysterical by that point) sit down in a special chair in the living room so we could keep an eye on her. We'd wait until she'd stopped crying and calmed down a little before we explained why what she had done was wrong, and then would ask her to apologize to her sister. Often, we'd put both of them in a time-out when they were equally out of control. Soon, all we had to do was count "One, two, three" or ask, "Do I need to count to three?" and they'd stop fighting before we'd even enforced the time-out.
The problem: The threat of a time-out took care of the bickering -- they'd abandon the toy or stop the name-calling -- but there were grumbling and bad vibes afterward. And we weren't preventing the fights.
Beyond time-outs: Ashley looks up to her sister, but Katie would sometimes take advantage of this and instigate the arguments. She'd insult Ashley's favorite stuffed animal if Ashley didn't do what Katie wanted, for instance. So we decided to appeal to Katie's role as a big sister. We explained that if Ashley starts crying, Katie's in charge of making her feel better. We tried to make her understand that she had the ability to stop the situation from getting out of hand.
Making progress: After a few weeks, Katie started to catch on that she can actually create a better deal for herself, since I don't have to resolve their conflict. Now when Ashley gets upset about something, Katie tries to work it out by saying "Ash, you can have this toy" or "Let's do this together" to stop her from crying. If an argument escalates, I just have to say, "Katie, do I need to get involved?" in a stern tone and they figure out a solution on their own. Of course, if there's a problem they can't negotiate, I'll intervene. But now I need to call a time-out only every other month or so.
What I wish I'd done differently: Make Katie responsible earlier! I've realized that a 5-year-old who can reason can handle the situation if given the opportunity.
Words of wisdom: It's smart to be consistent about discipline, but it helps also to be flexible enough to try out new strategies as your kids get older.