I probably look forward to school vacations as much as my children do. Not having to rush them out the door and not having the pressure of homework, sports, and instrument practices hanging over our heads is a joy. The days seem so carefree, almost light. That is, until the first fight breaks out and I look at the clock and realize it is only 8:00 a.m. on the first day of the break! Oh, it’s going to be a long few days!
How quickly I forget that no school means my children are in more contact with each other, which inevitably means more bickering. Now I remember why I like the structure of the school day so much and why by the end of a break, I am ready to send my kids back. It’s the fighting and the yelling from the other room that drives me crazy.
“Mom!!!! He won’t leave me alone!” “She started it!” “Did not!” “Did too!” “Mom!!!!”
“Will you two cut it out?!!”
Help! They’re driving me crazy and it’s only 8:02 a.m. How can I turn this time into one with more peace and tranquility instead of one filled with sibling battles?
Several myths about sibling relationships exist in our culture:
- Siblings shouldn’t fight with each other.
- Siblings should know how to play fairly.
- Siblings should act lovingly toward each other.
- Siblings should be able to manage their anger toward one another.
If parents believe these statements, their frustration and annoyance can intensify.
One of the hardest parts of parenting more than one child is realizing that sibling rivalry is inevitable. However, it makes sense if you think about the nature of your children’s relationship. They are forced to co-exist, to get along, and to share almost everything, including the one thing that means more to them than anything else. I’m not talking about the computer, but you, the parent. Your children crave your attention and your time, and when fights break out, they also beg for you to take their side. That can be really hard to do, especially when you have two or more children each crying out for you to “fix it” and, better yet, make it so they “win.” It’s exhausting just thinking about it!
On top of that, there are additional factors that affect how the battles play out, such as gender and age differences, temperament and developmental stage of each child, birth order, family culture, and expectations. For example, young children who are close in age often bicker more and require more supervision than older siblings. In addition, your expectations are shaped by your experiences and the messages you were given about your relationship with your siblings when you were growing up.
PREVENTION IS KEY
Although a certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected, there are things you can do to reduce and minimize the frequency of conflicts:
- Avoid comparing your children with each other.
- Give your time in terms of need. At times, your fifth grader may need your help with homework more than the youngest needs you to watch cartwheels; at other times, the youngest may need time and attention when she falls down doing her gymnastics.
- Teach children to be assertive with words so they don’t rely on you to rescue them. Of course, keep your eyes and ears open in case things escalate and your presence is needed.
- Be a positive role model by using healthy communication to resolve conflict.
- Plan a daily routine with time apart and give each child his or her own “space.”
- Help kids structure time and discover ways to be active and focused. Kids who have too much time on their hands often fill it by instigating a fight with their siblings.
- When possible, arrange a special time or outing alone with each child (a walk, a visit to the park or library). Kids can learn to accept their sibling’s getting time with you if they know they will get a turn, too.
- Be an observer to see if there is a pattern of conflict. For example, is there a particular time of day when struggles erupt, or is there a special toy over which your children consistently battle, or do arguments break out when one of your children has a friend visiting? With this knowledge, you may be able to rearrange things to pre-empt the battles.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF SIBLING RIVALRY
The sibling relationship is one of the longest on-going relationships a person has in his life and it has a powerful influence over a child’s development. Siblings can:
- teach and protect each other.
- introduce each other to friends and broaden each child’s view of the world.
- provide a sense of closeness, belonging, and identification.
- point out to each other when they need to change their behavior.
- keep each other humble by being a constant reminder that other people also have needs and feelings.
Sibling bickering can even be healthy for children as long as no one is getting hurt. Think about all the benefits your kids gain from not getting along. They learn negotiation skills and how to compromise; they become more resilient after weathering the battles; they learn to assert themselves; and they discover ways to defend themselves. They learn about feelings and relationships, and they also learn when they have gone too far. This knowledge will benefit them throughout their lives.
HOW TO MAKE PEACE WITH THE WARS
One helpful way parents can make peace with the sparring is simply to ignore it. Yes, you heard me correctly. For the most part, when your children are arguing, they don’t require your help in settling the dispute. That doesn’t mean they don’t want it, just that they don’t need it.
Unfortunately, bickering is extremely hard to ignore. It could be the tone of voice or the pitch that just gets under parents’ skin and pushes them to storm into the middle of an argument and make it stop. It is surprising how many of those little disagreements go on during the day and how many do just fizzle out on their own if you can just stay out of it. Try it. Next time the kids squabble, imagine relaxing on a sunny beach instead of actually heading into the battle. View your children’s conflict as an opportunity for them to grow and change. The thought of embracing your kids’ fighting sounds noble, doesn’t it?
However, what are you to do when the fighting goes beyond bickering, when the words get a little too hurtful, or physical force is being used? When it comes to handling situations with your children, remember it’s all in the approach. If someone has been hurt, attend to the hurt child first; you don’t want to give the aggressor more attention, thereby reinforcing the behavior.
Instead of punishing your children for fighting, you can use their disagreements to teach them how to fight fairly. When your child expresses negative feelings about a sibling, listen to and acknowledge his feelings instead of dismissing them. For example:
“Your sister is annoying you.” “You wish you were an only child.”
Give your child a way to express strong feelings safely by encouraging him to talk, draw, or write. Once he is calmed down, you can teach him how to vent his anger in non-hurtful ways, how to stand up for himself, and how to problem solve. You can also teach him other ways to manage his angry feelings; for example, exercising (jumping jacks, shooting hoops, running), taking deep breaths, drinking cold water, blowing bubbles, etc. Again, learning to manage his anger is a skill that will come in handy throughout his life.
TIPS FOR EMBRACING THOSE OPPORTUNITIES
- Establish rules about relationships in your family and make sure everyone knows them. For example, set rules about name-calling and hitting, and explain why those rules are in place. Think about what rules can be made around the issues of personal property and respect for each other. Ideally, these rules will be made ahead of time during a moment of calm, like at a family meeting, rather than in the heat of the moment.
- If you have to step into a fight, don’t take sides and don’t ask who started it. These two actions get you nowhere, except more involved than you might want to be. It helps to take a more neutral stance and simply acknowledge what you see. “You two are really having a rough time in here.” Instead of finding out how a fight got started, concentrate on how to work it out.
- Take a moment to assess the situation and ask yourself, “What do my children need to learn here?” Do they need to be reminded of the rules or help finding more respectful words to express how they are feeling? For example, instead of name-calling, you could teach your children to say, “I don’t like it when you change the TV channel in the middle of my show,” which sounds much better than, “You stupid jerk.”
- Teach your children how to explore a problem so that they can work towards a solution. Start by describing the problem, identifying each person’s point of view, and brainstorming options for solving it. The nice thing about teaching this skill is that as your children get older, you will be able to trust in their ability to resolve conflicts without your help. What an empowering message you send when you say you believe they can work it out!
- And most importantly, when you feel safety is being jeopardized, separate the children. Your job as a parent, first and foremost, is to keep your children safe, even if that means protecting them from each other. Once you have done that, you can go back to explore the problem and find healthier options for handling their anger.
Okay, so it is only the beginning of the vacation. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. If you are lucky, your children will give you many, many opportunities to embrace the challenges of the sibling wars and help them grow from them.By Deanna Bosley and Terry Lynn, Certified Parenting Educators
For more information about managing sibling rivalry, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.