“What did I do to cause their constant arguing?” asked the anguished and exhausted mother sitting across from me in my office. She’d come to see me for help with the endless squabbling occurring among her three children. It’s a question I’ve been asked many times before. Answering her truthfully, I replied, “You had more than one child!”
Sibling squabbling is a typical, inevitable and even – believe it or not – fruitful part of family life. This does not, of course, make it pleasant, or give us a pass to pretend it’s not happening. In fact, there are valuable life lessons to be mined from the ample fodder of our children’s bickering.
But first, a quick review on why they bicker so darn much:
Attention! Yes – the cliche is true – a major cause of fighting is to garner attention. There are few things our young ones dislike more than being ignored. A rousing altercation will surely put your little one back in the spotlight and get mom, dad, and the targeted sibling to take notice. Negative attention, the inner calculus goes, is better than no attention.
Immature reasoning, impulse control and emotional intelligence. Little Sophie truly believes that it is “unfair” that her sister who just had her tonsils removed gets to eat only ice cream for dinner, while she is expected to first eat her way through some chicken and rice. What’s more, Sophie may quickly escalate to wailing and screaming because she has not yet evolved mature abilities to regulate her emotional responses.
Stress relief. Had a bad day at school? Didn’t get to pick the book the teacher read in circle time, to use the big-kid slide at recess, or to sit next to your favorite friend on the bus? Hold it together in school, but give your sibling hell for touching your fluffy red ball as soon as you get home. Or so the unconscious strategy goes if you’re a kid who just needs to let off some steam.
Exposure to conflict. Are your children observing a lot of conflict or aggression around them, either on media (e.g., violent video games) or between you and your spouse? Even well-meaning and loving couples may not realize how much they are squabbling with each other or putting each other down at moments of tension. This models a negative relational pattern to children.
Jealousy. The classic explanation for sibling rivalry is true, and there is even some evidence that competitiveness between siblings has an evolutionary origin. Sibling rivalry is evident in several species and may have evolved as a way for individuals to fight for limited resources.
The tyranny of THB: Tired, Hungry, Bored. Each of these variables alone predisposes your sweeties to fighting and whining. When all three come together, you’re in for a full-on sibling smack-down. Try to use your finely honed pre-emptive skills by supplying food, distraction or rest-time before things come to an unfortunate head.
Sibling fighting is not all bad. In fact, when handled wisely, sibling squabbles provide an invaluable forum for your children to develop empathy, creative thinking, problem-solving skills, higher-level reasoning, and communication strategies. Conflict can be a catalyst for much growth. In any case, sibling conflict is inevitable. The question is, when do we intervene, and how?
Prevention! What you can do to reduce the frequency and intensity of sibling squabbles.
- Ongoing rules and routines in your home: Establish clear and consistent rules which promote respectful and considerate behavior: “We don’t grab, we take turns.” “Hitting is unacceptable.” “We use words.” “Please knock on your brother’s door before coming in.”
- Do your darnedest to set aside some dedicated alone-time with each child, each day. Even five minutes (Iphone free) can make a difference. You are the most prized resource in your family – assuring them a share in this precious supply can go a long way to reduce sibling competition!
- Consider, in general, when to intervene. Knowing that bickering is inevitable and normal, can you simply ignore it? Indeed, should you ignore it rather than reinforce it by paying attention? Well, it depends on your tolerance threshold, and how much you value a peaceful home. You’ll never be able to entirely eliminate the squabbling. Yet, if it’s happening a lot, and things routinely escalate rather than resolve, if one sibling constantly capitulates to the other, or things devolve into physical aggression, then it’s time to get involved.
Management! OK, you’re rolling up your sleeves and getting ready to intervene. Now what?
- First: stay calm. So hard to do, yet so important. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are the most evolved and mature person in the situation, and that you need to help anchor your kids when they are out of control by demonstrating that you can stay in control in the face of strong emotions.
- Remember that simply dictating to your kids what they ought to do to end the fight, removing the coveted toy they are fighting over, or insisting they “cut it out” may be briefly effective, but does not teach them new problem-solving skills. Also, you are missing a valuable opportunity to help develop their capacity for empathy – both by losing a chance for you to empathize with their powerful feelings, and to help them develop empathy for their sibling’s upset feelings.
Conflict Resolution 101- Walk them through these steps. Over and over. Each time there’s a big fight:
Follow these steps enough times with your children, and they will start to internalize the ideal approach for handling conflict.
1) Tell the aggrieved parties that everybody needs to cool off. Show them how to take deep, slow breaths before you even address the issue. Nobody can think clearly when they’re in an agitated state.
2) Have sibling A tell sibling B why they are upset. Work towards them making ” I-statements” and using non-blaming language.
3) Have sibling B listen and then repeat back to sibling A why A is upset.
4)Repeat steps 2 and 3 in reverse. Have B tell A what B is feeling. Then have A paraphrase B’s words back to her. With these steps, you are teaching a skill called reflective listening, which is invaluable in human relations.
5) While steps 2-4 are occurring, make sure to offer empathy for how each sibling feels, while also affirming what the family rule is (“You were upset because you wanted to hold the squishy pig, but Sammy took it before you could reach it. That is upsetting and you must be disappointed, but we don’t grab things out of people’s hands.”)
6) Do A or B have anything else to get off their chests? Repeat the listening-and- paraphrasing process until each sibling has had their say.
7) Think together with the two siblings about possible solutions. Can they take turns? Make a trade? Divide an item? Compromise?
8) Make sure they implement the solution. Let them see the process through so that they can learn experientially that thoughtful problem-solving works.
9) Praise them for their productive discussion, their efforts at hearing each other and their work to solve the problem.
Other helpful steps:
- Sometimes it is important to encourage siblings to take behavioral steps in order to make amends, such as drawing their sibling a picture or letting their sibling have a turn with a prized possession.
- As always, catch them doing good!! When siblings resolve a conflict nicely on their own, acknowledge and praise this behavior.
- Brainstorm with your children (when they’re not fighting) about appropriate ways to handle angry feelings.
- Have occasional family meetings about the issue of bickering and wanting to create and maintain a peaceful home, thereby raising everyone’s awareness, and having them help generate suggestions to further this goal.
Who knows? Keep at this long enough and you may create a world-class diplomat one day. Or at least make it through a 24-hour period without anyone wailing “that’s unfairrrrr!!!!!”
After I reviewed these insights and steps with the overwhelmed mom in my office, she came back and reported a vast improvement in her own feelings and reactions to her children fighting. She told me, “In some way, I had forgotten that they were people and had begun to only think of them as management problems! By using my own empathy, and encouraging them to use empathy, I reminded myself about the underlying humanity in all of this and reconnected with my own loving feelings toward them.”
By shifting her mindset and her strategies, she ushered in a whole new, positive set of feelings toward her children, And while her three children continued to bicker, it eventually became far less vicious, and, last I saw her, her oldest child was coaching the youngest in using reflective listening!
Dr. Shulie Rubin, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice for 13 years in Englewood, New Jersey, and the mother of three children. Dr. Rubin works with children, adolescents and adults on issues including anxiety, depression and relationships. Dr. Rubin has a special clinical focus working with and emotionally supporting mothers at all stages of parenthood. Her professional style has been described as a combination of “deep listening and practical problem solving.” Dr. Rubin can be reached at (201) 503-1446 or [email protected].
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