How to Handle Battling Siblings
Q: My 13- and 10-year-old sons seem to be fighting a lot. The oldest is always putting his younger sibling down, and my youngest is becoming quite the pest. It feels like every activity, decision, or store excursion can dissolve into anger. I am exhausted dealing with both of them putting me in the middle. Do you have any suggestions?
A: What are your memories of being a sibling? Do you remember being hit, kicked, and bitten or having things taken away from you? Did you get embarrassed in front of your friends? When did it turn around? What helped? Research says that sibling rivalry seems to occur at least 30 percent of the time in families. So maybe it’s really not a problem, but part of being a family. Your job is in how you help your sons deal with the rivalry.
We do not want to raise children to believe that everyone will be responded to in exactly the same manner. We need to acknowledge the differences in the personality, talents, age and sex of our children. Children often believe that both parents will act similarly, even though they know they are different people. Is the core issue unrealistic expectations on the part of your kids? Let us look at sibling rivalry as an opportunity to teach anger management skills and set team building as a norm in the family.
As parents, there are a few things you probably already do to avoid creating problems where none might exist:
- Be sure to avoid making comparisons between your sons; don’t say “Why aren’t you more like your brother?”
- Be careful not to play favorites between your sons; acknowledge both of their strengths.
- Teach your sons relaxation techniques. This is often best done under the guise of test-taking preparation, dealing with bullying or learning something new.
- Be careful not to put too high expectations or pressure on either child.
- Be as fair as you can regarding household chores and expectations of family behavior taking age differences and personal preferences in mind. (One of my sons liked to cook while the other liked yard work.)
- Focus on the times when your sons are treating each other respectfully. Catch them being great. Avoid focusing too much on their fighting while still setting normal household rules about conflict.
Spend one-on-one time with each child. Listen carefully to what they tell you regarding their anger toward their sibling. Make sure their fighting isn’t an attempt to get your attention. If it is about expectations, explore what is triggering their responses. Teach them how to be in charge of their own emotional responses.
When things get rough, call a family meeting: Hear each one out, use a talking stick if necessary to make sure each is fully heard, then have them brainstorm possible solutions to their problem. (A talking stick is a stick or other item that the speaker holds while he or she has the floor. While a person holds the stick, no one else can speak.) Keep the conflict their problem and stay out of the middle.
If they hit an impasse, brainstorm other ways to solve a problem.
Teaching problem-solving skills can often take some time. If you pick a few basic principles to help guide their thinking, it might help. Many parents like to fall back on four basic questions when coming up with a solution to a problem: 1. Is it kind? 2. Is it true? 3. Is it fair? 4. Is it hurtful?
Asking your kids to make any solution pass this test really helps them carefully think things through and shows the values you hold dear. You might help walk them through these questions a few times after they have come up with a solution.
If your sons have developed a really bad habit of getting to each other, make sure that they both really want to change the behavior. They may admit it is a way they stay connected and they’ve gotten pretty thick-skinned about it. If it is not a problem for them and is still a problem for you, then you may want to set some limits and consequences around the fights.
Some parents use these:
- Set a timer, fair fighting can go five minutes with no physical contact;
- No name calling that hits the hurtful threshold;
- Argue outside only — whether it is freezing or over 100 degrees;
- Extended arguing results in being separated and they must stay in different rooms for a certain amount of time (also known as a time out).
The possibilities for discipline are only limited by everyone’s imagination, including all your friends and your kids’ friends.
As always, providing the best role modeling in conflict resolution and dealing with jealousy is critical in the entire process. Listen closely to the stories you tell about your childhood and make sure you are not bragging in any way about your relationship with your siblings. Good luck!
- Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Faber and Mazlish;
- Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring and Compassionate by Goldenthal
- Understanding Sibling Rivalry – The Brazelton Way by T. Berry Brazelton