Sibling rivalry is one of the toughest challenges of parenting. Even my attorney friends don’t feel equipped to mediate the conflicts that arise over who gets to press the button in the elevator, or what to do when the juice in their children’s cups are not exactly even.
It is tough to watch and manage, but most experts agree that fighting between siblings is normal and can even be healthy way to learn how to manage conflict.
Here are four simple ways to help our kids get along.
1. Drop the role of judge and just reflect their feelings:
When siblings fight, parents will often act as referee and say, “If you can’t share no one is getting the toy.” “He was playing with it first so he gets it” or “How would you like it if someone took your toy?” Although it feels right, it just makes children become more defensive and more territorial. They dig their feet in and won’t budge.
It is more effective for parents to reflect their children’s feelings on how difficult it is to live and get along with others even our own family members.
Validating kids feelings and naming them helps kids to think clearly. It also helps them see the problem from their sibling’s perspective. There is an added benefit; it also helps parents actually see both sides of the story. It keeps us parents calm and helps us discipline without yelling and accusing.
Child: ”I didn’t do anything!”
Instead of judging like this: “If you didn’t do anything then why is she crying? You need to stop bothering her!”
Try this: “Oh, boy, sometimes it can be hard to get along with your sisters. You are not sure what happened to get her so upset, sometimes we say things we don’t realize can be hurtful…”
Child: “He always starts with me!”
Instead of judging like this: “Well if you started it, you need to go to your room!”
Try this: “It sounds as if you guys are angry at each other. That sometimes happens between brothers. It can be hard to get along with the people we live with.”
Kids – especially the more sensitive children – often feel bad about fighting. They think, “I am so mean! Why is it so hard for me to get along with my siblings? Maybe I am a bad person.” Other kids might think, “My sibling is the worst, he is always starting with me!”
Letting them know fighting is a part of family life helps the sensitive kid to feel better about his feelings – he is normal, not mean. It also lets all kids in the family know that their siblings are not the “worst,” just really frustrated.
All this lays the groundwork for the next step:
2. Help Them Focus On Solutions:
Once we have spent a bit of time reflecting our kid’s feelings, we can try to move them towards resolving the conflict. We can gently suggest that they think of solutions on how to get along.
We can say: “Trying to figure out how to share a toy can be difficult. Do you have any ideas that might work?”
“What can you guys do to fix this problem?”
“Are you guys ready to think of some solutions on who is going to sweep the floor or are you still too mad?”
What do you do if the kids don’t want to offer any solutions?
Go back to reflecting feelings, then name the problem and offer some suggestions with a neutral tone:
“Two children and one toy! It is tough to share! Do you want to hear what some other kids do? Some decide to take turns, each person taking five minutes each.. .Some kids decide to find other toys to play with…”
“This is tough one, two kids who don't want to sweep the floor and one mom who needs it to get done. Can I offer some suggestions that might work for you? Ben you do half the floor and Eli you do the other half…How about Eli you do it today and Ben you do it tomorrow…?”
We also need to remember that parenting is a slow process. You are setting the stage for how they will handle conflict later as they grow. They might not come up with solutions right now in this situation, but you are building a problem solving mindset.
3. Don’t Let Kids Get Stuck In Negative Roles:
Many times kids get placed in negative roles either by their siblings or even their parents. The “show off,” the “crybaby” and the “meanie” are just some examples of the derogatory labels that families may use to describe children. This can unwittingly exacerbate the sibling issue.
When we see children exhibit a behavior that we find off-putting we tend to point it out to that child. We might say, “You are acting like a show off!” The other children may or may not have picked up on the annoying behavior. But now that you have mentioned and labeled the behavior, they certainly will. At this point the whole family will most likely jump on the bandwagon and start calling he/she a “show off. Everyone will start to view this child in a negative way.
Unfortunately, s/he also begins to think of themselves in that way. Children often become the labels that they are called. A child thinks, “If my parents and siblings think I’m a show off, then it must be true.” It becomes a part of their self-image. S/he then naturally works to perpetrate that role. This only adds fuel to the fire of teasing, fighting and the bickering between siblings.
As parents we need to avoid using negative labels to describe our children, and once we have, we need to work hard to eradicate the role in which that child has been placed. This may sound counterintuitive, but to change a child’s behavior, we need to focus on their positive behavior, what he or she is doing right instead of what he or she is doing wrong.
You need to launch a campaign to change your child’s negative image. To do that you need to find the times that she is acting “right” and point it out to her and everyone around her.
For example, when she does not act like a “know it all” or a “show off” you want to make a big deal about it and point it out to her.
For the “show off,” instead of saying, “Sara, stop being such a show off! Let Eli have a chance to talk!”
Try this: (Even if she just stopped talking to take a breath) “Sara you stopped your story to let Sam have a turn to talk…”
For the crybaby, instead of pointing out all the times he cries: “You always cry about everything…” point out the times he handles life with equanimity: “You were disappointed when Zac, cancelled your play date, but then you just invited Max over instead.”
Finding the times your kids act right can be a challenge but it can help reduce the sibling rivalry in your home and help kids get along.
4. Have pat phrases to keep the peace:
Oftentimes we just need some catchy phrases to keep the peace in our families. There are some one-liners that succinctly let our kids know that getting along is important to us. Kids appreciate when we use them because they we get our point across without a long drawn out lecture. (Kids hate those!)
So when our kids our fighting, teasing or putting each other down we can simply but firmly say:
“Our family strives to support each other.”
“Teasing hurts feelings.”
“Hands to yourselves!”
“You have the superior capacity to be kind, use it!”
Sibling rivalry can be a challenge but you can help your kids get along by reflecting their feelings, moving them toward solutions and avoiding labels.