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June 05th, 2017

Sibling Squabbling

The days are getting longer and there’s a feeling of lightness in the air. I always seem to feel happier as the mercury rises and I love the long evenings. May has such promise of a good summer - I feel hopeful. But that feeling of bonhomie doesn’t necessarily extend to the children it would appear, as parents in our classes are lamenting the constant bickering.

Sibling squabbling is one of the issues most frequently mentioned by parents as a real button-pusher. Just the noise can get on your nerves but also the meanness can be upsetting. When my sons were young my older one never lost an opportunity to deliver a put-down to his brother. He called him a ‘loser’ and a ‘weirdo’ and told him he was stupid and that he stank. It was constant! Fortunately my sons now get on really well.

So what made the difference? The first step was to understand why my older son was being unkind to his brother and take steps to address that instead of just punishing the surface behaviour. We’re never very effective unless we look for the cause of our children’s behaviour. At this time of year kids may be tired as the school year comes to an end. They may have lots of activities going on. Older siblings may have just completed SATs or even GCSEs with the stress that brings. Unkind behaviours may be prompted by emotions that the child doesn’t know how to express which are vented on the sibling. Of course one sibling may be jealous of another; he may feel his brother or sister gets more of his parents’ love and attention, measured in the time devoted to the sibling, the possessions they get or the amount they get into trouble compared to him! At the height of my sons’ fighting my older boy was struggling at school and getting in trouble a lot and his self-esteem was low. He didn’t want to be the only one feeling that way so his brother copped it!

Part of the solution is building self-esteem but we also need to teach siblings social skills like compromising and negotiating and sharing. We also need to teach them to be kind.

Here are 7 ways to encourage harmony between siblings from my book Real Parenting for Real Kids:

  1. Give each child POSITIVE ATTENTION

A big reason for fighting is low self-esteem. Another is kids’ need for parents’ attention and approval. Usually when our children are getting on well together we don’t even notice it and just get on with our to-do list but we give plenty of attention when they start fighting!

Use Descriptive Praise to ensure your child gets attention, feels noticed, valued and good about himself. 

  1. NOTICE POSITIVE INTERACTIONS

Descriptively praise your children for getting on, for team work or problem-solving, even if they’re just leaving each other alone.

  • Just then you asked Sanjiv to move over in a polite way.
  • When Tom and William were making a noise while you were listening to your story you didn’t say anything hurtful. 
  1. Provide TIME ALONE and TIME TOGETHER

Set up opportunities for positive play together. Having fun together is important if siblings are to see the point of each other! Play should be with you initially.

In addition, each child needs some Special Time alone with each parent. When children get our undivided attention, at least at certain defined times, they are less likely to compete with their siblings for our attention. 

  1. Teach children to MANAGE FEELINGS and ENCOURAGE EMPATHY

When we acknowledge how our children are feeling - angry, jealous, hurt, frustrated, disappointed, inadequate, left out – they learn to recognise and manage feelings, rather than take them out on others. Focusing on their feelings helps shape their ability to ‘read’ other people’s feelings and thoughts. 

  1. Teach SOCIAL SKILLS

Some children pick up on social skills easily but some need to be taught them explicitly. Use role play (maybe with teddies and dolls or action figures) to teach skills like sharing, negotiating, trading deals, asking for something without whining etc. 

  1. Provide RULES FOR FAMILY LIFE 
  • Acknowledge the feelings kids have for each other and set firm limits on actions. “You’re really cross with Jason. Nobody likes to be called a ‘retard’. That hurt your feelings. You can tell him how you feel. You may not hit him.”
  • Be clear about your family values. “In this family we treat each other with respect. So no name-calling. When you’ve calmed down you will need to make amends to Victoria.”

You may need some rules about possessions and sharing common resources like computers or the front seat of the car! 

  1. MODEL what you want to see

Children who grow up with positive discipline get along better with other children. Punishment teaches children to give way to greater force, not wisdom. If parents are aggressive children are more likely to be aggressive. If children see you treat others with kindness and empathy they are more likely to do the same.

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