August 15th, 2014
Does it really push your buttons when your kids fight? When they’re home over the summer holidays they’re in each other’s company more and they may goad each other out of sheer boredom. You know sibling fighting is meant to be normal, but seriously, over who gets to open the door when dad gets home? Which, after all, he does every day. Really? What did you envisage when you brought into the world a sweet little sister or brother for your adored first-born? That she should become a punch bag for him? That he should call her all manner of names and tease her? That she should provoke the life out of him? I thought not. You were probably like me with fantasies of them playing happily together and keeping each other occupied while you watched over them benignly with cup of tea in hand.
When my boys were younger I thought we’d made a serious mistake in having more than one, one which we hadn’t worked out until too late. My older boy turned into a monster around his brother. He tormented him endlessly and seemed so aggressive with him I envisaged a future where I would be visiting him behind bars as I thought he’d turned into a psychopath.
The advice I received was to stay out of their fights. I tried to do this but it was as if I’d given permission for the older one to bully the younger. My younger child felt abandoned. I could understand why I shouldn’t take sides in their disputes but I needed to do something….didn’t I?
Studies have shown that effective intervention has the effect of reducing the number and intensity of sibling rows. (Perlman, M and Ross, H ‘The benefits of parent intervention in their children’s disputes: An examination of concurrent changes in children’s fighting styles.’ Child Development 1997)
Faber & Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry had some good ideas.
Parents need to know when to get involved in their children’s arguments and when to stay out of them.
We need to distinguish between minor squabbles and major on-going battles. We decide upon our intervention based on the level of dispute. We need to be ready to intervene when the children seem to be struggling, or the situation is potentially dangerous, but our intervention is only to encourage and support them to resolve their dispute constructively themselves.
And when we do intervene, we need to do so in ways which not only encourage children to sort out their own disputes but which also support the children’s relationships, and reduce the risk of long term conflict. If we take sides or impose judgments not only does the accused retaliate later but the children don’t learn how to resolve matters themselves.
The basic approach is to:
• describe the problem
• acknowledge how each child feels
• help the children find a solution; support them in using more constructive conflict resolution strategies
Example: Jack, aged 5, wants to watch Peppa Pig on TV but Bella, aged 8, is watching her ‘Frozen’ DVD and singing (loudly) along to ‘Let it go’.
Jack says “I want to watch Peppa now Bella” and Bella just says “no”, so Jack hits her, saying “It’s my turn now horrible Bella.” And Bella shouts and hits him back. Jack cries. Dad thinks it’s time to intervene and doesn’t say “Ok, you two that’s enough. Bella don’t be so mean, give Jack a turn”. (He did that last week and it ended in tears all round – Dad too, well, almost.)
Dad: Jack I can see you’re upset. We don’t hit in this family. Can you tell Bella what you want, rather than calling her names?
Jack: She’s being mean. I want a turn.
Bella: But it’s my turn now. I want to watch the end of this video.
Jack: You watched it on the weekend. I want to watch Peppa now.
Dad: (Dad has some sympathy – he wouldn’t mind some respite from ‘Let it go’ himself.) Jack is saying he wants a turn to watch his show. Bella is saying she’s not ready for her turn to be over….Hmm…That’s a tough situation...I know it can be hard to wait, Jack.
Jack: I don’t want to wait…I want to watch Peppa now! Bella gets to watch her show all the time.
Dad: You feel you’re not getting a fair go? Can you tell Bella that and ask her when she’ll be ready to give you a turn? Bella can you tell Jack, without hitting, what would be a fair time for you to have on the video.
Jack: It’s not fair Bella, you had a turn on the weekend and I haven’t had my turn for ages. When will it be my turn?
Bella: Ok Jack! You can watch Peppa when the next song is finished. Why don’t you be Olaf?
Dad gives lots of descriptive praise for both children for resolving this situation constructively.
Both kids feel heard and they have learnt how to assert themselves without hitting.
Managing sibling conflicts is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Helping children to resolve disputes without abusing power or resorting to name-calling or violence is a great gift.
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Elaine and Melissa