Sibling rivalry has been around ever since there have been siblings! It is a normal part of child development. However, it can be frustrating for parents when at one moment their children can be best of friends and then moments later can seem like the worst of enemies. It can also seem never-ending for parents, starting with a new infant sibling and continuing on up through the adolescent years. On a more serious note, a recent article on the BC Council for Families Blog entitled Bullying or Sibling Rivalry? (June 20, 2013) states that sibling rivalry, if on the extreme side, can be considered just as traumatizing as bullying by schoolmates.
In this article, I will first outline four skills for parents in handling sibling issues and then follow up with a model on how to handle arguments and fighting between siblings.
I would like to acknowledge the excellent work of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Some of the ideas in this article have been adapted from their book “Siblings Without Rivalry.” I recommend that you read this book to get more information on how to help your children get along better when they are young in order to build a solid foundation for strong relationships between them when they are adults.
Skill #1: Set firm limits around hurtful and especially dangerous behaviors; close adult supervision may be necessary at times.
- Child is hitting her younger brother angrily.
- Parent stepping in immediately to stop the child hitting: “No hitting! Use your words to tell your brother how angry you are and that you don’t want him to touch the blocks when you’re building with them.” (NOT: “That’s a mean thing to do to your brother. He didn’t do anything!”)
- Both children are hitting each other
- Parent stepping in immediately to separate the children: “No hitting or punching is allowed. You cannot be together right now. Natalie, you go to your room (or the living room) and Irene, you go to your room (or the bedroom). You both need a time to cool down.” (NOT: Parent ignores the fighting thinking the children will work it out themselves.)
- Child pointing angrily at his sister: “You stole my pencil you stupid moron!”
- Parent: “No name calling. I can see you are really angry but you can tell your sister how angry you are without calling names.” (NOT: “That’s a horrible thing to say to your sister! Say you’re sorry.”)
Skill #2: Help your child learn how to handle angry feelings by providing acceptable ways to handle these feelings
- Child angrily: “Mom! Steven stole my bag of chips and ate them all!”
- Parent: “You’re really mad that he ate all your chips. Would you like to draw me a picture of how you are feeling?” (NOT: “Well, I seem to remember you ate his chips last week!”)
- Child: “John’s not letting me play with him and his friends!”
- Parent: “You’re feeling left out. You wish your brother would let you join in. How about you go get your jacket and shoes on and when I’m done with the dishes we can toss the ball outside for 10 minutes.” (NOT: “Stop whining! You’re too little to play with them and then you’ll just end up in a big fight!”)
- Child angrily: “She’s such an idiot! She took my new bike!”
- Parent: “You’re really mad that she did that. Instead of calling names, you can let your sister know how angry you are by saying, ‘I’m mad you took my bike without asking.’ And you can also let her know that she needs to ask permission in the future. Also, what about making a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign and hanging it on your bike?” (NOT: “Oh, that Julie, she never listens. I’ve told her over and over again she’s not allowed to do that!”)
- Child is grabbing a toy angrily from a younger sibling: “It’s mine!”
- Parent stepping in to stop the grabbing and takes the toy: “No grabbing toys away from your sister! You can show me how mad you are by punching this pillow. And I’ll set the timer for 5 minutes and then it will be your turn with the toy.” (NOT: “Stop it you bad boy!”)
Skill #3: Acknowledge your child’s negative feelings about a sibling instead of rejecting or discounting them
- Child angrily: “He’s so mean. I wish he didn’t live here!”
- Parent: “You’re feeling angry at your brother. Sometimes you wish he wasn’t here.” (NOT: “Don’t say that about your brother! You don’t really mean that. You should love your brother!”)
- Child angrily: “He does it just to bug me! He always puts his jacket on top of mine.”
- Parent: “You’re feeling really annoyed because you think he does it on purpose just to bug you.” (NOT: “So what! Don’t get so upset!”)
- Child complaining to parent: “You never play with me!”
- Parent: “You’re feeling sad because you don’t like me spending so much time with your baby sister.” (NOT: “I do so. I just spend the last half hour helping you put your car together?”)
- Child upset: “Mom! Michael said I walk like a penguin!”
- Parent: “Wow, that sounds like that hurt your feelings.” (NOT: “I don’t know how many times I’ve told you to not let things like that bug you!”)
Skill #4: Avoid comparisons
- Child coming home with muddy clothes
- Parent: “Oh-oh, it looks like you got your clothes all muddy. Quick, go change into clean clothes and put the dirty ones in the laundry basket .” (NOT: “Why do you always get your clothes so dirty! Your sister never gets her clothes this dirty! This just makes so much more work for me.”)
- Child putting his toys in the toybox
- Parent: “Good job putting your toys away!” (NOT: “You’re such a good boy. You don’t leave your toys lying around like your little sister.”)
- Child watching TV
- Parent: “I expected you to turn off the TV 15 minutes ago.” (NOT: “You never listen! Why does your brother always listen when I tell him to turn off the TV!”)
- Child doing homework diligently
- Parent: “You’ve been working really hard on that homework. I bet you’re proud of yourself for getting it all done!” (NOT: “You work so much harder than your sister. I wish she would be able to work just a fraction of how hard you work!”)
How to Handle the Arguing and Fighting Between Siblings
Here are three ways to handle arguments and fights between siblings. Which method you choose will depend on the level of arguing or fighting between the children.
Option 1: Stay Out of It
When you notice your children arguing or bickering with each other, and there is no physical aggression or name calling, this can be a good time for you to say or do nothing and let your children work things out themselves. The solution they come up with may not seem fair to you, but as long as it is safe and both children seem fairly content, it is best to let them work it out. However, even though you are not intervening in the situation and you are letting the children work things out themselves, it is still important to monitor the situation to make sure that emotions are not escalating, in which case you would need to intervene more directly.
Option 2: Help the Children to Problem Solve a Solution
When you notice your children’s arguing is starting to get more intense and emotions are escalating, this is a time you can step in to use a problem-solving strategy to help your children figure out a solution.
- State What the Problem Is and State Each Child’s Point of View
- “So Brandon, you want to build the bridge part because you have a good idea of how to do it. And Nancy, you feel it’s your turn to build the bridge this time because you didn’t get to do it last time. That’s a problem, two kids and only one bridge.”
- Help Children Brainstorm Options to Solve the Problem
- Parent: “What Ideas do you have, Brandon, to solve this problem?” (Parent lets child come up with his ideas and does not allow the other child to make any judgments or comments at this point. Parent also does not make any judgments on the ideas at this point.)
- Brandon: “Well I can let Nancy build part of the bridge. Or we can build two bridges; I can use these blocks to make another kind of bridge.”
- Parent: “What ideas do you have Nancy to solve this problem?” (Same thing happens for this child as outlined above.)
- Nancy: “I think I should build the whole bridge myself because Brandon did it last time!” (At this point, parent may also want to add a suggestion).
- Parent: “I have an idea: what about if Nancy builds the bridge and Brandon, you can make a road that goes underneath the bridge.”
- Help Children to Choose An Option That Will Work
- Parent: “So kids, what idea do you want to try?” (Hopefully there will be some agreement at this point about a plan of how to handle the situation. If this happens, reinforce the kids for working things out)
- Brandon: “Oh all right, Nancy can build the bridge! I’ve got a better idea to make a tunnel anyway.”
- Nancy: “Yay! I get to build the bridge. Brandon, next time you can build the bridge and I’ll make the garage because I know you don’t like doing that.”
- Parent: “Good work kids for figuring out a solution.”
- Parent Steps in when Children Cannot Decide On a Solution
- Brandon: “No, Nancy has to build the other bridge with the blocks. I want to build this bridge!”
- Nancy: “No, I want to build this bridge!” (Only as a last resort, If nobody can agree on a plan, and if you have tried to work things out for a good period of time, then you as parent have the ultimate decision-making power and you would then outline the plan. Be prepared for upset feelings from one or both children. Ignore these protests after you have decided on the plan of action.)
- Parent: “Okay kids, neither of you can decide so I need to decide. Since it is too hard for each of you to figure this out, I am going to put away the bridge piece for today. Tomorrow you can have it back again.”
Option 3: Intervene Immediately to Create Safety
When you notice emotions are rapidly escalating or there is any name calling or physical aggression, move in immediately to create safety for each child. You may need to separate the children until things cool down.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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