Why do siblings fight? Children fight for many reasons: control over personal space and belongings, lack of social experience, need for attention, trying out new roles, boredom, and just for fun. (Cultures differ in the amount and kind of sibling squabbling, particularly outside the family and in public, but some sibling conflict and rivalry is a near universal phenomenon.) The bickering often makes us feel like bad parents—particularly when it happens in public. We are not bad parents of course, but if we can begin to see these situations as learning opportunities for our children instead of punishable moments, we will feel less stressed and we may even be able to avoid some of the squabbles.
Sometimes, we think that a happy, healthy family never argues, and that’s just not the case. Imagine never disagreeing with your spouse. Can we eliminate the arguing altogether? “You can try to keep the peace 100 percent of the time, but you’ll fail,” says Dr. Robert Fox, Director of the Marquette University School of Education Parenting Center. “There are different temperaments among children,” says Fox. “Some children simply demand more attention. You can go out of your way to balance things out by spending equal amounts of time and attention on each child but it’s not going to work.” Giving each child the attention he needs when he needs it is a more reasonable goal. In other words, fair is not always equal. “Just getting out the door, everyone dressed and backpacks in hand is enough of a challenge for most of us.”
According to Millie Ferrer and Sara McCrea of the University of Florida, the goal for parents is not to rescue their children when they are fighting, but to help them learn to resolve their differences. Parents can equip their children with the skills and attitudes needed for a fulfilling relationship. This is not always easy to do, but here are some suggestions:
Teach Supportive Communication
Help children work out their differences by listening to them and identifying their feelings. When a fight starts, children might feel many emotions, such as anger, frustration, loneliness, sadness, jealousy, or disappointment. Begin by acknowledging your children’s feelings toward each other, e.g. “You both sound really angry at each other.” Listen to each child’s side without making judgments of who is right or wrong. Recognize the difficulty of the situation and express faith in their ability to work things out.
Focus on Each Child’s Talents
Each child is a special and unique person. Children also need to know that the contributions they make to the family are valued. By focusing on the positive talents each child possesses, parents can build the child’s confidence which can lead to stronger family relationships.
Avoid Comparing Children
Children who are compared will often feel resentful and angry both toward their sibling and us. Avoid using statements such as:
- “Why can’t you be more like______?” (Sister or brother’s name)
- “He never makes those mistakes, why do you?”
- “Let _______ help you; he does that so well.”
- “__________ never had these problems; why do you?”
Statements such as these can make children feel unloved. They might also feel that they have failed you. Tell your child directly what you want or expect of her without comparing her to her brother. For example, “I want you to finish your chores before going out to play.”
Use Positive Reinforcement
Parents are role models for their children. If we want our children to be loving toward one another, then we must praise that behavior when it happens, e.g. “You guys worked as a team, you picked up all the toys before the timer finished.” When we praise positive interactions, the likelihood of the behavior reoccurring is greater.
Here are a few more practical ideas that may help:
- “Chore Equals Privilege.” If your children regularly fight over who has to sit in the back of the van or who gets to decide what the family movie will be, tie the choice to a chore that rotates among them. For example, whoever has to do the dishes for the week gets to pick the movie. It takes any hint of favoritism out of the equation, and when children understand the parameters, they often cooperate willingly.
- The “No Sharing” Box. Allow your children to choose a few things that they don’t have to share if they don’t want to. Let them decorate a shoebox or a plastic container to reflect that the items stored within are special. Make sure everyone in the household, babysitters, visiting friends, and relatives understand that the child doesn’t have to share the contents of the box.
- Teamwork. Assign your children jobs and games where they have to work together. Forcing the issue of cooperation helps them to experience the unique gifts of their siblings, as well as build an understanding of how much they can accomplish by working together toward a common goal.
- Ignore Simple Arguments. Do what you can to let children work it out on their own. Working at resolving their own battles can teach them valuable life skills, so walk away and ignore it if you can. Intervene only when the fight gets out of control.
- Think Switzerland. It’s important that we remain neutral. As tempting as it is to blame the older sibling, talk to both children calmly without assuming either is in the wrong.
The only way to completely avoid sibling rivalry is to have just one child, and for many of us, it may be too late for that.
Originally published on Bright Horizons