“All rise in the court. The case over who had the remote control first will be heard. The Honorable Mother is now presiding”
How many times do you feel like you are asked to be judge and jury for your children’s conflict? “He hit me first!” or “She took my toy and won’t give it back.” Parents tell me every week how their patience has run out or they are just out of energy. Unless you like the role of constantly being a judge and jury, I want to try to set you free.
There is no one reason for why siblings fight. In general, a great deal of sibling rivalry is about competition for parental attention. Other contributing factors include different temperaments, less developed problem solving skills, poor frustration tolerance in one of the children and jealousy.
What I often suggest is taking a threefold approach to sibling fighting:
The first part is to ignore the behavior whenever possible and send the message you are not going to get involved. This forces the problem back to the children and removes the reinforcement for attention seeking that is the basis of much of their behavior. The exception would be if one sibling is hurting the other one. In this case, a strong message about the expectation of safety should be given. Secondly, if you do get involved try not to take sides. In effect, you should not be the judge. Kids will sometimes respond, “it’s not fair.” In these cases we can be empathic with the child, but we want to stay away from the dynamic of trying to figure out who did what. Instead, we can send the message that you are available to help the kids get along better when they are calm.
Lastly, if the conflict continues, the children lose the right to be together. This can be a short time period or longer. Many times we find as soon as we separate the kids, they want to come back together.
Other ideas are to work on problem solving and conflict resolution with the siblings. This approach best works when they are removed from the heat of the situation. For example, you could hold a family meeting that begins with you saying, “I’m noticing the two of you are fighting over the television program almost everyday. Let’s figure out what the problem might be and how we can work on getting along better.” From there, you can work with the children to define the problem identify possible choices and try one out. Put the ideas in writing as a contract and review in a day or two. Often, the ideas are a work in progress but the process of problem solving can help develop or strengthen coping skills.
Sometimes, working with each child on assertiveness can be helpful as well. I try to instruct kids to speak up to protect themselves or get their needs met. For example, we can teach the child to tell his sibling he will not be around her if he is being mistreated. If the sibling won’t leave the other alone, he can tell an adult something to the effect of “I am trying to be by myself right now so I can feel safe and I’m having a hard time” or “I need help getting along better with my sister.”
Some of my favorite books on sibling rivalry include Dr. Charles Fay’s “Love and Logic” and Dr. Anthony Wolf’s book, “Mom, Jason’s Breathing on Me!”
Court is now adjourned in permanent recess!