We don't get to choose our families, but they're an undeniably large part of our lives. Our family members teach us how to learn, how to love, and yes, how to fight. But when we have families of our own, and it's our kids who are fighting, it can be difficult to know how to handle it. Here's what the experts had to say.
Sibling rivalry. It’s real, it’s messy, it’s universal. What’s the best way to deal with it as a parent?
According to Amy McCready...
Sibling rivalry is a huge issue that affects most families and believe it or not, there are things well-meaning parents unwittingly do to fuel it, such as unintentionally labeling our kids, not providing enough one-on-one attention, and jumping in to play judge and jury at the first sign of a fight. Here are three steps to relieve rivalry.
1. Lose the labels. No parent means to pit their kids against one another. But when we assign labels to our kids like “the good eater,” “my bookworm,” “the athlete” “the shy one” -- we inadvertnly draw comparisons between our kids, which fuels competition and rivalry. When we refer to one child as the “the family athlete” -- the other child automatically thinks “I’ll never be as good as her, so why even try?” When one child is a “wild child,” the others can feel superior as the well-behaved kid. The good news is, when we lose the labels, we give our “not-so-athletic” child a chance to shine even if she’s not a star. We give the straight-B student the opportunity to be proud of her hard work. And we give the “wild child” a chance to do the right thing.
2. Fill their attention baskets. One of the key reasons kids fight is to gain their parents’ attention. After all, when kids fight, we intervene—usually with a reprimand. To our kids, even negative attention is better than no attention. To satisfy your kids’ need for attention in positive ways, plan on giving each child at least 10-15 minutes of kid-centered, intentional attention every day. By giving each child this special time, you will increase feelings of emotional connection and proactively fill her attention bucket with POSITIVE attention so she doesn’t have to resort to fighting with her sister to get your (negative) attention.
3. Respectfully resolve conflict. When sibling fights occur, many parents use time-out as a way to diffuse the situation. While sending kids to separate corners might give them an opportunity to calm down, time spent in the corner will not teach the child how to resolve conflict for the future...so the rivalry train will rumble along.
Instead, we can teach conflict resolution skills by role modeling, even with toddlers. Here are a few examples:
- Practice respectful communication. Avoid future disagreements by role playing how to ask for what you want and how to share:
- “May I please play with the car now?”
- “I’m still using it right now, but I’ll let you know as soon as I’m finished.’
- Teach “I feel” statements. It’s important that children know it’s OK to have big feelings, but there are appropriate ways to express them. Teach them the language to use when they are frustrated (“I feel mad when Sam doesn’t let me play with the car” or “I feel hurt when Alison hits me…”)
- Teach skills for controlling a temper. Kids aren’t always ready to discuss their feelings immediately after a fight, so teach them coping skills for in the heat of the moment to calm their bodies and their feelings: count to ten, walk away, take deep breaths (for younger kids -- you can teach them to “smell the flower, and blow out the candle”).
Be patient with yourself and your kids as you implement these new strategies—especially over the holidays when routines go astray and excitement is at an all-time high. With a little practice and a focus on preventing squabbles from happening in the first place, you’ll notice a decrease in sibling arguments and an increase in holiday merriment.
According to Dr. Natasha Burgert...
Siblings fight. Period. Full stop.
Sibling rivalry certainly can cause stress and strain in family relationships, but it's important to remember that it does have value. Family fights are safe places to practice conflict resolution and negotiation. It helps kids working on the emotions of anger, pride, and jealousy. Conflict helps teach how to be a good loser and a gracious winner. It is one way kids figure out who they are -- what they stand for, and what they will and won’t tolerate.
We can help to set kids up to have fewer arguments by creating environments for every child to thrive, not playing favorites, and not choosing sides. Every family member should have the right to be listened to and contribute to family decision making. Plan family nights to devote attention and time and have fun with each other. Meanwhile, ensure that each child has time to be seen and heard as a valued individual within the family unit. This could mean special events or activities alone with parents, or it could simply be more time at the family table to tell a story without interruption or critique.
Sibling arguments cannot and should not be entirely squelched. If you feel the need to intervene, offer solutions to the conflict but let the kids ultimately choose how to resolve their differences. If a resolution cannot be found, then put all the kids all in the same place. All the siblings involved in the argument can have the same consequence together.
Overall, remember that it is not a reflection on your parenting if your kids squabble, and its not entirely your responsibility to solve every problem. Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up in a household and can provide some of the best learning moments of childhood.
According to Amber Coleman-Mortley...
This is tough as parents should work hard throughout life to ensure that all of their children feel loved and worthy. Many adults forget to spend the time working on their relationships with their siblings. If the pain runs deep, attend a group session with or without your parents. Approach your siblings with honesty and transparency. No one likes being treated like a throw-away, so if you’re the “favorite” be sensitive to how your sibling feels about their life growing up around you. As adults we must remember that parents and other adult family members only have as much power as we allow them to have in our lives, therefore we must exercise control over our own life, our own safety, and our own well-being. Set boundaries. If the rivalry is to a point that creates emotional distress, set a time limit on your family holiday visit. A simple phone alarm that sounds like a phone call is a great external “excuse” to leave politely.
According to Shari Sevier...
If it’s your kids who are acting up…or do so regularly…having a conversation about your expectations of them while company is present is a good pre-emptive strike. Be clear about how you expect them to behave. Don’t hesitate to remove them from the celebration until they can behave appropriately. It’s not a reflection of you; it’s a reflection of typical squirrelly behavior we see so often in kids…even when they are old enough to know better. It’s also a good idea to identify consequences with them ahead of time so they know what will happen if they make the wrong choices. Curtailing their time with friends, taking their phone (yes…take their phone. If they can’t communicate appropriately in person, how might they be communicating via phone? They can live without it for a few hours.) Curtailing privileges is another great consequence. Make sure they understand what will happen if they act up, and then follow through! Be quiet and firm when delivering the consequence…they will test you. So you have to be ready for a tantrum of some type; don’t bite that hook! Look them in the eyes and ask them, “Did I not tell you what would happen if you behaved this way?” Wait for an answer, and then let them stew. They’ll get over it….and they might think twice about acting up again. Be a parent…not a push-over.