After 18 years of working with parents and families I have finally worked out the cause of sibling fighting.
Having more than one child.
Sibling fighting tends to come with the parenting territory. It is born from rivalry or competitiveness between siblings and shows itself through mindless arguments, noisy squabbles, physical means, verbal put-downs and even long silences.
Kids have L plates on when it comes to resolving conflict with their siblings. They can learn better ways of resolving conflict than resorting to reflexive means such as hitting, shouting and generally playing the person rather than the “ball”.
The key is to help children focus on the problem not their sibling.
As a parent it is difficult to know how to respond when kids squabble, fight or argue. Do I ignore the squabble or do I become involved? Good question. Bear it (if you are a saint you maybe able to ignore it), Beat it (go elsewhere when they fight) and Boot them out (noisy disputes are best settled outside) come from the let-them-work-it-out-themselves school of thought. There is a time and place for this approach.
But kids also at times regardless of their age need some positive parental input into resolving issues. Here are some ideas for you to think about:
- Focus on emotions first. Emotional containment is a priority here. Get kids to calm down before you help them work their problems. This may mean they sit for a while on their own or go outside and let off steam physically. Once emotions are contained then you can get down to business.
- Focus on the problem not the fight. Kids will want parents to punish their sibling for beginning a dispute or infringing on their rights. Drill down onto the issue (e.g. a better way of watching TV, sharing toys or whatever) and focus on resolving that. Direct children to focus on the issue not the fight.
- Listen to their story. Kids generally want to be heard so listen to their side of the story and again, try focusing on how they feel about it. Give their emotions a name or label. “It sounds like you are pretty angry about it. Would I be right?” Sometimes this is enough to get a resolution to an issue. “Okay you can play with my old toys but I don’t want you playing with my new toys for a while. They’re special.” “Okay.”
- State the problem as you see it. When kids are stuck tell the problem as you see it. Try to develop a sense of ‘other’ here by showing how a child’s behaviour affected his or her sibling, without using shaming or blaming. If you can brainstorm a solution so be it. Otherwise they can agree to disagree and stay clear of each other.
- Restore the relationship. Keep the relationship as the focus rather than focusing on the problem. With young children the issue they were fighting about is generally long-gone by the time a parent intervenes. An apology, a hug, a joint treat (and no I am not suggesting rewarding poor behaviour ) or redirecting kids’ attention elsewhere are some ways to help restore the relationship between the kids.
Conflict resolution sounds easy on paper but it is hard to do in practice. Helping children resolve disputes is one of life’s most difficult tasks – ask any teacher and they will tell you playground squabbles are the hardest things to deal with. (Not to mention the children’s squabbles!!!)
Be smart. Choose your times to help kids out. Don’t respond reflexively to kids’ telling tales or you will soon join in the sibling dance. Look for opportunities to help children to resolve disputes by focusing on the problem, not the person.
Oh, and don’t forget to model good conflict resolution yourself. Your kids are watching and learning from you!