Conflict between siblings is inevitable. In fact, all of life is full of dealings with others who have different priorities, styles, values and methods. So really, conflict is a natural part of life. Conflict is something to learn to manage well rather than something to feel badly about or avoid.
Don’t measure your parenting competency by how much your children fight, but rather by how you respond to their fighting. The first step always in my parenting approach is to help parents understand the dynamics that are sustaining a behavior. Here are some facts about siblings:
1) Fighting is Cooperative. It takes two to fight. Both play a role in the conflict. Both have the ability to choose behaviors that will either escalate or de-escalate conflict. If they choose escalation, it’s because they agreed to go that direction. (See? And just when you thought they didn’t agree on anything!)
2) Behavior is Goal-Oriented. Behavior is movement away from a perceived position of inferiority to a position of security or “felt plus.” The usefulness of fighting is usually found in the parent’s response:
- Fighting results in parental attention. Albeit negative, negative attention is still better than no attention at all. Let’s face it, children who behave well get ignored and those who act up get parents engaged. It’s a no-brainer, really.
- One child acts in the role of the “victim” and finds a benefit in acting weak and incapable, so that they learn by being helpless, a parent will step in and fight their battles and punish their siblings–making them feel they are favored over their sibling.
- One child acts in the role of the “aggressor” and may already feel they are treated unfairly in the family. They arrange life to prove their belief that they are treated unfairly. Two kids kerfuffle and yet they are the only one to be sent to their room? ”SO UNFAIR! SEE, I TOLD YOU…. YOU HATE ME AND LOVE HER!”
1) Ignore – When your siblings are fighting, don’t referee. No matter how “fair and objective” you think you are, someone is going to think you are taking sides. Trust me, you can’t win this one. Instead, honor that they are the caretakers of their own relationship with each other and leave them to deal with one another. “I don’t enjoy being with you two when you are choosing not to get along. Call me when you feel like getting along.” Then LEAVE…. (Notice in the language I am explaining to them that it’s their CHOICE to get along or not? That is not conscious to them so it’s good to spell it out.)
2) Put Them in the Same Boat - Just like the expression goes: imagine your two siblings in a canoe both trying to paddle to different shores. Eventually, left on their own with the reality of the situation, they will discover that if they cooperate they can paddle to both shores, and without cooperation, they can get nowhere! If you feel ignoring the fighting is not an option, put them in the same boat such that, whatever consequence befalls one, befalls the other. For example:
“Seems the computer is causing conflict. I’m going to turn it off until you two have a plan worked out for sharing it cooperatively.”
“It seems you two are having a hard time playing together without hurting each other–you both need to take five minutes in our rooms to chill out. Let see if you can play safely again after that.”
3) Family Meeting – If one child always acquiesces to another, and it seems unfair to you, don’t get sucked into fighting for one child’s rights. Instead, put the issue you feel is unfair on the family meeting agenda and discuss it outside the time of conflict.
You’ll be very surprised how cooperative your children become when you step out of your traditional role!
I know it’s hard to believe this will work, so here is a testimonial:
I have to say Alyson’s advice to do with siblings and fostering sibling harmony have been some of the best tools we have put into practice in our home. And funny enough at first it felt the most un-intuitive to NOT micromanage how our kids were getting along! Our kids are now 5 and 3 and yes of course, they have the odd squabble, but we do our best to stay out. And they have an amazing ability to reconcile, compromise, share and most of all, are empathetic to each other, all on their own. We see this positive behaviour reflected in how they treat their friends too. It’s incredibly rewarding. Thanks Alyson, for all your encouragement along the way and for your very sage advice. We are expecting the arrival of our third child so I am off to re-read the sibling chapters for a refresher!” - Mya Kraft ( Alyson’s Parenting Bootcamp alumni from Winnipeg)
About the Author:
Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada’s most notable parenting experts. She is the resident expert on The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News Channel and CBC’s The World This Weekend. Alyson is an “Ask an Expert” Columnist for Today’s Parent Magazine, and sits on the Health Advisory Board for Chatelaine Magazine. Alyson is the best selling author of “Breaking The Good Mom Myth” and “Honey, I Wrecked The Kids” and her latest, “Ain’t Misbehavin”. She is an international speaker including the inaugural TEDxKids in Brussels and offers free parenting tips at www.alysonschafer.com