Sibling rivalry

Question: I have a 13-year-old and a 7-year-old that are at each others throats all the time. At first it was just arguing now it has progressed into hitting, kicking and other physical fighting. I have 2 younger children a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old. I would hate to see them follow in their siblings foot steps. Could you give me a new way to deal with their fighting. I think I’m loosing my mind and yelling at them isn’t cutting it.
– Shannon

Answer: Whoever first portrayed the image of harmonious sibling life probably didn’t have siblings! Before I recommend strategies to prevent sibling conflicts from escalating, I want you to know that these childhood conflicts should, in no way, be taken as an indication of their adult sibling relationship. All parents want their children to love, cherish, and protect one another now and forever into old age. Adult siblings have endless stories about sibling wars that they outgrew when they were old enough to appreciate one another as interesting human beings. Focus on the big picture and the aspects you can control – treat each child with respect for his individuality (recognize strengths and support weaknesses without condescension) and build family unity by creating shared goals and celebrations. Does each child have a vivid idea of their essential place in the family and their unique contribution? Sometimes we can become preoccupied with the demands of family life and forget how much older children still need our attention.

Remember they do not have to be best friends or be together “all the time”. Help them plan their time with separate interests. Keep them busy with the activities that grab their attention for extended lengths of time. If they are sharing responsibilities (like dinner clean up) or find themselves together inadvertently (like next to each other in the car), remind them when the “picking” begins that it looks like it might degenerate into problems. Then, stop them before it gets physical. Teach them to monitor themselves so they can anticipate a conflict coming. It is an advanced and learned social skill to predict (and stop) a conflict before it begins but there are always plenty of warning signals.

Sit down with both children to explain you are instituting new rules of mutual respect. Initially, you may need to be a neutral observer waving a red flag when they cross over the line of civility. Decide together ahead of time what the best course of action will be when the arguing/teasing/touching begins – a few minutes of silence or a brief separation. The goal isn’t really a punishment but rather a quick change in the dynamics to break the momentum. Both children need to know that whoever calls for a “stop” will be heard. You may need to temporarily assist them by saying things like, “Are you listening to your brother’s words?”

Lastly, you can let them know you are serious about their cooperation. You may need to convince them by taking away a privilege (possibly 1/2 hour increments of television or computer games), at least until they understand that you care and you are watching. They do not have to like each other but they must be civil to each other. I also highly recommend Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, “Siblings without Rivalry,” as an excellent resource on all aspects of sibling issues. Good luck and be sure to include some quiet time for yourself in the action plan – you deserve it.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.


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