There are many reasons siblings fight. And there are many ways you can help them stop
One big happy family. We see it in pictures (even our own). We’ve heard all about it. But the reality of family life is usually... quite different.
“Maaa! He’s touching my bed and I told him not to! Make him stop!”
Grab, push, shove, cry. Screech, wail, whine, sigh. Siblings bicker and fight, tease and provoke. Why can’t they just get along?
Why Siblings Fight
Some theorize that “sibling rivalry” happens when children feel there’s a shortage of available love. One’s siblings are therefore a threat to one’s own access to love and consequently, an enemy.
I think that this theory for the conflict between siblings only accounts for a tiny proportion of sibling rivalry. It’s likely to occur when a parent gives more attention to one child than to others. This can happen easily when there’s a new baby in the house (“Mommy’s feeding the baby now, please go play... Mommy’s changing the baby, you’ll have to wait...”).
Sibling rivalry of this kind is easily remedied: Parents just need to consciously spread the love around. For instance, say to the kids: “Hey everyone, let’s give a big hand to Rivki for getting a perfect score on her spelling test today! We’re having brownies for dessert tonight in her honor!” There’s no competition; everyone’s in on the fun and success together.
This strategy teaches kids to take pleasure in each other, strengthens sibling bonds, and reduces conflict.
Building Inner Security
Sometimes siblings trigger feelings of insecurity within each other. A sibling can be “the pretty one,” “the popular one” or “the smart one.”
Having to live with someone who is doing so much better than you are can create reactive hostility. “I don’t know why she has so many friends; she’s horrible to me and I can’t stand her!” “He gets great marks and never studies; it isn’t fair!”
Although some kids are born with a large dose of insecurity, parents can help minimize these issues by focusing — out-loud — on each child’s positive character trait. “You always know the right thing to say!” “You are so good at figuring things out!” “You know how to read people so well.” “You have a flair for design.”
When parents make each child feel special and valued, both by the way they relate to them, and by providing constant opportunities for success for each child in his or her specific areas of competence, the resultant higher self-esteem can help reduce inter-sibling negativity.
Teaching Sibs How to Get Along
Sometimes siblings fight simply because they have poor negotiation skills. One wants what the other has, so he grabs it. The other grabs it back and hurls insults for good measure. Immaturity, impulsivity, reactivity, and lack of education combine to produce hurtful patterns of communication.
Moreover, some children are born with a negative, hyper, or irritable nature; they bother siblings because they’re bothered inside of themselves. The more parents can help reduce this inner irritation (by psychological, naturopathic, or medical interventions), the more this child will be able to coexist happily with siblings.
Sometimes, parents accidentally strengthen the habit of poor communication in otherwise healthy siblings by reacting intensely to it (lecturing, yelling, punishing) instead of carefully timing and conducting conscious interventions geared at replacing negative sibling behaviors with positive ones (see below, for example).
Sometimes, parents even model ineffective problem-solving within their own marriage by arguing disrespectfully with each other within earshot of their children.
What’s needed is a good model of conflict resolution. “Hey guys, let’s do that over. Shimi, if you want Dov to give you the truck, you need to ask him for it nicely. And Dov, if you’ve already had it for a long time, you need to let him have a turn. Let’s practice this right now. Shimi, please ask Dov if you could have the truck....”
The most important part of education in peaceful communication is practice.
Conflict resolution isn’t the only skill that siblings need to practice in order to get along well. Parents can teach through modeling, instruction, and reward, pro-social skills such as helping, praising, and encouraging each other, supporting each other emotionally and engaging in teamwork. All of this takes parental intention, work, and patience. By the time the kids leave home, hopefully they’ll have learned to get along well enough that they can enjoy harmonious relationships with each other throughout their adult lives!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 754)
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