Many parents wonder why their children fight with each other. All of us can be hurt and stressed by the level of nastiness that sometimes passes between brothers and sisters. The good news is that you can reduce sibling rivalry by understanding its causes and addressing the issues it raises.
“Sibling rivalry” is the formal term psychologists use to describe the normal squabbles among children in the same family. Every child craves the individual attention of each parent, and each wants to be the child loved most by Mom and Dad. Young children lack the mental maturity to understand that a parent’s love expands with the birth of each additional child so that each child is loved equally.
Each of your children views her siblings as rivals for first place in your affections. Many fights that seem to be about particular issues are really about trying to win the exclusive love of one or both parents. It’s common and normal for a child to occasionally wish that his siblings simply didn’t exist. These feelings may be intensified in stepfamilies because children feel they are competing with the stepparent as well as stepsiblings for parental attention.
You will never completely eliminate sibling squabbling. Your goals should be lessening its intensity and reducing its frequency. Follow these tips to increase peaceful coexistence in your family:
1. Accept Your Child’s Negative Feelings. Accept that anger, envy, and even temporary hatred are normal and real feelings experienced between siblings. Respond to these outbursts by first acknowledging that you can understand how he could feel as he does, and that you accept it. You can suggest solutions after your child has calmed down. “Pausing for a moment after giving them validation is a good tip to remember before blasting in with solutions,” says Clinical Supervisor Mary Uong Kaale of The Village Family Service Center. “This can often open the door to real problem-solving.”
2. Give Your Child Alone Time with You. Spend some time completely alone with each child on a regular basis. Plan an activity for just the two of you, or just sit and snuggle. Whatever you do together, give that child your undivided attention and really listen.
3. Individual Recognition. Be ready with praise for individual achievements. All family members should behave this way. Every child does something well, so celebrate even small accomplishments. “It’s critical to recognize individual talents,” says Sandi Zaleski, program supervisor of Family-Based Services at The Village Family Service Center. “Don’t set one child up as the role model for the others. Embrace each of your children’s strengths.”
4. Family Sharing. Have a designated time each day or week during which each child shares his successes and receives praise from other family members. Dinner is the traditional time for family sharing, but if individual schedules prevent this, set aside a regular meeting time when everyone is free, at least weekly. Teach your children to praise each other.
5. Special Spaces. Many sibling disputes are “territorial,” as one child disturbs another’s belongings or enters his space. Every child, like every adult, needs a space exclusively his, no matter how small. Everyone should respect the room, corner, or desk set aside for each family member.
6. Stop Teasing. Even well-intentioned teasing can quickly turn into emotional abuse. Recognize that children can be deeply hurt by repeated teasing. Some people tease as a way of giving affection, but there are more direct and positive ways to show you care.
7. Forbid All Types of Physical Aggression. Pushing, hitting, biting and other kinds of physical attacks are abuse and can quickly escalate into actual injury. These behaviors have no place in a healthy family. Restrain yourself and make sure you employ non-physical solutions to disagreements. “It can be very helpful to positively reinforce times when you witness your children handle conflict without physical aggression,” says Uong Kaale.
8. Be a Good Role Model. Treat each family member with respect. Settle disputes with fairness. Your own behavior is the best teacher of all.
9. Help Children Design Solutions. Show your children how to calmly settle differences on their own, keeping their focus on problem behaviors instead of personalities. Help them learn the skills of active listening and mutual compromise. “Clarify each sibling’s concern or perspective about the problem,” says Uong Kaale, “and then have them brainstorm solutions. This is an excellent teaching opportunity, especially for older children and teenagers.”
10. A Unified Front. Mom and Dad should discuss and agree on a consistent approach to sibling disputes. All strategies work better when both parents react to discord in the same way. “Consistency is critical, especially during the teen years,” says Zaleski. “Parents need to recognize how rapidly their teens are growing and changing, and consider how they will handle sibling disputes as their children get older.”
You will never eliminate sibling rivalry, but you can reduce its frequency and intensity. This benefits everyone in the family, now and in the future. Siblings will find it easier to forge strong, long-term relationships that can continue into adulthood, and you will enjoy a more peaceful home.
Sharon Nolfi, M.A., MFT., is a licensed family counselor, school psychologist, and parent of grown children.
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