When Becky had her first child, Ryan, she could not believe how much she loved him and how much she loved being a Mom. Her husband and her had no qualms about having another child. It seemed the natural thing to do. Wouldn’t Ryan love to have another child to play with and love? Ten years later she is not so sure. It seems that all Ryan and his brother do is fight. They squabble over everything, from who gets to play on the computer, whose turn it is to press the elevator button at the mall and who gets more juice in their cup.
Becky feels that it only lets up when they are asleep. It is driving her and her husband crazy. All those visions of a peaceful and happy home have gone down the tubes.
As a parent of 4 children, I can relate. My children were actually arguing the other day over whether the limousine that we saw at the gas station was black or white. It seemed like a bad comedy skit.
It might not help you in the heat of the moment but parents need to know that the fighting between siblings is normal and even can be healthy. This is hard pill to swallow. Even though we might have fought with our own siblings growing up, we still cling to our idealized visions of what family life should be like. The reality is that our fantasies of having a “happy, peaceful” home are just that, fantasies. Family life is fraught with conflict. It is tough to get along with the people we live with. I once heard a saying, “ Blood is thicker than water. Maybe that’s why we battle our own with more energy and gusto than we would ever expend on strangers.”
When siblings fight they are reacting to the overwhelming negative emotions that they have toward their siblings. They have to learn to manage their envious feelings, which is not an easy task. Most children feel jealous the minute their parents bring a new baby home from the hospital. Siblings also feel resentment if one sibling receives a gift and the other does not. They get angry if their parents tend to take one sibling’s side over another’s when there is conflict or if parents spend more time with their siblings. Children also have difficulties if one sibling gets more attention than another due to a talent or skill. Kids will also fight if they are bored, hungry, or tired or just because they have spent way too much time together.
Do not despair; there is a positive side to children’s fighting. All that bickering that drives us nuts actually helps children resolve disputes, learn to cooperate and pushes them to come up with compromises. Experts have also found that the battles that go on daily do not keep them from being close when they are grown.
So what are we supposed to do as parents? Do we just close our eyes and ears to the fighting and hope for it to go away? The answer is yes and no.
If it is just regular bickering then we can try to ignore it. We can busy ourselves in the kitchen making dinner or quickly hide ourselves away in the bathroom. For the rest, we can intervene but we don’t want to interfere in a judgmental way. This just makes things worse. It is best if you just reflect their feelings in a respectful and neutral manner and guide them back to each other so they can resolve their own problems.
The following examples show you how this can work. Here are some ways that you can respond without judgment in a way that shows respect for both children and helps them focus on solutions.
1.“I didn’t do anything”
Instead of Judging: “If you didn’t do anything then why is he crying? You need to stop bothering him!”
Do say: “You are not sure what happened to get him upset…” “You feel like you weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. What can you guys do to fix this problem?”
2. “He started it!”
Instead of Judging: “Well if you started it, you need to go to your room!”
Do Say: “You feel like he started it and you feel like he started it. That sometimes happens when people disagree. Are you guys ready to think of some solutions or are you still too mad? “
3. “She is making a big deal out of nothing!”
Instead of Judging: “ You are right, you are both making a big deal out of nothing!”
Do Say: “ You feel like this is a fight I should not get involved in. It seems to me that Sara wants me to get involved; she does not feel like it is nothing. She feels like this fight is getting out of hand but you think this is something you can deal with just between the two of you. This is tough, let’s see if you can figure this out. I will be right here if you need me.”
4. “She is so sensitive, she cries about everything!”
Instead of Judging: “You need to stop making her cry. You need to be nicer!”
Do Say: “ You feel that she should toughen up more. It seems to you that she gets upset by little things. If you are ready to listen I can tell you about sensitive people and people who have thick skins. It is important to learn how to handle both types of people.”
5. “Everything I do is wrong!”
Instead of Judging: “If you would listen to me and be nice you wouldn’t have that problem!”
Do Say: “That can hurt to feel that way- you want to know how you can get along better with the family. Let’s think of ways that we can do that.”
6. “She always gets to go first!”
Instead of Judging: “Okay, you will get to go first, next time.”
Do Say: “It seems to you that she gets to go before you. You would like to go first sometimes to. You can say to Caitlin, next time I want a turn to go first.”
We are all aware of the challenges parents have in raising more than one child. Reflecting our children’s feelings and guiding them to resolve their own conflicts is a great skill to use to help us cope. It transforms potentially harmful and destructive interactions into positive relationship building moments. Most importantly you are modeling to your children (without lecturing) how to focus on other people’s feelings. This is a powerful skill, one that they can use successfully with all the people they encounter throughout their lives.