How do they do it?
How do siblings go from playing perfectly to fighting furiously, in a matter of seconds?
Not only is the shift quick and pronounced, but kids seem to have a built in timer — they know the exact moment you sit down for a quiet cuppa; that moment when you relax, and it seems so hard to get out of your chair.
And you wonder why the peace was shattered, and how the change happened so suddenly.
And then you remember: nobody can fight like family.
It’s sibling rivalry, it drives parents nuts, and it’s inevitable if you’ve got more than one child in your home.
So how do you handle it, without losing your cool and making the situation a whole lot worse?
There are probably loads of ways, but here are some tactics, well suited for those of us striving to be positive parents, that I’ve tried and can vouch for –
#1 Insist on a hands-off policy
Sibling rivalry can manifest itself in many forms. Mayo Clinic says that sibling rivalry can include hitting, name-calling, bickering and immature behavior.
When kids get frustrated enough, they’ll lash out physically, and it’s not pretty. It happens less frequently as they get older, and develop better ways of expressing themselves, but there they still slip from time to time.
Parenting expert, Michael Grose recommends having a family hands-off policy to solve this problem. He agrees that having a hands-off policy doesn’t mean kids will stick to it, but that parents should make it clear that hitting and hurting are not appropriate ways to solve problems.
The hands-off policy gives parents something to refer to when kids respond physically to conflict. Grose suggests saying something like, “We have a hands-off policy in our family. You overstepped the mark when you whacked your brother. We cool down and talk things through here. How will you fix this situation?”
The hands-off policy is a gentle reminder to your children that they are not expressing themselves appropriately, and need to consider others, even when they don’t agree with them.
#2 Refuse to put a child in charge
According to Michael Grose, author of Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It, sibling rivalry is a natural consequence of birth order.
It certainly explains much of my childhood.
As the eldest, I was the responsible, determined, neurotic perfectionist. As the youngest, my brother was the persistent risk-taker who constantly challenged authority.
We behaved true to form, and fought like a couple of demons. My poor sister was jammed in the middle, destined to be the mediator.
Now I’m a parent and I have two girls. Generally they get on well, but it’s interesting to me how they demonstrate their birth order personalities.
My first born desperately wants to revisit that brief time when her sister was about three. Why? Because she was old enough to play with, and follow directions, but too young to challenge authority.
My older daughter often asks, “Can I be in charge?”
Instead of having history repeat itself, and encouraging the natural consequences of birth order, I say, “No”.
In my mind, this would be like laying an explosive charge and giving them matches to play with. Putting one child in charge of the other doesn’t work until they have the skills and knowledge to exert their authority fairly.
Instead I tell them, “You are both in charge of yourselves. You both know what’s right, and what’s wrong, and I trust you both to do the right thing.”
This encourages my younger daughter to take responsibility, and my older child to accept the imperfections of others. As my eldest is only responsible for herself, she doesn’t need to report anyone’s failure to adhere to rules!
Disrupting the natural birth order personalities encourages your kids to take responsibility for themselves.
#3 Discover the power of one-on-one time
Sibling rivalry is a power struggle, according to Amy McCready, parenting expert and author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… She says that all people, including children, have a basic need to feel powerful.
McCready believes that if we don’t meet the need in a positive way, kids resort to negative behavior.
McCready says that sibling rivalry stems from this unmet need for power and attention. She also believes that parents often unknowingly exacerbate the problem by labeling behavior and taking sides.
McCready says we should give our kids a little of the power and attention they crave, every day. She says we should spend some one-on-one time with each of our kids, every day.
I started doing this quite by accident, and found it works a treat.
My eldest daughter needed help to improve her reading. Her school recommended a program for me, and part of the program required us to spend ten minutes reading every day.
After a few days I not only noticed an improvement in her reading, but more importantly, in her behavior and in our relationship.
We became closer and, as our relationship strengthened, so did her desire to please. She started listening more, and battling less. Not just with me, but with her sister too.
Your kids don’t need to win so many arguments when they’re winning time with you each day.
#4 Listen between the lines
Dr Claire Hughes, author of Social Understanding and Social Lives: From Toddlerhood through to the Transition to School, says that sibling rivalry can increase maturity, enhance social skills and improve emotional development.
Hughes argues that sibling rivalry in moderation can be good for children as long as it does not get out of hands. Based on her research, she says that “…the more they argue and the older child puts the younger one down, the more they are learning complex lessons about communication and the subtleties of language,”
She claims it also helps children learn to regulate their emotions.
While this may be true, regular arguments don’t make for a happy family environment (or sane parents), and there are days when you just don’t want to deal with it.
I’ve found that some arguments can be thwarted by listening in to your children’s conversation, and stopping arguments before they start.
My mother-in-law was apparently great at it (unfortunately I never met her). My husband tells me that she was an expert at listening between the lines. She could hear the seeds of disagreement as they began to germinate and nip them before they sprouted.
Even before a row could erupt, she’d say something like, “Right, it’s time you boys went outside. I need to vacuum this room.” If they were outside, she’d come up with something like, “OK, I need some help inside. Let’s go.”
My husband recalls the frustration of never finishing a game because his mother always moved him on before anyone crossed the finish line. As the older of the two boys, he was doubtless about to win either the game, or the ensuing argument!
Clearly this isn’t something to use all the time, but it’s a useful tool to use when you’re just not up for any arguments.
#5 Veto winners and losers
Usually when there are arguments, even between adults, there are winners and losers. It happens everywhere – at work, at home, and in the media. When the issue is resolved, one party is happy, and one is not.
When your kids are arguing, and they appeal to you, they want you to take sides — each one hoping to be the happy winner.
The way to circumvent this is to use the “No-Lose” method from Dr Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children (PET).
This method supports children to express themselves with courtesy, and to negotiate effectively but fairly.
It also allows parents to intervene in disagreements, without taking sides — something that Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and author of My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend: Making and Breaking Sibling Bonds also recommends.
So how does it work?
Well, as Amy McCready says, you play the role of mediator, not referee. You help your kids to negotiate a solution that they can both live with.
The best way to really grasp this, is to give you an example:
Grace: “No! I’m playing with the doll, you can’t just take it from me. Give it back!”
Jane: “But you put it down. You weren’t using it, and I want to play with it”
Grace: “I only put it down to get her dress. I hadn’t finished. I want to put her dress on.”
Parent: “So Jane, you started playing with the doll because you thought Grace had finished, but she hadn’t. And now you both want the doll. What do you girls think we should do? How can we fix this?”
Grace: “I had it first, so I should play with it!”
Parent: “Jane, Grace is saying she should play with the doll. What do you think of her solution?”
Jane: “But she put it down. It’s my turn now!”
Parent: “Grace, Jane is suggesting that it’s her turn with the doll. What do you think of that solution?”
Grace: “No! I want to put her dress on! I’m nearly done. She can play after.”
Parent: “Jane, Grace would like to finish her game before you have a turn. How does that sound?”
Jane: “OK. I’ll finish what I was playing, and wait till she’s finished.”
Parent: “Thank you, Jane. You girls did a good job of negotiating a solution!”
Basically you, as the parent, are rephrasing what the kids say. You’re interpreting their comments as solutions. This technique takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth trying, and with practice, it gets easier.
The key is to keep the kids focused on finding a solution, and remember not to expect miracles – from yourself or your children.
This is what I call a ‘big picture’ strategy because you’re teaching your kids skills they can use for life.
#6 Refuse to be involved
As mentioned earlier, Dr Claire Hughes says sibling rivalry creates healthy conflict, and parents should be less inclined to intervene. Dr Gordon suggests that the key to doing this is knowing when it’s our problem, and when it’s not.
If two of your children are arguing over a toy, it’s not your problem – it’s theirs. While their disagreement may impact you, the dispute is between the two of them.
If one of your children comes to you pleading their case, Gordon recommends parents say, “Sounds like you’ve got a problem.”
This lets your child know that you’re not getting involved, and they have the responsibility of sorting it out.
The first time I used the line, “Sounds like you’ve got a problem” it worked like a charm. My daughter looked a little stunned, and wandered off to sort things out with her sister.
There was no “She said …”, and then “But she said …” It made life very easy!
It is a simple, easy solution that you can try right away.
Do What Works For Your Family
At the end of the day, how you deal with sibling rivalry will depend on what you think works best for you and your family. But if what you’re doing now isn’t working for you, isn’t it time you tried something new?
As parents, our role is to make ourselves redundant. To encourage our kids to be as resilient, resourceful and self-reliant as possible.
You owe it to your kids to encourage their independence, so why not start by ditching the role of referee?
You owe them the opportunity to sort out their arguments themselves, whenever they can.
You owe them the responsibility of handling their own emotions, and the right to manage their own outcomes.
So, next time you hear a little conflict, sit back and relax – with these strategies under your belt, you’ve got this covered.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Reflect on the sibling rivalry that happens in your house. How does it play out? Are there usually winners and losers?
Consider letting your kids sort out their disagreements themselves. How do you see this playing out? Would it turn physical?
How can you fine-tune these techniques so they’ll work for you?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Implement a hands-offs policy at home, and start listening in to your kids to try and prevent some of their disagreements.
Start spending one-on-one time with each of your children, every day. Even two minutes can make the world of difference.
Practice saying “It sounds like you’ve got a problem” – it’s incredibly liberating!