A friend of mine suggested I do a post on sibling arguments. I want to use this as an example of how we can take any parenting problem and apply the different principles from this blog to find solutions.
If you are concerned about your children’s arguments, start with the following basics.
1. Build your relationship with each child separately. Help each child feel secure in your attention and love.
2. As they fight and bicker, remember that’s just how kids are, and practice patience. Siblings are going to fight. It’s normal, so don’t blow it out of proportion. Arguing with siblings helps children learn and practice communication and problem solving skills. Stay patient, kind and calm.
3. Point out the good. Find 5 times in the next week when your children are getting along or being nice to each other. Say, “I’m so happy you guys are playing nicely together. There’s a good feeling in the house;” “I like the way you are speaking kindly to each other today;” or “Thank you for using your words to ask for that toy instead of just taking it.” Try to think of the specific things they do that create arguments (grabbing a toy, poking or pinching) and then find times when they do the opposite and comment on the positive behavior.
4. Teach your children how to use their words. Tell them the exact words to use as you guide them through solving the problem. It takes a lot of parental time and involvement in the beginning, but soon they will start doing it more and more on their own.
Beyond those basics, there are a few other things you can do to help your children get along with each other.
Let’s start with what I call The Three Steps to Apologizing. If one child (Jane) has hurt or harmed her brother (Tom), and Tom is upset, I have Jane say three specific things:
First, “I’m sorry I ____” (fill in the blank with whatever she did. Make it a sentence, not just two words).
Second, “I won’t do it again.”
Third, “Is there anything I can do to make it better?”
Having the offending child say these three things creates a conversation between the two of them instead of just an unrepentant, “Sorry.” It helps Tom (the one who got hurt) feel better, and it reinforces in Jane’s mind “I won’t do it again.” I tell Jane all these words and have her repeat them. It seems a little contrived at first, but it teaches them what to say, and it diffuses the situation.
If Jane has physically hurt Tom, then we have a talk about that, also. I will tell her, “It is not okay to hurt someone else in our home. No one is allowed to hurt you, and you aren’t allowed to hurt others.” Jane might be thinking (or saying), but I wanted that toy!! She is not developmentally capable of generating a different method of getting what she wants other than grabbing and hurting. I know I need to teach her other solutions or tools for getting what she wants (which is what Use Your Words is all about).
If using words is not getting her what she wants (and her anger is rising!), she needs a backup plan. This is how I teach my children to handle these difficult situations: “Jane, when you want something, the first thing to do is to use your words. Don’t just say, ‘Give me it!’ but tell him what you want and why you want it. Use lots of words and sentences to let him know why you need it. If that doesn’t work then come get me to help. I will help you solve the problem. Remember, it’s not okay to hurt your brother when you don’t get your way.”
This formula of use your words and then come get me is something we talk about a lot when conflicts come up. So after a while I might ask her to repeat it back to me; I could say, “What are you supposed to do when you want something?” and encourage her to tell me the two steps (use your words, then come get mom) with the added stipulations use LOTS of words, and never hurt or hit. This simple format not only gives them the skills for solving their own problems, but also provides a secondary plan for help when needed.
Teaching your children this method implies that you are willing to be involved in their conflicts. Many parents respond to sibling arguments with, “Don’t bother me with this! Go somewhere else; figure it out on your own.” I think those parents are missing a great opportunity to teach children about conflict resolution and to train them to stay calm and use words instead. When you are present and involved you can help them diffuse the situation, calm hot emotions, and find a solution that everyone is happy with.
We often focus on what to do when siblings fight, but you can prevent contention from happening by being proactive and teaching children how to get along. Teach them specific skills such as how to initiate play, how to find activities they both enjoy, how to gently decline when they are not interested, how to be less bossy (older children) and less passive (younger children). Some theories say that sibling fights are based in a conflict over parental love, but really they are simply arguments over toys! If you work on skill-building, the conflicts will diminish.
Competition between siblings is another form of conflict. Going through the four basic principles at the top of this post will help with this problem, also. It won’t make the competition go away necessarily, but it will give you the peace of mind that you have a plan and are doing the right things. There are two other pieces of advice I have about reducing sibling competition. The first is to avoid any comparisons between your children. Most parents realize they shouldn’t say, “Why can’t you be like your brother?!” but there are some more subtle comments that can also tear children down. If one child is feeling bad about something he didn’t do as well on as his brother, don’t say things like, “He’s good at basketball, and you’re good at drawing.” You don’t want to pigeon-hole children or discourage them from continuing to work at something they are not currently excelling at. You never know what each child’s potential is and you don’t want to do anything to stifle it. It’s better to avoid any comparisons at all. Only refer to the child you are speaking to. Console him by saying statements such as, “Sometimes you do well at basketball games and sometimes you don’t,” or, “Some things comes easily to you and some you have to work a little harder at.” It’s okay to tell him some specific things to work on or gently ask what other boys on the team do to develop their skills. But don’t say, “Your brother shoots baskets every day; that’s how he improved.” Just leave his brother out of it!
The second piece of advice is to not play up one child’s achievements in front of another child, especially if the second child is sensitive about his abilities. When one kid brings home a report card with all As and you get all excited in front of the other kid, it sends the message that good grades is what makes mom happy, and the other kid feels like he won’t be able to bring mom that same happiness. This is tricky because of course you want to celebrate the first kid’s successes. But when there are sensitive issues try to celebrate away from the other child. You could say, “Let’s go in the living room and look over your report card!”
Try to create a family culture of succeeding. For instance, “Browns are great at piano! You’re a Brown, right?” This is better than saying, “You’re just as good as your brother!” You don’t want to give the impression that he needs to live up to his brother’s achievements, but you do want to have a family culture of high expectations and excellent performance. An even better statement is, “Browns work hard at piano and that hard work pays off!” Focusing on the hard work instead of the outcome gives children a sense of control and greater motivation.
Watching sibling disputes and mediating between children can be frustrating and exasperating. Much of the time parents need to be patient and suffer through the bickering and nit picking. To deal with this or any parenting problem, start by applying the **Basic Principles. Then move on to strategies specifically aimed at helping children solve their bigger disputes: teach them the three steps to apologizing and exactly how to use their words; remind them that if words don’t work come get mom (or dad); teach them proactive ways to reduce contention; and avoid sibling comparisons. Remember, the problem solving skills they learn and practice though their sibling interactions will benefit them in all their relationships.