Sibling Fights

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.

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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.

Never Say Never

I strongly believe that the words we use have a big impact on the way we view the world and how we feel.  I think it makes a difference when we speak accurately instead of using what I call exaggeration words.  Exaggeration words like never, always, forever, all over, and hate are rarely true.  We use them when tensions are high or when we are frustrated and want to make our point more forcefully, but they distort the situation and often make it worse.  If we take a moment to calm down and contemplate what we’re really feeling, we can find more accurate and productive ways of expressing ourselves.

Children seem to come pre-programmed to use exaggeration words and phrases.  I’m sure you’ve heard some of the following:

“We never get to go there!”

“I hate her!”

“She’s always bugging me!”

“This will take forever!”

Even though children use these phrases naturally, parents can teach them how to express themselves more appropriately.  One way to do that is by modeling the correct behavior yourself.  Have you ever found your child walking in the house with muddy shoes and said something like, “You’ve got mud all over!”  or “This will take forever to clean up!”  If you change those statements to, “You’ve tracked mud on the carpet,” and “It will take me a long time to clean it up,” you will feel calmer, and your children will learn a better way to express themselves.  It takes practice and self control, but it will be worth it.  In addition, your child will respond better because he will feel that you are being honest and accurate.  A child is like any other person – when he hears someone exaggerate he tends to tune them out.  When people exaggerate, others around them roll their eyes and think, “Why are they getting so upset?”  Your children will listen and respond better when you speak in measured words and tones.  Start to notice how you speak to your children, especially in frustrating situations, and see if you can find ways to eliminate exaggeration words and phrases and replace them with accurate statements.

Many exaggeration statements are negative and demeaning to children.  It may be tempting to say, “You never listen!” or “Why are you always making messes?” But these types of statements are not true for any child.  Every child, every person, listens sometimes and sometimes doesn’t; makes messes sometimes and sometimes doesn’t.  If you are concerned about your child’s problem with these behaviors, you can talk to them about it in a more direct, encouraging way, such as, “I want you to listen when mommy talks to you.”  You should try to find times when he does listen and positively reinforce that.

We’ve all said these types of things in anger and frustration, and it’s okay if it happens occasionally.  But you should make efforts to get in the habit of controlling what you say and speaking positively and accurately.  Refer to the post Practice Patience for tips on how to stay calm.

When your children use exaggeration phrases, you can teach them that speaking like that is not factual.  For example, if one of my daughters said about a friend, “She’s always so mean!” I would NOT respond by saying, “No, she’s not” or “Don’t say that.”  Those responses shut down communication, don’t really get to the bottom of what is going on, and don’t teach the child about accurate speech.  I would say, “Sometimes she is mean, sometimes she isn’t.  What happened that made you say that?”  This reply, “sometimes _____ and sometimes _____” is very useful for conveying the nuanced reality of the world.  Life is complicated, and things are rarely black and white.  It takes a long time for children to recognize this, but this type of response helps them begin to understand it.  To the declaration, “She never shares!” I would say, “Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t.  How can we solve this problem right now.”  Focus your child on the current problem and possible solutions, and steer him away from making general statements about a person or state of affairs.  Kids will often say, “I hate you!” to a sibling or parent.  In this case, I would remind them of the rule of not saying hate with a simple, “We don’t say hate” and then explain, “Sometimes you like me (or her), sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay.  But you need to be respectful when you speak to me.”  You’re not criticizing the feeling.  Feelings come naturally and can’t always be controlled.  But words and actions can (and should) be controlled.  You’re teaching the child that no matter what he is feeling, he still needs to speak respectfully, which is a valuable lesson.  You should be modeling this behavior as much as possible.

A corollary to this is the inevitable time when your child says, “I hate myself.”  Most parents will respond with strong emotion, saying, “Don’t ever say that! You’re wonderful!”  But again, that conveys that he shouldn’t communicate how he feels, and it closes off the discussion from further enlightenment.  The better way is to first remind the child of the general rule (without a lot of emotion): “We don’t say hate.”  That rule applies in any situation.  Then follow up with, “What is going on that makes you say that?”  Ask an open-ended question that allows the child to express his feelings and have a conversation with you about what is going on in his life.

When my children say something like, “You never let me stay up!” they know I will respond with, “That’s an exaggeration word.”  Sometimes I try to get them to restate the phrase, and I will help them if necessary.  For instance, “Why don’t you try, ‘Mom, I want to stay up, and I feel like I haven’t gotten to for quite a while. Can I, please?’”   I try to remind them that they can tell me how they feel and ask for what they want.  They can say, “I feel angry,” or “I feel frustrated.” (I literally say this to them, giving them the exact words to use to express themselves).  But they can’t speak unkindly or disrespectfully, and exaggeration words often fall under those categories.

Sometimes parents use exaggeration words when they compliment their children. Specific compliments are more powerful and more sincere.  Exaggerating compliments are the easy way out. They don’t take much effort, they are vague, and they are often untrue.  I’m irritated when I hear parents say, “That is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen!”  I know this is simply the way some parents express themselves, and they don’t mean to be insincere.  But it’s much better to give the painting some thought and attention and point out something specific that you admire, such as, “I like the red in the flowers!” or “It looks like you worked hard on that.”  We are in an age where building up children’s self-esteem is highly emphasized.  Parents tend to over-compliment.  This can actually cause anxiety in children and make them believe that the result is more important that the effort.  The adage ‘less is more’ applies here.  I’m all for positive reinforcement, but a smile and a simple, accurate kind word can be very powerful.  I try to avoid using “the most” or any adjective ending in ‘est’ (cutest, smartest, etc.) when I give praise.  Those words ring untrue and don’t sit right.  They also focus on comparison: if you were the cutest, that means you were cuter than all the other girls.  It’s better to stay away from comparisons by saying, “You looked very cute in your class performance today.”

Hopefully it is clear that there are many reasons to get in the habit of using accurate words and avoiding exaggeration words.  Doing so can ease high emotions and give you a greater chance of resolving situations peacefully.  It will help you and your children get control of and express difficult feelings.  This type of speech helps children begin to understand the complicated world and learn that sometimes you feel one way and sometimes you feel another; sometimes a person is mean and sometimes they are nice.  It also allows you to give compliments that motivate and feel sincere rather than provoke anxiety or comparison.

Explain Expectations

The basic task of parenting is teaching appropriate behavior. When you approach parenting in this way, you are PROACTIVE, guiding your child in the behavior you want, rather than reacting to whatever behavior he comes up with.  It takes time for children to learn and remember appropriate behaviors.  I tell myself it takes at least 100 times of telling them, and then I don’t count :).  Many misbehaviors can be reframed as teaching opportunities.   Certainly in each new situation, but even at each step of the day you can be reminding and teaching what actions and words are expected.

Here’s an example: “When we go to visit our friends we talk kindly and treat them nicely.  We share toys and clean up toys when we are done.”  You might want to get even more specific: “When we walk in the house and you see your friend, what are you going to say? Maybe you could say, ‘Hi, what do you want to play?’”  And continue on explaining each step of the play date.

Let me make it VERY CLEAR, however, that you are not expecting them to do these exact things when the time comes. That is setting you and your child up for failure!!  You don’t necessarily think they will say these exact phrases, and you certainly don’t expect that they will share the toys willingly or clean up with complete cooperation.  You’re just constantly teaching and talking about what the correct behavior is (see Stop and Redirect for what to do when the behavior isn’t actually what you want it to be).  Your constant monologue about what is going to happen and what you would like them to do will eventually sink in!  But please don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen quickly.

If there is a certain problem your child is having, like leaving the play date when it’s over, then you could talk about this more often and clearly communicate your expectations, possibly with role-playing. It’s best to discuss it in a calm moment, when emotions are not high.  The conflict moment, when you’re trying to get your child to leave, is not the time for teaching.  That is the time for resolving the situation as calmly and quickly as you can.  Teach in times of good attitude and positive emotion.

So, if you have a play date scheduled for later that day or the next day you could say, “When I come to pick you up from Johnny’s house I’m going to say, ‘It’s time to go now,’ and you are going to say, ‘Okay, mommy.’”  (BTW – ‘Okay, mommy’ is one of my favorite phrases!)

“Let’s practice it now.  Pretend I just came to the door and I say, ‘Time to go!’ What do you say?”  Let the child answer, hopefully correctly.  “Good job!  You’ll say that even if you are having a lot of fun playing and really want to stay.  It’s important that you leave cooperatively when I say it’s time to go.  Then we can come play another time.”

You’re preparing the child to anticipate the fact that they will want to stay, that it will be hard to leave.  YOU’RE EMPATHIZING WITH THAT EMOTION, BUT STILL BEING FIRM IN WHAT BEHAVIOR YOU EXPECT.  This is key.

This teaching and role playing formula can be applied to any situation you are having trouble with, or just used all the time to teach and practice the behavior you desire.

Again, if you pick the child up the next day and he fights and screams, that’s ok.  Just because you taught him doesn’t mean you necessarily expect him to do it the first time.  You deal with the kicking and screaming, then later teach and role play the desired behavior again for the next time.  It takes a long time for children to learn these behaviors.

You can also teach your child what words to say if they want to stay (see Use Your Words, one of the most important posts!).  Like this, “If you want to stay longer you can ask me, you could say, ‘Mom, I’m having a lot of fun playing with my friend.  Is there any way I could stay a little longer?’”

You might think this sounds ridiculous – like, a child is never going to say that!  But if you model it and teach it to him repeatedly, he really will.  Plus, when a child uses words/sentences like this in any conflict situation it DIFFUSES the emotion.  This is so important, and such a magic tool – you will be amazed!  Even if the answer is no, the child will be way more compliant, way less emotional after using his words, and you respond with an equivalent explanation/sentence (“That is so nice of you to use your words and ask me like that.  We have to get home for lunch and your nap, so it is time to go now.  But you can play with Johnny another day.”).

You’ll see that I’m suggesting using a lot of words to explain expectations and teach appropriate behavior and speech, but in the high conflict moments or distributing consequences moments, you don’t use many words, as few as possible, in fact.  That is not a teaching time.

While we’re on this subject I have to say something else about leaving a play date or restaurant or getting your kids to bed or many other similar situations – the kids know you’re going to talk for a while (or read the paper or do something other than enforce the instructions you just told them).  They know they don’t really have to come when you say it’s time to go because you’re going to chit chat.  You might want to include this in your preparation explanation – that you will talk to the other mom for a while and then when you say ‘it’s time to go’ it really is time to go.  But you have to not say it until you really mean it, or else don’t be angry when they don’t listen!  If you really start to pay attention you might find that you often give instructions and then turn and do something else.  You don’t really mean it’s time for bed or time to go, it’s just a heads up that some time in the future we will be going.  Of course it’s polite to chat for a minute with the other mom, but just don’t say ‘time to go’ until you’re really ready.

Let me say a few more things about teaching what behaviors are expected.  One day I had tickets to a play in our town for that evening, for myself and two of my daughters, who were around 6 and 8 at the time.  When it was time to get ready, I told them they needed to go put on nice clothes so we could go to the play.  They threw a fit!  They complained and begged to wear their sweats or jeans, and whined and almost cried.  I was so frustrated!  Here I am, doing a nice thing and taking them to this fun play, and they can’t even change their clothes!  Suddenly I realized that I had not prepared them.  I should have been telling them all week about it – what it was going to be like, how people dress up for plays, what day and time we would go, how fun it would be, how long it would be, what it’s about, etc.  There were so many things I could have done to prepare them for that moment – gotten them excited about the event and also taught them what behavior would be expected.  But I had failed.  This is a helpful reframe of their behavior – they are not being bad, they don’t need to be punished or told they are ungrateful.  They are just being children.  Children need a lot of preparation for any new event.

A similar thing happened when we went to a church event and afterward there was a table of treats.  My kids took one treat after another, and I wasn’t really paying attention.  Then they were running around the gym, and then I realized they’d had five or more treats (possibly one of the children tattled on the other to share this helpful information).  I was really angry (irrationally so, I must admit – doesn’t this happen at almost all church functions?!), but then remembered that I didn’t prepare them.  I should have told them at home, or even in the car on the way to the church, what would happen, what I wanted them to do during and after the event, including how many treats they were allowed to have.  In this situation, as often is the case, other parents weren’t monitoring their children. “Shelly got to have five treats!” So I needed to also prepare my children for this: “Other kids might have more treats than you’re allowed to have, and other kids might run around/take their shoes and socks off/roam the halls, etc. but in our family we . . . .”

Still to do this day there are times when their bad behavior surprises me, and then I realize that I didn’t fully explain to them what is expected.  But I get more frustrated with myself than them, and remind myself to prepare them better next time.

So you need to be consistently thinking about what the next segment of the day is going to include or what events are coming up, and talk about what behavior is expected and what behavior is inappropriate.  Talk about it often, be specific, and role play. Kids love to role play – they think it’s so funny to pretend act.  This is all done in calm, positive-emotion times, and is not used to demean or punish or point out past bad behavior.

Remember, think of failure to behave well not as a reason to punish, but an opportunity to teach.