Angela D. describes a scenario familiar to many parents with more than one child: "They fight terribly. . . . They will play happily together for 10 minutes and then start fighting. It causes the whole family to start shouting at each other."
Sound familiar? When siblings fight, everyone in the family is affected. When a parent hears, "Give it to me!", "Get away from me!", or "No, m-i-n-e!", their first reaction is to yell, "Stop it!" or "How many times have I told you!"
Kids fight for many reasons. Just like everything else in childhood, the underlying reason kids fight is that they need to learn something.
What Can Kids Possibly Learn From Fighting?
If you were to look at a family tree, you'd see that siblings are listed on the same arm of the tree. That means they are of equal status when it comes to the rules in a family. But the sibling relationship is bigger than that. It's actually a child's first opportunity to learn about and prepare for long-term relationships.
Brothers and sisters teach each other about give and take, even when they don't want to. They're practicing how to love a person, even when they don't like what that person did. Siblings are constantly learning tolerance, patience, kindness, and, most of all, conflict resolution.
6 Ways to Help Prevent Rivalry
Most parents want to stop the fighting. But I'd like to suggest that you switch your focus from stopping the fighting, which teaches valuable skills, to stopping the rivalry. The rivalry is what can cause lifelong damage between brothers and sisters. Here are some tips on making this switch.
1. Don't Be Judge and Jury
Most parents think that part of their job entails being both judge and jury. The problem with that is that the kids don't learn how to resolve things themselves. When a parent decides who is right and who is wrong and what should be done about that, one child remains angry, and one feels like the winner. They're not working together to practice the resolution skills that they'll need to be successful in life.
2. Instead, Be a Facilitator
To get your kids to be on the same team, you need to help facilitate and guide them toward resolution of their own fights. You do that by teaching your kids how to express the feelings that motivated the fight in the first place. Put the same questions to both children until resolution has occurred. Here's an example:
Molly, why are you mad? And Sam, why are you mad?
Molly, please give me three ideas to work this out. And Sam, what are your three ideas?
(For more specifics, listen to my coaching audio (#6).)
3. Explain That We Do Not Hurt Those We Love
Since kids are immature thinkers, the best way to enforce this rule is to define it further. This might sound like "One way someone gets hurt is by accident. The other way is when someone uses his or her body as part of a fight. Which one is against the law in our house?"
When a child is busted for physically fighting with a sibling, do not expect him or her to say, "Gee, Mom, that was handled so calmly. I appreciate your wisdom." The kid is angry. Try not to address the anger — just yet. You can say, "I'd be angry too if I had to lose my video time because I was fighting." If you demand that your child not be angry, you're walking into a power struggle. You'll have picked up your end of the rope, as I described in a column, "How to Deal With Back Talk From Your Kids."
4. Don't Compare Your Kids
Comparing makes a child feel unappreciated and unloved by you. It never makes them rise up to work harder. Some kids increase the fighting with a sibling when they feel compared to him or her. Other kids swallow those feelings and seethe with resentment and lack of self-worth.
5. Focus on Each Sibling's Unique Talents
Each child deserves and needs to be seen as someone special, with unique talents and skills. Help your kids create high self-esteem by using "specific praise," not global praise, as you focus on their unique talents. To learn how to do that, see "The Key to Building Your Child's Self Esteem."
6. Read the Best Sibling Book Ever!
The best book I have ever found to teach parents how to facilitate conflict resolution with siblings is Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish. It's engaging and easy to read. They use cartoons to illustrate what to say and do. You will learn so much from that book!