Most parents will be familiar with the sound of siblings fighting, bickering and squabbling; the build up of tension is often audible from another room, soon enough one child is yelling, “THAT’S MINE!” …. The scream and then very often…. a WHACK.
When I work with parents of two or more kids and ask about the thing they are struggling with the most in their family life the number one answer is siblings fighting.
One of the greatest hopes many parents have is for their children to be friends. Beyond not enjoying the constant sound of screaming & bickering on a day-to-day basis many parents share a deeper hope that the humans they’re raising will - one day - be there for each other when we are not.
Our subconscious vision is for siblings who will be allies for life, a shoulder to cry on, someone to help you move house, share adventures with and even be a best man or maid of honour at a wedding.
A friend who will always be there.
And then we find ourselves knee deep in parenting with kids who seem intent on hurting each other, taking each other’s toys, setting each other up for trouble and it breaks our heart. Particularly if one child (usually the eldest) continues to target another, or they just seem to fight and moan over the injustice of just about EVERYTHING.
For many parents, children not getting along triggers worry deep in us that they may never get along. It can lead to a situation where we react in a knee-jerk, repetitive and loud manner – we may yell and punish the offending child and often they’ll yell back. Usually everyone feels awful - and you might as well set a 20-minute timer until the next fight because when our reactions are repetitive, knee jerk and loud the one thing we can guarantee is this it is going to happen again and again. And again.
The way we react to siblings fighting matters. A LOT. Here are my top five tips for changing the way we respond to fighting and therefore how we can change the GAME when it comes to sibling struggles:
Conflict is how our children learn about power and negotiation. It’s healthy.
Often we are just too involved and reactive. When we overreact the one thing we guarantee is that they will do it again. Because kids seek out our reactions whether they are positive or negative – so yelling will lead to more of the same.
Next time your children come running to you with a conflict try saying something like this: “Wow it sounds like you guys have a big problem. I wonder how you can solve it?”
Next time you hear your kids tussling over a toy, try to sit back and watch, ready to step in but willing to see how they go sorting it out themselves until really needed. Kids really can be very good at sorting out conflicts when they stop looking for us to step in.
The less we step in as a habit the less our kids request our involvement in their fights.
When siblings need more support - the trick is being able to be a commentator (who sets a few ground rules) rather than a referee.
When we are able to have some basic rules (for example, we don’t hit or hurt and we don’t snatch) our kids are free to get into healthy, noisy conflicts as long as they don’t break the ground rules. This makes our role clearer: when the ground rules get broken we need to step in to set a boundary. If a rule is being broken we must set a clear boundary to stop it. “I can’t let you hit.”
Outside of a ground rule being broken, our role as a commentator is simply naming what we see.
“Oh wow, you both want the yellow block, but we only have one…. I wonder what you guys are going to do?” These observations can engage even the most stubborn brick builder to come up with a solution.
“She gets more than me every time,” can be met with “You feel like your sister is always getting more than you are and that’s upsetting you.” Commentate without the judgement and resist the urge to jump in and solve the problem.
When my eldest child was around 4 years old he appeared to have a permanent hobby of attacking, undermining and hurting his little brother. We handled it like most parents would – we blamed him! He was older so he should be nicer and know better.
It wasn’t until my in-laws minded the boys while my husband and I had a weekend away and they gently pointed out that our younger son was an incredibly good “shit-stirrer”…. a very Aussie term that sums up well the behaviour of a younger brother who knows exactly how to push the right buttons until the older child does what they do best - lose it and thump him.
When we took the blame out of the post-thump discussions things turned a huge corner. Getting curious about what had happened before the thumping was helpful. “Oh so he threw that ball at you 17 times and then you pushed him off the bed and then he cried, and now we are here having this chat… I wonder how we could have done that differently?” These conversations seemed to help, and it definitely felt better and more positive.
You want to connect with both kids, and as crazy as it seems, getting in low and close with the hitter / snatcher/ protagonist to find out what happened, in their words without placing judgement, can allow them to feel seen and heard.
Try really putting yourself in your child’s shoes and empathise. “Sounds like you got really mad when he took that block you wanted, it really is hard being a big brother some days,” can go a long way towards actually getting your older child to hear you when together you brainstorm what he or she might do next time instead of hitting.
We don’t like it when our kids are angry, jealous or sad. And w hen these emotions are targeted at another child of ours it is a really hard situation for us as parents to accept. The way our own parents handled sibling struggles and feelings in our family of origin will also play a role in our own reactions in these situations.
The bottom line is when we can welcome in all of the feelings our kids have about their sibling it helps.
I had a breakthrough recently with the same eldest child who had been picking on his little brother all those years ago.
We were in a conflict as he’d broken a rule and left his brother behind when out with local kids on their bikes. His brother had come home heartbroken and humiliated.
I was so angry, but I knew that speaking again about including his brother wouldn’t help so instead I listened. I listened to him tell me how his brother was slower than the other kids, how he’d waited back so many times, and had been left behind himself as a result. He told me that sometimes he wants to be able to just hang with his mates without his bro. It made perfect sense.
I was able to see how he cared for his brother but that the responsibility was sometimes too much, and felt unfair. I concluded that it sounded really tricky, that it was hard and that being the eldest of four boys he shouldn’t have to feel like he had to care for his brothers every single time. Together we nutted out a compromise that worked like a charm and improved their relationship out of sight.
Sibling struggles are healthy, and very normal. Getting comfortable with that will ease the discomfort you might experience when they’re at each other.
If it feels like sibling fight are dominating your home or family remember that the way we respond as parents will either calm fear and build connection, or fuel the fire and intensify feelings of jealousy.
Obstetric Social Worker and Parent Educator at the Mater hospital in Sydney and also a mother to four beautiful boys Genevieve is passionate about helping families adapt to the modern parenting world and all its challenges and not only survive but thrive.
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