Got siblings? If you do, I bet you can imagine yourself in the backseat of the car in a heartbeat, remembering the injustice of your brother hogging more of the center armrest. Or was it your sister that always jumped in the front seat before you got to the car. Maybe it was the time your dad pulled over, turned around and said, “Knock it off or I am turning this car around right now!” Takes you right back, doesn’t it? Take a deep breath; it’s okay, you are in the driver’s seat now. But the ride may still be annoying thanks to your own band of munchkins screaming in the back seat.
I know how it goes. Your sister is your best friend. You had baby number one, and couldn't wait to provide her with a sibling of her own to play with every day of childhood. You couldn’t wait to see them snuggle up in matching jammies, play hide and seek in the backyard, and love each other so much that they always share with ease.
It was awfully cute when kiddo number one asked if the new baby could sleep outside because their crying is too loud. Somehow it lost it’s cuteness as kiddo number two became mobile and discovered big sister’s favorite stuffy and decided no other would do. And thus begins life with siblings, a love/hate relationship that seems almost bipolar in nature. One minute they are playing tug of war with a toy, screaming that they hate each other; and the next thing you know they are laughing away and best friends. I have witnessed this a thousand of times, and yet I still sit in awe of how quickly they get both into and out of conflicts.
As normal as sibling conflict is, the number one question I get from parents is “How do I make it stop?” Believe me, I get it. The constant nature of it can drive us nuts. It’s loud, it’s in our space and we feel stuck in a tug of war between our children. Yet it happens in every family, generation after generation, and there’s a reason: siblings provide a wonderful place for children to learn valuable life skills.
Like lion cubs and kittens that play-fight to build their skills for adult life, so do our children. Through their fighting they learn communication skills, problem solving skills, negotiation, compromise, boundary setting and self-care. Here’s the kicker: the best way for them to learn these skills is for us to teach them some basic ground rules and then to step out of the conflict and let them practice and learn.
How Do I Keep Them Safe?
Parents are often concerned that if they don’t step in, someone may get hurt. While it’s possible, if we teach our kids some ground rules and coach them early on, we can feel greater confidence that conflicts will not escalate to violence. Here are the critical ones:
Our House Is A Safe Place. We want to make sure that everyone in our home feels safe and respected. This means we do not use name-calling or physically hurting to solve problems. If these pop up, it means it is time to take a break until everyone is calm.
Stop Means Stop, Always. If someone says stop, it needs to be respected. Immediately. It is hard to step away when we are mad, and sometimes even when we are having lots of fun. Sometimes things can stop feeling fun for one person relatively quickly, and if you hear the word stop, listen to it.
This is a great one to role-play and practice! Kids love to watch their parents pretend to be fighting siblings. Make sure each person has a chance to practice saying stop.
You Can Leave The Conflict. If you are not feeling respected or not having fun, you can leave the conflict at any point.
If you hear the sounds of early conflict, you might walk into the room and ask if everyone is still having fun. If not, they can take a break. They will eventually learn to ask themselves this question. It is super important for us to model this ourselves when in our own grown up conflicts.
You Can Solve A Problem. Instead of solving problems for your kids, make sure you give them the opportunity to practice. Teach them how you solve problems: brainstorming, listening to all perspectives, agreeing to try something and see how it goes. Use everyday opportunities by regularly asking, “How can we solve this problem?”
Keep in mind that skill building takes time. With kids under five, you may need to spend lots of time coaching them through the conflict. Instead of saying words for them or solving it for them, use questions to draw out their answers, and then coach them on using the words to tell their sibling how they feel. Over time, they will internalize these skills themselves and really do quite well at managing conflict.
Dealing With Kids In Conflict
Parents are often surprised to learn that it is not our job to solve the problems kids face. In fact, we actually need to step out of it because often the conflict is an attempt to draw us in. And if we take sides, no one wins. It is impossible to judge against one of our children in favor of another without causing some hurt and disconnection. Jane Nelson, Ph.D., author of Positive Discipline, offers three great ways we can help the situation or at least avoid escalating the conflict.
1) Always put kids in the same boat. We need to treat everyone involved in the conflict the same. Focusing on the problem only increases our anger and frustration. Help kids move on to what they can do about it. You might say, “It’s not important to me who started it, how are you going to solve it?”
2) Avoid comparing. We all look for our unique place in the family. When we compare kids, we may be creating additional problems as one child may think, “well, if I can’t be the best, I will be the worst!”
3) Build in special time with each child so they feel connected. It’s important for each child to know they matter as an individual, and have a relationship with their parents independent of their sibling. Spending even ten minutes each day or every other day alone with each child can go a long way toward reducing the need to compete for your attention with their sibling. In our house, we alternate bedtimes so that we each get a small chunk of time every other day with each of our children.
But They Are Driving Me Insane!
We’ve talked about the benefits siblings get from conflict with each other; we’ve covered some ground rules for keeping them safe and ways to avoid escalating the conflict. But what the heck do we do in the moment? You get to take care of yourself! Positive Discipline recommends three actions we can take:
Beat It. Leave the room. Let them know you trust their ability to solve the problem and you don’t want to listen to the arguing. Go into another room, move away from the noise and take some deep breaths. When you initially do this, they will try hard to get you involved, as that’s what they are used to. Trust them. The will get through it. At nine and twelve, my kids get fairly angry if I say anything. They often forget they are fighting and join together in, “leave us alone mom, we got this!”
Bear It. Stay in the room, but don’t get involved. This may help your anxiety about them hurting each other, but requires a great deal of patience. I would not attempt this unless you are in a really good space yourself. Again, at first your kids will likely up the ante in an effort to engage you.
Boot ‘em Out. In the middle of cooking or in your own room? Send the kids packing. They don’t need to fight in front of you. In a calm voice say, “I don’t want to listen to this, please go to another room to solve your problem.”
The only person you can make do something is yourself. I know that is a hard one to swallow as a parent, but the sooner we accept that, the more we can trust others to take care of what is their own. It’s okay to feel scared about stepping out of sibling conflict. Acknowledge the fear, and focus on what you can do- help your children recognize their feelings, communicate them, and brainstorm solutions to their problem. Our own ability to model these skills with our partners, our children, and others will help your children develop them as well.
Next time the battle over who get’s which half of the sofa starts up, remember that this is all part of the gift of having siblings. The wrapping might not be pretty, but the benefit of their endless bickering is that it may teach them the very skills they need to thrive in life.