“Your kids fight?” people ask Judy Arnall incredulously, when I’m presenting a parenting workshop. “Of course!” she answers. “Every person in a love relationship fights.”
Every relationship has conflict – it’s normal and inevitable to disagree. However, the determining factor in the quality of the relationship is how the fights get resolved. Conflict happens between spouses, partners, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, group members, governments, countries and everyone else. Why would the sibling relationship be different? You know it’s going to happen. But like many things in parenting, it’s better to know what you are dealing with and have some planned strategies to try.
First, know that there are basically four types of sibling conflict and that each is driven by an underlying feeling – because most all relationship fights are generally about feelings, and not so much about the presenting issues. So the best way to deal with sibling fights is to deal head on with the feelings, rather than the issue. Here are the reasons kids fight, and what the child’s underlying feelings are…
What better way for your child to have some fun when he’s bored than to bug someone he knows is going to give him a great reaction?
Unhelpful parent strategy Ignoring the fight and punishing your child.
Helpful parent strategy Give your child a new, interesting activity that is work, fun or something to do with you or someone else. Casually separating the children also helps, but don’t make it an enforced time-out.
Your child is feeling left out, unloved, or un-noticed, and is silently screaming, “Notice me, whether negatively or positively, just notice me!”
Unhelpful parent strategy Giving negative attention in the form of a punishment, time-out, or time spent playing judge and jury.
Helpful parent strategy Avoid punishments. Ignore the fighting, but give more individual time and attention later when the fighting has subsided. Schedule a date night or time alone with just that child. Acknowledge pleasant sibling interactions when they occur.
Your child is angry because he perceives that he’s being victimized, or has feelings of frustration or injustice.
Unhelpful parent strategy Playing judge by directing who the perpetrator and victim was, and how restitution should be made, according to how you see things. Taking away fought over toys or privileges. Punishing both children regardless of the issue.
Helpful parent strategy Avoid punishments. Accept and acknowledge each child’s feelings and point of view and try to help them express it to the other child. Help them come to solutions that both agree on (help them generate the ideas rather than doing it for them). In addition, give each child input in family rule formation. Teach problem-solving skills and then coach them through the process. Teach anger management strategies and self-calming techniques later when everyone has calmed down and the issues are resolved.
This type of fighting usually occurs when the other three types of fights are resolved by unhelpful parenting strategies. When the parent steps in and tries to solve the children’s problems, or punishes sibling fighting, the child will harbor resentment toward the parent and other sibling. The resentments are acted out when children relentlessly pick on their siblings and constantly look for ways to bug them discretely, and this underground revenge, drives the parents’ bananas.
There is no real issue presenting. If the parent’s approach is to help the children solve his sibling problems respectfully, this type of fighting rarely surfaces in siblings. Your child may be feeling accumulated hatred and resentments towards his sibling, and may also be feeling jealousy, unworthiness, unloved, victimized, unvalued, or discarded
Unhelpful parenting strategies Group punishments, taking away toys or privileges, comparisons, and labeling. Being a judge without hearing or seeing the whole story.
Helpful parent strategies Notice generous, loving, caring, behavior and point it out to the children in specific language. Avoid labels and comparisons. Love each child best. Encourage accomplishments and efforts of each child. Avoid punishments of any kind to anybody. Accept and acknowledge all feelings of each child, even if you don’t agree with them. Give a lot of individual attention and time to each child.
How you deal with sibling rivalry determines how the children treat each other. If you punish them, they will punish each other. If your approach is to work on solving the problem in a mutually respectful way, they will also take the same approach.
And remember, you do not have to maintain equality at all times. Just commit yourself to giving only what each child needs. One child will bound to get more, because they need more, but the important point is that each child feels secure knowing that when he needs something, it will be given to him.
And celebrate your children’s fights! What a great opportunity to teach relationship skills and conflict resolution skills that they are bound to need later in life.