It’s natural for children to feel frustrated when big sister takes the last cookie, or little brother touches their “stuff.” Not only do brothers and sisters compete with one another for a parent’s attention, they sometimes simply argue out of habit. But when siblings cannot negotiate disagreements without hurting one another — either physically or emotionally — parents need to take action. Here’s my advice:
1. Establish expectations for behavior so your children clearly know what you will and will not allow. I like the phrase, “Our home is a non-violent home,” delivered with authority. While you should explain to your children that it’s perfectly normal and OK to be angry, it is not OK to strike out with hurtful behavior or words. And make sure you’re sticking to the standards, as well.
2. Try to address the root cause of hurtful remarks. A child who consistently taunts his brother or sister is a) feeling chronically frustrated and misunderstood; b) shaking loose difficult feelings from other situations (like the school playground); or c) “paying back” a sibling for hurting him.
Choose a time when you can give each of your children your undivided attention, and ask leading questions such as, “I notice it’s been hard for you to resist hitting your brother when he comes into your room without asking. Tell me what makes you so mad when he does that…” Avoid interrupting with threats or lectures. By listening with care, you may be able to address the underlying causes of your siblings’ frustrations with one another.
3. Schedule regular family meetings where each member gets to feel heard as they offload annoying issues that fuel discord. Insist that everyone first share something positive about each family member, and then make time for them to voice a complaint or make a request. Allow whoever’s talking to have the stage — some families use a talking stick — so they get the sense that no matter how old or young, everyone in your family gets to be heard. By teaching your children that they have the right to respectfully make reasonable requests of one another, you will lessen their reliance on verbal or physical aggression to get their needs met.
4. Try not to turn on what I call “Mom TV” when your kids fight. Sometimes bickering happens simply because children are bored, or they want to stir things up and get some drama going with mom. While my approach generally focuses on preventing problems, if your kids are bickering and won’t try to work things out, separate them without a lot of discussion until they’ve cooled down. In other words, don’t make your own dramatic reaction a payoff for their misbehavior.
Sibling rivalry is a serious issue, and needs to be managed by cool, calm parenting. By addressing underlying causes, establishing clear guidelines for how to handle disagreements and making sure your children have a chance to feel heard about their upsets, you can minimize the bickering, and establish a more peaceful home.
AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon.