Handling Sibling Rivalry

beautiful-blond-hair-boy-2645300We all envision our children getting along well, loving each other, and supporting each other.  We want their bond to be tight, reliable, and consistent.  Throughout the storms of life, and well beyond our passing, we desire that they lean on each other and serve one another with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

When siblings fight, it creates angst for us.  It is unsettling, unnerving, and frustrating.  Sometimes, children argue and fuss at one another for a short period of time.  For others, they love hard and fight hard all throughout their childhood years.

Even though we don’t like it, it is important to remember that conflict is a necessary part of life.  Conflict helps us to grow, and can help us to be closer to one another when we learn to handle it the right way.   So, no matter the level or duration of conflict or “sibling rivalry”, nor the age at which it presents, let’s look at keeping five key things in mind.

1. As a parent, when observing any conflict between your children, first regulate your own emotions. 

Remember that your children will model what you present.  Your children need you to be the calm and present help when they are angry or frustrated with one another.  You are on the scene to help provide reason and assist them in reconnecting with each other.  To do that, you have to first connect with them yourself.  That requires you to not lose yourself in your own thoughts and feelings.  Collect yourself and remember that you can make a difference.

2. Consider common reasons why siblings argue. 

Siblings tend to argue most when they are bored, tired, wanting their parents’ attention, battling to see who is in charge, jealous of each other, feel that a situation is unfair, or dealing with outside stress that they are taking out on each other.

3. The next step is to model conflict resolution and restore connection between your children.  This is a three step process:

a) Start by using language that validates and affirms how each is feeling. Then ask each of them to explain their point of view and what happened. 

For example, let’s imagine that two brothers, Johnny and Charlie, are arguing because Charlie took Johnny’s toy and won’t give it back.  Dad calmly says, “I know you both are upset and angry with each other.  I want to understand what each of you is feeling and what has happened.  Johnny, can you start by telling me what happened? (Dad listens) Now, can you tell your brother and I how you felt when he took your toy?”  Dad then turns to Charlie and says, “Charlie, I want to hear from you. Can you tell me what happened? Tell us how you were feeling before you took the toy.” 

This approach may sound unfamiliar if you are accustomed to immediately intervening and correcting the situation (i.e. taking the toy from Charlie and giving it back to Johnny, in this example, and then issuing a consequence).  The key here is to not control the situation and correct it yourself.   Rather, it is to teach your children how to resolve conflict long term, not just with each other, but with others.  Your goal is to model conflict resolution skills that are healthy and allow your children to come together naturally as a result, stronger than they were before.   In telling their side of the story out loud and verbalizing their feelings, your children learn to listen to each other.

b) Ask your children to work together with you to solve the problem.  Considering the above example, Dad asks Johnny and Charlie for ideas as to how to solve the problem of each wanting the toy.   He listens to ideas and credits each child for thinking of some good solutions.  Dad says, “I understand you both want to play with the toy.  How about you both take turns like Johnny suggested? How does that sound?  That way you can each have it for a few minutes.  We can set the timer so I can help you to know when to switch turns.”  Both children feel heard with this approach and have a chance to contribute to the solution.

c) Implement the solution and be a guide in the process.   Dad, in this case, may keep track of the time and ensure that each child gets a turn with the toy.   If one child were to be unhappy over the solution,  dad could take extra time with him to explain why sharing is the right thing to do in a family.  Dad would also be present to ensure that emotional conflict doesn’t start up again.

3. Instead of punishing, connect.  True obedience comes from a heart change, not from fear of punishment.

Punishing children through the use of physical discipline (i.e. spanking) or physical consequences (i.e. push ups, hands in the air, nose to the wall) creates feelings of shame and is counterproductive.  Children who are punished in this fashion tend only to become more angry and resentful, often keeping feelings of anger inside.   Some obey going forward merely out of fear of the harsh consequence and meanwhile become more anxious on the inside.   Other children stop caring, and don’t show any reaction once punishments pile up.

Remember this-  Obedience comes from a heart change.  Children desire to obey when they understand 1) that they are loved and 2) that because they are loved, their parents want to connect with them and help them to do right.  You will help your child become a better individual when you make an intentional choice to spend time with him connecting instead of punishing, identifying what his needs are, and then speaking into those needs in a way that only you can.

For example, imagine that ten year old Tommy is in trouble for persistently being unkind and bullying his younger brother.  His parents have tried to punish him, but nothing is working and Tommy doesn’t care anymore about consequences.  He used to obey because he didn’t want to lose his screen time, but now he simply doesn’t have a reaction and continues to be unkind.

His parents then try a different approach.  Mom and dad wonder if Tommy is feeling jealous that his younger brother seems to behave and gets more affirmation and praise from his parents as a result.  They reflect and wonder if he feels like he doesn’t have control of his emotions, and is in trouble all the time as a result.  Mom and dad decide to spend one on one time with Tommy and his brother, alternating so that each gets a half hour a night of parent-child time.  During that time, mom takes Tommy out for a meal, and they enjoy talking about his soccer game.  Mom then asks him how he has been feeling and why he gets so upset with his younger brother.  Tommy says, “I never do anything right, mom.  He does everything right. I get really mad at myself.  I’m always in trouble.”  Mom uses this as a time to help Tommy understand a couple of key ways to manage his feelings.  She shares that when she was younger, she used to feel like she had trouble with controlling emotions, too.  She normalizes that for him.  She praises him for things he does well, tells him that she loves when he talks with her, and that she enjoys their time together.  That night, when they get home, Tommy’s behavior is better.  He starts to say one unkind thing to his brother, but before he continues, his mom makes gentle eye contact with him, and he stops.

This approach takes time.  It is about building relationship, which doesn’t happen overnight.  But, I can promise you, when you invest time and connect with your child,  your child will internalize your love, and listen to your counsel and correction far better than he would through punishments.

4. If limits are needed, use empathy and only natural consequences as opposed to punishments. 

If your child is being unkind to his sibling and it is continual, you may need to separate them and give them each time to cool down.   You may also need to set a limit.   For instance, if Johnny and Charlie continue to argue in the situation above despite Dad’s guidance, Dad could say, “We have lost the ability to play with this toy because we aren’t working together to create a fair situation.  I know it’s hard.  We need to think more about how to share and that is OK.”

When you set a limit or provide a natural consequence, just like the dad in this situation, be sure to do so with empathy.  Empathy in this situation means a gentle but firm voice, a restatement of the problem, and acknowledging that it is hard sometimes to do the right thing.  A natural consequence is one that is related to the problem, is helpful, and is logical.  It does not create shame or fear.

5. Don’t compare your children to one another. 

Children only internalize bitterness and resentment toward one another when parents compare them to each other.  (Put yourself in the position when someone says, “Your friend is a lot more generous and kind than you”.   Would that be productive or help you out? No! It would probably make you feel bitter!)  Remember, each of your children will have different strengths.  For one, it may be the ability to be calm, cool, and collected.  For another, it may be strong leadership skills.  For yet another, it may be physical strength or dexterity.  It is OK for children to be different; God made them that way.  Different emotional skill sets will belong to each of them also.  Be patient.  Think of each child individually.