How to Stay Above the Fray and When to Intervene
It’s almost summer, and your children may be spending more time together. That usually means more arguing, too. The good news is there are ways to help your children learn to get along and to benefit from disagreements.
“Ultimately, sibling arguments are not about toys or TV or who got more gifts: Siblings argue because they are trying to find their own place in the family,” says Heidi Smith Luedtke, a personality psychologist, specializing in personal development, people skills and parenting. “Sibling arguments are a reflection of kids’ feelings about who is more important, who has control and who gets more attention from parents.”
Heather Kempskie, co-author of “The Siblings’ Busy Book,” echoes Luedtke’s findings. “Beneath the surface of arguments, what siblings truly are competing for is their parent’s time, attention and resources,” she says. “It’s a battle that begins early and lasts a lifetime.”
Kempskie and her co-author, Lisa Hanson, who is also her identical twin sister, found a daunting statistic: Siblings can be meaner to each other than they are to a friend by 700 percent. 700 percent!
“That’s because a sibling will be around forever, and friends wouldn’t put up with that,” Kempskie says.
Parents of more than one child hear similar disagreements bouncing off the walls of their homes.
“Siblings often argue when they don’t want to share toys or when they can’t get along in their shared space – like a playroom, bedroom or living room,” Luedtke says. “They may struggle over who gets to choose the next TV show or whose piece of cake is bigger. They may claim parents always take the other sib’s side or that parents always go to one child’s games or that parents buy more goodies for one child than the other.”
When to Intervene
It may ease your mind to know that sibling rivalry, from short arguments to long shouting matches, are normal. Sibling rivalry is a natural and positive part of your children’s lives. According to some experts, kids ages 3 to 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour.
“It’s normal to want to level the playing field, but parents need to help kids develop skills they need to stick up for themselves, rather than doing it all for them,” Kempskie says.
As a fight escalates, parents should certainly step in when one or all of the siblings are too young to verbalize their feelings or come up with a solution to a problem. It’s also important to intervene whenever the children’s safety is in question, Kempskie says.
If no safety issues are involved, parents can sit back and watch for a while, Luedtke advises. “Explain that you are confident that they can come up with a fair and reasonable solution,” she says.
If nothing changes in five to 10 minutes, Luedtke says, start asking questions: “What is the problem?” (Give each child a chance to answer.); “What could you do to solve the problem?”; “What can I do to help you with that?”
If kids can’t find an equitable solution, you may have to issue a directive, Luedtke continues. These directives may be giving the toy or TV a time out; sending kids to separate rooms; or creating a sharing system (child No. 1 gets three turns, then child No. 2 takes three turns, etc.).
“During a calm family time, talk to your children and make it clear that bossiness, yelling and fighting will have a consequence,” Kempskie says. “Remind them of what you expect from them. Good behavior includes using manners, not arguing, talking nicely to each other and doing something without being asked.”
Help Siblings be Friends
Although a home may seem constantly chaotic with arguing, parents can help their children build solid relationships with one another.
“One of the best practices is to institute the ‘no compare’ rule,” Kempskie says. “Try to never compare your children. Encourage their uniqueness and let them know how special they are to you.”
Parents need to try to “stay above the fray,” Luedtke says. “Parents should be careful not to take sides in sibling squabbles.
“Emphasize the importance of respect and civility. Siblings will not always agree with one another. Kids need to know that it’s okay to get angry, but it isn’t okay to speak in a rude and hostile tone. Name calling isn’t acceptable either.”
Another way to improve family relationships is for parents to spend time alone with each child on a regular basis. One-on-one time is a great way to lessen competition for your time, Kempskie says.
In addition, the child gets a chance to express their feelings and have a private conversation with dad or mom, Luedtke says. “Get to know your kids as individuals, not just as siblings,” Luedtke says. “When kids feel they are treated as individuals, they are less likely to feel rivalry over parents’ attention and affection.”
Parents need to do a realistic assessment of their own behavior. “It’s entirely possible parents are playing favorites, even if they aren’t aware that they’re doing it,” Luedtke says. “Parents may feel a greater need to protect a younger sibling’s interests because they believe the younger sibling can’t stick up for him or herself. Or they may intervene in favor of a shy or silent child, if they believe the aggressive child has the upper hand.”
Benefits of Sibling Rivalry
“When they fight over possessions, tease each other and even when they are getting along, they are learning valuable life lessons,” Kempskie says. These lessons include: how to socialize, negotiate, stand up for themselves, find their strengths and weaknesses and figure out productive ways to handle feelings.
Kempskie and her twin believe that siblings are a “gift.” “We share a history with our siblings,” she says. “They are the ones we can remember fond childhood memories with. They are the ones that stick up for us when we really need a true friend. They are the ones that we will grow old with. Siblings are the longest relationship many of us have in our lifetime.”