"He threw his cereal at me!"
"He pushed me!"
"I did not!"
I was in the shower, hurrying to get ready for a busy day. Hammering on the bathroom door were my then 10-year-old twins, Andrew and Russell.
"Just a minute," I shouted, reaching for a towel. Scuffling sounds punctuated the continuing litany of accusations. "Here we go again!" I grumbled through clenched teeth as I pulled on my robe, ready for battle.
Then I laughed. For a moment, I?d forgotten I was to speak that morning to a young mothers? group on the topic of sibling conflict and rivalry. But I wasn?t sure I could practice what I was about to preach. Even today, after 30 years of raising children, I find handling sibling conflict one of the most difficult areas of parenting.
We have nine children, ages 11-30, and if there?s one thing I know it?s that brothers and sisters will fight over anything, from who gets the last piece of cake to who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. Can parents change this or are we doomed to be dragged through the mud of an endless sibling tug-of-war until the kids go to college?
Experts offer hope mixed with a dose of reality. Some things, such as the temperament and genetic make-up of each child, are beyond a parent?s control. However, studies have shown parenting style to be a key factor in determining the way children in a family relate to each other.
Here are some ideas I?ve acquired from other parents, picked up from experts, or learned the hard way myself.
Run a Reconnaissance
Removing sources of irritation will go a long way toward restoring peace in your home. Conduct a personal in-house survey to determine when your kids have the most problems with each other. Is it that terrible hour before dinner? Most children get a little grouchy when they?re hungry. Do what one friend of mine did: serve an appetizer course such as fruit slices, veggies with dip or something equally nutritious and fun to eat to stave off starvation?and fighting?until the meal is ready.
Tiredness could be another reason your kids are at each other?s throats. Maybe the younger one needs 40 winks or the older ones need some time alone. Maybe Mom needs a break, too. I?ve only known two children (neither of them mine) to answer "yes" when asked if they would like to take a nap. But taking a break doesn?t have to mean sleep. Institute a quiet time when everyone goes to (and stays in) his or her respective room for at least an hour. This might sound impossible, but I?ve found that if quiet time becomes a family routine that is set in stone, it will eventually work. Most of my children stopped taking naps around age 3, but they had to spend an hour a day in their rooms regardless?how they spent it was their choice. Everyone (especially Mom) benefited from the enforced solitude and was much more agreeable with the others after a time apart.
Establish Turf Rights
Since little kids are cute and good at whining and throwing tantrums, older children often are forced to share prized possessions with younger siblings.
Unfortunately, rather than imbuing the older sibling with benevolent feelings toward his young brother or sister, this has exactly the opposite effect. The older child becomes even more fiercely possessive and the younger one more difficult to appease next time.
It?s better to make a family rule that a sibling must share his toys only if he wants to, and then stick to it. I highly recommend my mother?s favorite tactic: distraction. "Let?s go see what we can find for you to do" or "Oh, look, here?s a special set of crayons for you!" That always works better than "No, leave that alone, it?s Mary?s!" They know it?s Mary?s?that?s why they want it.
Call in Reinforcements
It?s hard to see what?s going on when you?re too close to the action, too frazzled or too overwhelmed. If you?re stumped by the never-ending inter-sibling acrimony at your house, try getting advice from a professional or other unbiased third party. Someone from outside the family, such as a pastor, a family counselor or another parent, can offer a "Why didn?t I think of that?" solution to an issue you haven?t been able to resolve.
That?s what I found one summer when five of my children were under the age of 10. It seemed like all five of them woke up every morning determined to irritate as many of their siblings as possible. At my wits? end, I consulted a friend who is also a family therapist.
"How about changing the dynamics that you?ve got going on," she said. She advised getting a baby-sitter to take two of the children out, a different two each time. I arranged it so that Jennifer, a student at a nearby college, took two of my kids out one afternoon a week. Even with a change in our routine only one afternoon a week, the impact was incredible. The two lucky ones who went with Jennifer got along beautifully once removed from the melee at home. Even the behavior of the three left at home improved as I was able to orchestrate some good times for them to share.
The truly miraculous impact was the beneficial effect it had on the kid?s behavior toward each other the rest of the week. Either savoring their recent outing with Jennifer or the fun game with Mom, or looking forward to the next time they would get special treatment, they could afford to be magnanimous. It changed my attitude, too. I no longer felt overwhelmed and incompetent, so I was better able to control what went on in the interim.
Your role as a parent is to provide guidance, not to sit on the judge?s bench. Of course, you need to step in when physical or verbal abuse threatens a child?s well-being. But too much parental involvement in sibling disagreements can backfire, says Dr. John Platt, a family counselor in Elk Grove, California.
"When parents always get involved in their children?s fights, there tends to be more fighting, not less," he notes. Part of the problem is that each child wants to "win" by getting the parent on his or her side. The one who "loses" stores up resentment to use the next time. Rivalry, always lurking under the surface, comes right out in the open.
Parents also need to keep in mind that conflict isn?t all bad. Some of the things children learn from their disputes with each other help them in the world outside the family. They learn, among other things, how to negotiate and work out differences, ways to share resources, the fact that other people have needs, the use and abuse of power, and loyalty in spite of conflict.
The morning Andrew and Russell banged on my bathroom door in an attempt to pull me into their conflict, I took a moment to reflect before I acted?not always my style, I admit. I decided to see what would happen if I refused to accept the "judge" role. I kept silent as each of the boys continued to list his grievances against the other on the walk from my bedroom to the kitchen. From what I could sort out, Russell had been standing in front of the pantry musing over cereal-box reading material while eating from a bowl of Cheerios. Andrew had bumped him in passing, sending wet Cheerios and milk flying onto the pantry shelves. At that, Russell had turned and thrown the rest of the contents of his bowl at his brother, splattering Andrew, the cupboards and the floor on the other side of the kitchen.
Upon arriving at the scene, I stood silently at the kitchen door, marveling that one bowl of cereal could create such a soggy mess. Then I said, "I am not very happy about this. We are leaving for school in 15 minutes and everything had better be cleaned up before we go. I?m going to get dressed."
I went back to my room with no idea what my boys would do?or what I would do if my new approach didn?t work. However, when I returned 15 minutes later, the boys were talking amicably together as they readied their backpacks for school. No cereal or milk was in evidence, although the floor gave a sticky testimony to its recent baptism.
"I was upset that you two were fighting and made such a mess," I said, trying to keep the surprise out of my voice, "but I appreciate how well you worked together to solve your problem." From this incident, Andrew and Russell learned several things. They had to come up with a solution to a dispute on their own, regardless of their feelings about who was at fault. In the process of cleaning up the kitchen, they learned about consequences to behavior. And as they cleaned, they were able to work through their anger with each other.
Winning the War
Don?t lose sight of the big picture. When daily sibling sparring makes you wonder if your kids will ever like each other, remember that conflict is only part of the intricate bond between siblings. And, strangely enough, as Nancy Samalin points out in her book Loving Each One Best , conflict can actually help siblings create bonds with each other?many of the stories siblings laugh over later in life come from conflicts they had in childhood. My twins Andrew and Russell, now 14, get a kick out of telling the Cheerios story themselves.
Taking the long view helps me look beyond the sibling battles that still erupt in our house. My older children, frequent combatants in years past, now enjoy each other?s company. They take ski trips, vacation at the beach, or gather for a game of touch football (with spouses, girlfriends and grandkids, we can field at least two teams). I?m also encouraged by what my 11-year-old daughter has dubbed the "magical moments" that occur between my kids who are still living at home?good times together that illuminate their relationship in spite of disagreements.
Can parents eliminate the sibling wars? No. But there is a great deal we can do. We can pray for guidance and wisdom to make our families places of nurture. We can try to minimize sources of conflict. We can help our children learn to resolve their differences. We can take the long view. And when all else fails, we can get some really good ear-plugs.
Pamela Shires Sneddon is the mother of nine and the author of Brothers and Sisters: Born to Bicker? (Enslow Publishers, Inc.). She and her husband, Tom, live with their family in Santa Barbara, California.
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