Monday, September 4, 2017

Sibling Rivalry

I had very dear friends in high school who were identical twins.  The first time I ever saw them, they were fighting in the hallway.  One yelled at the other, "You're so ugly!"; and her sister responded "Oh yeah, well look in the mirror!".  I thought it was hysterical.

Siblings fight.  It's natural.  And fighting breaks parents' hearts, every time.  If my children ever asked me what I'd like for my birthday or Mothers Day, I always gave them the same answer:  "Peace.  I want one day without fighting".  I never got my wish. But now that they are parents themselves, they absolutely understand where I was coming from. One of my daughters recently told me that she never understood why the fights upset me so much.She thought it was obvious that they really loved each other.  Now however, she knows the heartache of listening to her children fight.  It hurts!  I believe that is why the Golden Rule, "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself" is so prominent across cultures and religions.  Fighting among His children pains our Father in heaven. 

I do not believe that we can prevent siblings from fighting with each other. It's easy to understand the underlying jealousy of sharing one's parents, the most beloved people in the world to a child, with someone else. A child knows she is loved, and unconsciously thinks, "Why aren't I enough?".  When my daughter was very pregnant with her second child, her three year old tried to put his arms around her big belly and sobbed, "I don't want a baby!".  She and I both broke down in tears.  How can a child understand a parent's love?

I once learned in a psychology class that sibling relationships are practice for social behaviors outside the home.  At home, with brothers and sisters, children can test different actions and behaviors and learn how others might respond.  Though it's sometimes hard to see, deep down they really love each other, so they feel safe to experiment.  They are definitely more on their guard with people outside the home.  But that's no comfort to a harried parent whose children seem to be at each other's throats much of the time.  If we can't prevent sibling rivalry, how can we manage it so that our home is not a war zone?

Children are complex individuals, just like us.  There's no one-size-fits-all remedy for challenging behaviors.  But over the years, I've figured out a few strategies that can help. The goal is not necessarily to stop the fights, but rather to teach our children appropriate ways to express their anger, hurt, and frustration.  Here are some tips:

1.  If at all possible, do not get involved.  The ideal scenario is children reconciling their differences independently.  

2.  Do not buy into "But she started it".  Everyone is responsible for their actions.  If a child is unhappy with the way his sister is treating him, he needs tools to control his reaction.  Anger is okay, frustration is okay, emotions are real and should be acknowledged.  But violence is not okay.  We can give our children the words they need and actions they can take to respond without violence.  Starting a fight is wrong, but so is fighting back. 

3.  Control your own emotions.  Sometimes, children's fights can push all our buttons, sending us into a screaming frenzy. We are intimately connected to our children, so being objective is impossibly difficult.  But that's what we should strive for in managing their strong emotions.  Understand that fighting among siblings is perfectly normal.  It's unlikely that our children are sociopaths.  They are not purposely trying to "get us".  And their fights do not make us "bad parents".  We need to be most in control of ourselves when they are out of control.  

4.  Saying "sorry" is not enough.  Most of the time, children are not sorry for their actions, especially very young children who can only see life through their own eyes.  "Sorry" often becomes a magic word that children thoughtlessly verbalize in order to erase their mistakes.  It might be more effective to challenge our children to find a way to make their brother feel better, and to think of more appropriate ways to behave next time they're faced with a particular situation.  Actually replaying that situation with new behaviors can be a powerful learning experience, and once the tears are dried, children usually find it fun.

5.  With very young children, try to have doubles of favorite toys.  Turn-taking and sharing are learned skills that take time to master. While it's nice for a child to share her toy, she should not be forced.  Private property is a democratic right, and having control over some possessions is empowering for young children.  Our job is to guide them to share, demonstrating kindness, and to applaud their efforts.

Sibling rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel.  As they grow, children learn to manage their feelings and even appreciate their once annoying siblings.  Working with them along the way and maintaining our own sense of peace is one more of the many challenges of parenting.

1 comment:

  1. I found this article very validating. Without fail I am woken up each morning by one of my children "telling" on another one of my children for harming him/her in some way. I'm relieved to hear that this kind of fighting is normal. I also found your suggestions on how to manage these fights very helpful.
    Thank you!