Ever worry that your kids’ constant bickering isn’t normal? Read on.
After a long day at work as a lab supervisor, microbiologist Elizabeth Abboud can’t wait to pick up her two children. She pulls up to their Uptown New Orleans school and her kids clamber into the back of the car and settle into their respective seats. Abboud makes sure each is buckled in and sets off down the road, smiling. She’s reunited with her children—Nadia, eight, and Jacob, six—and all is right in the world.
Until someone looks at the other funny.
“Within a minute of getting in the car, a tiff usually breaks out because someone’s looking at someone or sitting too close or ‘touching me!’” Abboud says. “Sometimes I get so aggravated, I pull over and stop the car. They know stopping the car is serious.”
There are plenty of books and mommy blogs written about introducing toddler to the new baby: letting your older child feel your belly when baby kicks and, later, involving toddler in tasks like changing diapers.
But let’s fast-forward several years to when your children are in school—adolescents and tweeners with decidedly different personalities and preferences coming of age. That’s when the real battles begin. With a range of emotions raging under one roof at any given moment, even sitting down to a family meal can result in a screaming contest and a test of parental nerves.
Don’t write off your family as dysfunctional just yet. As distressing as the bickering can be, sibling rivalry is a normal part of family interaction, says
Lisa Phillips, LMSW, a social worker and parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital.
“I don’t think it’s really possible or realistic for parents to think that their children will be conflict-free. It’s more realistic to give them the skills to help them manage conflict with their siblings,” says Phillips, who believes sibling rivalry is almost a misnomer because it implies that every conflict between our kids is related to competition.
From a very early age parents have to set the tone, she says.
“We have to say things like, ‘in our family we don’t solve problems by hitting,’ or ‘in our family we don’t use unkind comments to each other,’” Phillips suggests. “We have to walk that line between not jumping in and always intervening, because it causes us to take a side and it becomes a win-lose situation. What we want them to do is negotiate and problem solve.”
She says children who use negotiating skills and problem solving skills in conflicts with siblings were more likely to view their relationships as much more positive than kids who did not use those strategies.
It isn’t always easy or possible to react perfectly and calmly to a sibling conflict, however. So don’t be too hard on yourself.
causes, and some solutions
One way to alleviate the sibling fighting in your home is to head off some of the conflicts before they occur by recognizing the triggers.
Phillips says some conflicts stem from vying for parental attention or from boredom, but, she says, what school-age children fight over most is stuff, territory or space.
Abboud says territory is a common conflict with her two children, and not just in the car.
“At home they might explode over who’s going to sit on the couch. One thing that works for us is sending them to different parts of the house,” she says.
Abboud also says that her children’s distinctly different personalities come into play: Jacob is more outgoing and impulsive and Nadia is more reserved.
“She’s more likely to complain that someone’s doing something, and he’s more likely to be the one doing something. Sometimes it’s a personality conflict and it helps that they can spend time in their own space.”
Peggy King Bruce, an advertising executive from Metairie, is mom to Rachel, nine, and Rivers, 14. Their problem is vastly different personalities.
“They don’t talk to one another, really, so we don’t have a lot of huge explosions,” Bruce says.
She is concerned that Rivers might have resentment toward Rachel because Rivers is a rule follower and Rachel isn’t.
“And I think their personalities are so different, they don’t have anything in common,” Bruce says. “She loves him and he loves her, but they’re just on different pages.”
Phillips says it’s a good idea for parents to recognize that each child is unique an individual while at the same time encouraging kindness among them.
“If we notice they are squabbling a lot or even if they are really distant from each other, we have to establish some family time or some kind of outing so everyone sits down and connects in a fun way,” Phillips says.
Bruce says encouraging kindness has been a helpful tool.
“One of the things we’re trying to get across to both of them is to just start with a basic conversation every day. It seems to be making a difference, but I do have to coach Rivers sometimes. When Rachel got a haircut a while ago, I talked to him ahead of time about noticing it when she got home.”
And, she says, he did notice, in his own annoyed 14-year-old boy way. He brushed past her murmuring, “Nice haircut.”
the bigger picture
Phillips says for parents not to fret too much about differences and conflicts among their children because the conflicts are usually balanced by the many positive experiences they have growing up together. Between all the fighting and complaining, there are also many moments of caring and concern among siblings, even if they are loath to admit it.
“Sibling relationships are usually your longest lasting relationships in your life, and that can be such a blessing. No one else really understands your family the same way,” she says.
That said, Phillips adds that there are some sibling relationships that are toxic and destructive, and it’s not ever a bad idea to seek out some help. She says sibling relationships are covered in the Parenting Center literature and classes and the topic definitely comes up in every class, “so it’s something many parents are concerned about.”
Abboud feels it’s a natural part of learning to be an adult and she tries to use each incident as a teaching tool.
“I tell my kids ‘this is another life skill you’re going to have to learn. She asked you to stop, so just stop. That’s what grown-ups have to do,’” Abboud relays. “They’re finally at an age where I can reason with them.”
Until, that is, someone looks at someone funny again …
Renee Aragon Dolese is a freelance writer living in New Orleans’ historic Faubourg Marigny with her husband and two young children.
10 Tips for surviving the tensions of sibling rivalry
1. Teach children to solve problems on their own. Set the tone and establish a climate of cooperation and mutual respect.
2. Don’t over-intervene or take sides. Set limits on verbal and physical aggression, but resist the urge to jump in.
3. Have empathy: Listening to your children is key, and it doesn’t mean you’re giving in or taking sides.
4. Recognize triggers. If your children squabble during certain situations or times of day, there is often an easy, creative solution.
5. See your children as individuals. “It’s a really a bad idea to say ‘why can’t you keep your room clean like your brother?’”
6. Avoid labeling your children. Try not to say things like “this is my artistic one.”
7. Instill good emotional regulation: Teach your children how calm themselves before they try to problem solve.
8. Assign tasks for children to do together.
9. Have some one-on-one time. Try taking one child to run errands with you once a week.
10. Don’t worry. Very rarely do siblings never fight, but encouraging kindness and giving children the tools to work things out on their own will go a long way to healthy, lifelong sibling relationships.
–from Lisa Phillips, LMSW, parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital