The objective of this blog is to identify and highlight:
- The dynamics of the sibling relationship and why are they so challenging for children and parents alike?
- What does “mindfulness” have to do with sibling quarrels?
- What are some “tips” to help parents/caregivers be “non-biased” coaches that can support healthy conflict resolution among children of all ages?
So many parenting conversations revolve around the latest and greatest approaches to sibling rivalry. So much of the literature about sibling relationships implies that a parent’s job is to eradicate sibling disagreements by intervening, reprimanding (or punishing) the aggressor and reinstating peace. Parents are told to referee when their children argue and to distract them from annoying one another. Parents tell me they are embarrassed if their kids squabble out in public, and mortified if they fight, as if siblings shouldn’t disagree or as if the sibling relationship was easy to master. Yet so much of this actually perpetuates rivalry, not camaraderie.
In my 26 years of being a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and Parent Educator, I have been passionate about helping parents learn to diminish sibling rivalry by learning to “coach” their children to “do conflict well.” The truth is we don’t get to pick our family members (or our teachers, our team’s coach or co-workers.) Therefore, learning how have a caring, respectful and strong relationship, despite conflict and disagreement, is invaluable and a critical objective of the parenting role.
Sibling bickering, name calling, frustration intolerance and fighting is common and normal; it is also one of the largest collective struggles parents share. From a child’s perspective, however, this aspect of the sibling relationship is actually purposeful and does not determine if siblings love each other or not. Because the sibling relationship is potentially the longest relationship a child will have, that can span from young childhood to one’s senior years, and will have to endure many of life’s challenges, it’s worthwhile for parents to “teach and coach” children in and around conflict effectively.
Though it is obvious, it is critical to reiterate: the sibling relationship is complex. Living with someone 24/7, who also demands “your” parent’s attention (and gets it!) is a constant challenge that sometimes is easier to tolerate than at others. Keep in mind that a major reason (incentive) for siblings to fight is to get their parent’s attention. Whether they get positive or negative attention, attention is attention. Also, during a fight, parents usually respond by trying to break up the fight. They will inadvertently reprimand and blame one child (rightfully so) for instigating, or hitting, and punish or remove that child from the space. That child, in turn, perceives him/herself the looser in the sibling battle. That child then has something to gain by starting another sibling fight at a later time, in order to get their sibling(s) in trouble and get their parents on their side. In other words, when parents intervene, it “potentiates and fuels” the next battle. I know this is not parent’s intention or necessarily within the child’s consciousness, but it remains the genesis of conflict. A Parents’ job is to keep everyone safe, however, and parents sometimes need to physically or verbally intervene. Children just perceive parent’s reactions differently than parents do. Another factor adding to this complexity is that in the home, children are more egocentric than they are at school or in other environments. At home, they are more fragile. Even though they cognitively “know” the rules of how to get along (and can articulate them), how they act “emotionally” is a different story. Therefore, home is often a battleground for sibling conflict. Lastly, (and I probably don’t have to point out that) children often pick inopportune times to fight, which makes it more challenging for parents to be patient or to interact the way they wish they could. Furthermore, parents find watching their children battle upsetting, if not heartbreaking.
So what can parents/caregivers do? Given the above information, the principle goal is for parents to be mindful of upholding a non-biased or non-opinionated position with children in conflict. Mindfulness is the state of being aware and conscious; and in this case, of sibling’s skirmishes. How parents respond, both verbally and non-verbally, when their children are arguing and fighting, as well as when they are getting along and caring for each other, determines the frequency, intensity and detrimental quality of their competition and conflicts. Refraining from getting pulled into the drama of a sibling altercation requires mindfulness. It is hard for parents not to react and support whom they perceive as the underdog or victim; sometimes they should. However, the benefit of the greater good of the sibling relationship requires parents to stay impartial; it usually takes two to tango anyway. The best way to be impartial is thru mindful awareness and the realization that children fair better when their parents don’t “side” with one or the other. I define “mindfulness” in this context as the space between what it feels like to parents when their children start to fight and how parents respond. Mindfulness takes practice and determination. Learning to give children space to resolve is something that mindfulness perpetuates. A mindful parent is also modeling calm, which can help children communicate and resolve.
When children are in conflict, it therefore makes sense for parents to be less focused on who did what, when and why. Instead, supporting both parties and focusing on when children do work out their problems, even if there is a little screaming or ruckus, is an example of positive discipline. “Positive reinforcing good behavior when you see it” (my favorite adage) will encourage children to work things out. They will feel proud of their problem solving abilities and learn how to effectively resolve conflict or to walk away. Children need to practice problem solving through communicating with one another in order to master it. If it is done for them, they learn to be passive or inefficient in conflict. Children also have to relearn conflict resolution tactics at every different developmental stage. So, it’s a long haul for parents. Instead of expecting children to always get along, it is a better goal to expect children to “work” together, to be accepting of one’s differences and to communicate respectfully. Parents can stay present and “hear children” when they are in conflict, but should be able to step back a bit, giving children opportunity and independence to resolve conflict. It isn’t about what seems fair to the parent. The goal is for the children to reach consensus and de-escalate on their own!
Lastly, here are a few more essential and practical tips for parents and caregivers:
- Don’t compare your children- especially in front of them-ever, even if it sounds positive. Siblings feel competition without anyone saying a word. In class or in sports settings, children may thrive with that kind of competition but they won’t in their home.
- Encourage conversations (i.e. at the dinner table) where people are allowed to express different ideas, opinions and feelings about things. Show by example how to accept and respect these differences, whether about politics, food preferences, favorite sports, etc. and develop a milieu of tolerance, where difference is the norm; respect and accept individuality.
- Model having disagreements without anger, raised voices and name-calling; and model the conclusion or resolution. Talk about it after the fact; identify steps of the process and when to talk and when to listen. Demonstrate “I” statements over “You” statements.
- Point out conflicts among siblings who have differences and trouble seeing eye-to-eye on TV programs, storybooks and movies. This demonstrates how problems get resolved thru communication, respect, and flexibility. It normalizes conflict and exhibits that you can still love someone and have fun with them, but also have a difference of opinion. (Think Brady Bunch)
- Tell children during a calm time what they can expect of the adult’s role if they have a fight. For example say something like, “When you two fight I used to come in and solve the problem or take away the toy you both want. Next time you argue, I am going to stay close and make sure everyone is safe, but I won’t solve the problem.” Remind them of the “no-hitting/hurting” rule.
- Parents stay neutral when they use reflective communication*. Reflective communication focuses on stating observations of feelings and actions, without judgment or sentiment. It allows children to slow down and feel heard. They in turn become self-aware and calmer, and learn to act instead of react.
- When children do resolve their own disagreements, don’t forget to thank them for “working it out.”
- When children fight in public, walk them aside and stick to the above guidelines as best as possible. Try not to let them fluster you.
Understanding why siblings struggle and acknowledging how parents can help or hinder, is the difference between rivalry and camaraderie.
Parents, try new things. After all, you will be modeling problem solving!
*My next blog will be about reflective communication and will piggyback on much of this content.