The Parent Classroom Newsletter > Dealing With Sibling Rivalry
Dealing With Sibling Rivalry

Sep 10, 2010

(I was recently interviewed on this topic by Jaleh Donaldson for the web magazine, Associated Content. The following is a partial transcript of that interview).

Q: What are common mistakes that parents make when handling fighting siblings?
"A huge mistake is to label children as perpetrators and victims, even when this appears to be the truth. These fights are interactions that both siblings participate in some way. Often the "victim" is very good at provoking his sibling into some very aggressive behavior.

But even when there appears to be no provocation for an aggressive act by one sibling to another, you don't get very far by setting up a good kid/bad kid dynamic. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and you end up energizing that kind of misbehavior and keeping these roles in place. I think we can all relate to the suffering that's produced when we are reduced to roles in families.

A better way is to consider the fight as belonging to the two of them, no matter how the circumstances look. When they come to you with grievances, expecting you to arbitrate, you can say things like, "Looks like you two have a problem. Do you need my help in figuring it out, or can you do it on your own?'

If they can't work it out, with your coaching, you always have the option of separating them and letting them know they can be together again when they are ready to problem solve and play harmoniously."

"Another mistake parents commonly make is to respond to sibling fights with a great deal of heightened energy and reactivity. These squabbles often trigger our irritation more than any other interactions. The problem is that our dramatic responses are often a payoff and can be entertaining for children, keeping the behavior in place.

Be aware of your own affect when dealing with sibling conflicts. Respond as soon as you begin to feel irritated, not when you are over the top upset and angry, letting them know what their choices are. This will help you be as matter of fact and as cool as you can possibly be. Once you engage at their level, no learning can take place.

This is a skill that does not come naturally. Consider it a spiritual practice that can be learned!"

Q: What are some things that parents can do to effectively handle fighting siblings?
"Keep track of the situations in which your children tend to argue and fight and plan for them accordingly. Often it is during transitions, or when you're in the car, on the phone, in a store or restaurant. Knowing beforehand that these times are red flags allows you to be very clear about the expectations and the consequences. It also eliminates the surprise factor, making you much more effective.

Give them clear and specific directions, keeping in mind what you will do if they aren't followed. Remember that children tend to argue and poke at each other when they are bored and have nothing better to do, so plan some activities to counteract this: a travel kit of carpool only books, snacks or toys -- a job for each of them in the market -- special toys that only come out when you are cooking dinner."

Q: What last advice would you like to leave for a parent who feels frequently frustrated when the siblings fight?

"Take heart! Although sibling conflicts drive parents crazy, they are not bad for kids. There is a sense of safety and security in having a sibling. You can be as silly or as angry as you want with a brother or sister and never lose face or their love. Siblings teach us how to negotiate and share, how to deal with strong emotions, and how to tolerate unfairness (since a parent can't and shouldn't make everything fair and equal!)."

"Parents often harbor the strong wish that their children will grow up to be friends. Faber and Mazlish in their book, Siblings without Rivalry, make a very good point. They suggest that we give up the "good friends" dream and replace it with a more realistic one: "equipping them with the attitudes and skills that they need for all their caring relationships. "

Many of us, as adults, look at our siblings, know that we love them, and also know that, if they weren't in our family, we probably wouldn't be good friends. Yet we have learned a great deal about friendship and support from being a sibling."

Jill Shugart, M.A., MFT - 910 Tulare Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707 - 510-528-0309 -
Ca. Lic.#MFT32528



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