Sibling Rivalry – The Great War

If you have more than one child at your home, and no matter how old they are, you probably feel as you're right in the middle of a war zone at all times. More so, no matter how good you are at peace negotiation; playing judge; or becoming an ally to one of the sides, the battling partners seem to get more vicious and spiteful more often… and the cease fires - shorter and shorter.

Now you've done all the talking in the world. You've done all the yelling. You've threatened and punished. You've given up. But if you still have a shred of hope in your bones and a wishful thinking in your mind the following might be helpful.

We, adults, first need to understand that siblings have a very special (neither good nor bad), more so unique, dynamic. We also want to understand that our idea of that dynamic is very limited and what we usually see as happening is not necessarily what is really happening. Picture it like a glacier: the part we actually see above the surface is only a third of what is hidden underneath.

Since the dynamic between our children is mostly obscure to us we tend to have a wrong readings of the circumstances: "Mommy! He took my…!" We hear the shrieking scream and rush to the rescue. "Daddy! She hit me…!" We hear the whiny cry and again, rush to the rescue. 

When we do this we immediately assume that:

  • One of our children is weak and helpless; taken advantage of; and/or the victim,
  • One of our children is strong and intimidating; the aggressor and the instigator.

In addition to that we are inclined to assume instantaneous roles and professions we were not trained for, nor are we good at. Such as becoming:

  • Judges
  • Jury
  • Peace Negotiators
  • Deal Makers

…and those of us who do actually hold some of those positions in life know, for a fact, that at home it's a completely different ball game, in which the same rules and regulations of out there don't apply at all.

At home, the arena is very different and therefore needs a different approach.

When you place yourself as the judge in any fight that occurs between your children you immediately send them these wrong messages:

  • That you may be favoring one over the other - (think of all the fights you've tried to break and how many times you've sent that message to your children - over time it could be pretty harmful);
  • That you've placed labels on your children; "roles" you've given them that over time become negative adjectives to who they are; (aggressive, timid, passive, troublemaker, etc…)
  • That you can be used and manipulated to believe and see what THEY want you to see, rather than what is really there.

The all-purpose dynamic of sibling rivalry is still the need for the parents' attention, as it is for assertion of individualism and dominance. Each of our children is born into the family holding a different position (the first born, the middle child, etc) and thus need to portray or protect that position.

Take notice:
When does a fight between two children become an issue?
When an adult interferes!

The general rules to dramatically reduce and even eliminate fights are:

1. Interfere as less as possible;
2. Avoid taking sides or play judge;
3. Divert fights to isolated areas;
4. Have discussions before and after; avoid lecturing during
5. Practice patience

Let's elaborate on the rules.

  1. Not all fights are the same, and not all are explosive. Learn to differentiate between the different fights by avoiding placing yourself in the middle of each one. As young as the children are practice fairness by referring to all parties involved in the same manner. If you're mad at one, be mad at the other. I used to "yell" at my three year old for grabbing a toy from his younger brother and at my toddler for "crying". As "silly" as it sounds, it shows the children that you are a fair parent and they can BOTH rely on you for support. If the fight is small learn to say things like: "oh, I see you two are fighting again", and nothing more. If the fight is more vicious you can lighten the situation by saying: "…just make sure you're fair with each other." Your children will see that you are staying out of it, and are allowing them to judge and control the situation to the best of THEIR knowledge.
  2. Once you're drawn into a fight by one of your children (simply as they call upon you for help), it is very hard to stay neutral, so when your children are trying to put you in the middle, tell them how you love them both equally and it won't be fair for you to take sides. Even when a situation is clearly only one's fault, remember to stick to equal treatment of both, as difficult as it may be. You want to know that as soon as you play judge you also put labels on your children (one's weak; the other aggressive), as well as rob them of the opportunity to practice problem solving.
  3. Your kids, most likely, chose the better arenas to have their fights and enjoy it more when they have "a cheering crowd" - meaning: you. Remember that "watching this show" was not your choice, and therefore you are not interested in buying any tickets to it. Diverting the fight to another room in the house is a better choice. You do it by simply referring to your children as soon as the fight breaks: "Oh, I see you two are having a fight again (validation). You know what, that is really ok by me (support), but I'm sorry, you can't have it here. Why don't you go to (your room; back yard; the den; etc)". By saying simply that you are again letting your children know that you are supportive of them both equally, but will not be manipulated by their behavior.
  4. No one likes to be lectured while they are having a hard time or struggling through. When your children are in the middle of a fight they are not interested in how tired you are of their fights or how disappointed you are of them. Discussions are good for when everyone is cooled down, rather than in the heat of the moment, and your "lectures" might be better heard and surely will make more sense. You too, in the heat of the moment, are not able to coherently present your case. So pick a good time to discuss their fights in general, or a particular one. Talk before bedtime, on a long drive in the car, or during dinner. You can let your children know how hard it is for you to see them fight, this is being honest with them, and also tell them that you understand that fights are sometimes unavoidable. You will notice that your children might still try to draw you to one side or another, and the conversation might even hurt someone's feelings. Be compassionate and listen to both. Don't try to have all the answers, it's ok if you don't, instead be appreciative to all of you talking and listening, and tell your children that.
  5. Most of all you want to remember that watching your children fight is a great burden to every parent and thus be forgiven towards yourself. Practicing patience while raising children is probably the best advice for parents any expert can give. By being patient you might not be harsh with your conclusion or draw impossible lines of punishment and unrealistic consequences ("you're never coming out of your room! Forget about coming on vacation with us! If you punch your brother one more time I am never talking to again…!) You know how impracticable those are. You better anger your kids by staying out of a fight and not seem foolish making such threats. Practice biting your lips, taking deep breaths. Don't be quick to jump right into the claws of sibling rivalry, staying on the side lines will enhance the peace at your house for the long run: much like any good thing in life - immediate gratification is not necessarily true gratification.

As a last note: When you stay out of your children's fights you create an alliance between them and against you. And yes, YOU become their enemy, but NO they don't love you less. You will simply hand them a greater opportunity to create a bond between them. Won't that be a superior alternative for a fight…?    


More by :  Siggie Cohen

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