Part one in the fighting series was about bickering. That irritating snippy form of communication that attacks something a sibling has or something she's done. Today I’m talking about fighting. Not the potentially dangerous type of fighting that needs parental attention immediately, today I’m talking about the “He’s breathing my air!” type of fighting.
It seems like the moment child #1 meets child #2 there’s an inaudible question floating in the air, “ Who do you love more?” And that my friend is the question that’s at the core of most sibling fights. How a parent deals with fighting determines the direction the fight will head, either toward resolution or mutual destruction! Kidding, sort of!
When a parent says things like, “I know you started this?” or “Stop picking on your sister?” or “You know better than to do that to your brother!” they’re unintentionally throwing another log on the fire, so to speak.
Sibling Fighting Strikes at the Very Core of a Parent’s Heart
When a parent hears the kids fighting, a predictable stream of thought emerges. “Why don’t my kids love each other?” then your mind move on to, “Will they grow up hating each other?” then you end with, “Did I do something to cause my kids to act this way?” No wonder parents will do almost anything to make the fighting stop, that mind chatter can drive you mad!
Unfortunately, some of the ways parents attempt to make fighting stop actually fuels the fight and keeps the kids from resolving the issue at hand. Let me explain.
This post is another nod to the wisdom makers on the topic of sibling rivalry, Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber, authors of Siblings Without Rivalry. These ideas are truly game changers for families. However, in some cases, no matter what a parent does siblings just don’t like each other. From birth they seem to react to each other like oil and water, they don’t mix and never will. If you suspect that your kids are like oil and water, never fear, your family will still benefit from these ideas.
The ideas I’m about to share are life skills, plain and simple. All kids need to be taught problem solving techniques so they can resolve issues with everyone in their lives, not just siblings. Your kids will need these skills to resolve issues with you, other relatives, friends, classmates, and future working and romantic relationships.
Daily Actions to Take
Many parents believe sibling fighting is an issue that’s created by the kids, only. Here are 6 areas where parents unconsciously contribute to the mix.
1. Equally Rights for All
“Children don’t need to be treated equally, they need to be treated uniquely.” Faber and Mazlish
When you try to make sure everything is equal, three things happen.
- Neither child feels truly known.
- They become suspicious of each other, not satisfied.
- They begin to compete with each other hoping to force mom or dad to reveal who the favorite is.
Michelle Borba stated in an iVillage article (July 2007) “As much as we try to not show favoritism, studies reveal that kids do pick up our preferences.” When favoritism appears, jealousy rears its head causing siblings to resent each other and fight.
Solution: Even if you know who probably started the fight, stay away from casting a perpetrator and a victim.
2. The Fairness Trap
We’ve all heard, “Life isn’t fair.” Family life needs to prepare kids for the real world outside their front door, not protect them from it. I’m not advocating that you be unfair, not at all. What I am saying is be honest, and let kids learn from that.
Solution: Let children make choices based on what best for them as individuals. This satisfies their basic unconscious need to be seen for who they truly are and may help reduce the need to fight with a sibling.
Old version – Child: "He has a bigger piece than I do!"
Mom: "There, now it’s fair, you each have the same amount."
New version – Mom: "I’m slicing the pie. What does your stomach have room for, a small or large piece?"
3. The Squeaky Wheel
There are times in all families when one child just needs you more than the others. If you spend most of your time with the sibling who’s acting out, you’re showing both kids that the best way to get one-on-one time with mom is through misbehavior.
Solution: Do what’s needed with the child who acts out, but don’t forget to spend time with the child who isn’t acting out.
4. Comparing Apples to Oranges
Nothing makes a child feel like fighting more than being compared to a sibling.
Solution: Acknowledge each child’s individual style and way of doing things.
Old version – Dad: "Why can't you be as neat as your brother?"
New version – Dad: “I like how you lined your books up. Do you think that idea would work to organize your shoes, too?”
5. Constant Comment
If you pick at and argue about the small stuff all day long, you’re sending a silent message that says, the way we resolve things in our family is through fighting not through cooperation and problem solving.
Solution: Pick your battles, and remember there’s more than one way of doing things. It may not be how you would do it, or the best way to do it, but things will get done just the same.
6. Don’t Stare
There are many different ways to problem solve. In order to learn about them you have to respectfully listen to see how others do things.
Solution: Watch how other families solve problems on the playground or on TV. Highlight what’s good and bad about the way things are being resolved. Ask your child for her opinion. Ask her if she has other ideas about how to resolved things.
Let the Fight Begin
Many parents believe sibling fighting is something kids should handle all by themselves. I think that’s like giving a 2 yr. old a knife and asking her peel a carrot. She’s using the wrong tool to do the job and will most likely hurt herself or someone else along the way. Parents have to teach their kids the skills needed to resolve fights first, before the kids can handle things all by themselves. The best way to do that is for a parent to act as a facilitator versus judge and jury.
Parent Power defined facilitating as, “to help forward, to assist the process.” Here are 7 things a parent can do to facilitate a fight, instead of react to it.
1. Be fully present
Nothing is more upsetting than talking about your feelings while the other person is doing something else. Put technology away and focus on both kids.
2. Make physical contact
Instead of remote parenting, walk over to the kids. If they’re open to it, touch them lightly on the shoulder. Look them in eye before speaking.
3. Acknowledge feelings
Mom: “I hear two kids who are angry at each other. Let’s talk about it instead of shout about it.”
4. Use the Same Question
Begin by asking one child a question. After she answers turn to the other child and ask the exact same question. This allows them both to have their say and truly feel heard.
Mom: “Julie, tell Ashley why you’re mad? Ashley, tell Julie why you’re mad?”
5. Repeat what you heard them say
Mom: “Julie, you both were playing dress up when Ashley took the scarf you needed, right? Ashley, you took it because you love blue and always use that scarf, right?”
6. Rock bottom feelings
You may get the sense, even after steps 1-5, that the kids are still mad at each and not ready to problem solve yet. If so, ask them to deep breathe for a minute then express what else they’re feeling, then restate the new feelings.
Mom: “Ashley you were mad that Julie and I read a story this morning so when she took the scarf you got really mad and grabbed it back, is that right?”
7. Problem Solve
Obviously it’s easy for you to come up with ways to problem solve, but that won’t teach the kids the skills they need. Let them dig deep to come up with ideas. This will get easier with time.
Mom: “This is a problem! But it’s one I’m sure you two can solve. What ideas have you seen others do in situations like this? Who has an idea of how to fix a hurt heart? What should you do next time you feel like the other person got more time with me?”
There’s no magic wand here. Every situation, child and parent is different. The key is to use empathetic-active-reflective listening as you ask questions and let them express how they feel without stopping them or correcting them. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they resolve things after that!
Next week, I'll tackle when fighting gets physical. I hope this was helpful, if so, please share the link on social media.