siblings without rivalryQuestion: How to maintain my own inner calm while my kids (4 yr old girl and 8 yr old boy) have their emotional upheavals, arguments and dramas. I try several calm techniques to help them work through things and when those don’t work I yell and they stop or figure out how to work it out….but it almost feels like the yell just bursts out of me. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: This is a great question and I applaud your use of calming techniques. It’s so helpful to use deep breathing techniques so you don’t feel emotionally drained by sibling fights.

Here are some practical and doable ways to help you, and others deal with the sibling wars; oops, I mean relationship. “Leave me alone!” “Get away from me!” That’s mine!” Those words, when screamed at a volume that can shatter an eardrum, tend to throw a parent into a state of emergency. Your state of emergency triggers the fight, flight or freeze reaction, and you begin yelling. It’s normal. But does it have to be? No.

Change your mind

Reconsider what’s being expressed when siblings fight. Instead of thinking sibling fights must be stopped at all costs, recognize that a fight is the expression of a deeper need that’s surfacing so your child can learn some new skills to handle situations like this. Making this shift in thinking will immediately calm things down.  

Kids Learn from Fighting

When you look at a family tree you see that all siblings are recorded on the same arm of the family tree. That symbolizes their equal status in a family. The sibling relationship is a child’s first opportunity to learn about, and prepare for, long-term adult relationships. Brothers and sisters teach each other about give and take, even when they don’t want to. Each fight allows siblings to practice how to love a person, even when you don’t like what that person did. Siblings are constantly learning tolerance, patience, and kindness. Most of all siblings are learning about conflict resolution and parents have to guide and teach them, not resolve things for them.

There’s a Big Difference Between Fighting and Rivalry

As I’ve stated sibling fights teach valuable skills, however sibling rivalry can damage a relationship if allowed to continue.

Help siblings resolve things

Most parents think that part of their job entails being both judge and jury. The problem with that is the kids don’t learn the life skills needed to resolve things for themselves. When a parent decides who is right, and who is wrong and what should be done about that, one child remains angry, and one feels like the winner. They’re not working together to practice the resolution skills they’ll need to be successful in life.

Be a facilitator

In order for kids to resolve things by themselves, they need you to help facilitate and guide them toward resolution so they don’t continue to fight. You do that by teaching your kids how to express the feelings that motivated the fight in the first place. You do that by asking the same question to both children until resolution has occurred.

Mom: “Molly, why are you mad?”

Mom:  “Sam, why are you mad?”

Mom:  “Molly, please give me three ideas to work this out.”

Mom:  “Sam, what are your three ideas?”

To learn the art of parental facilitating read, Siblings without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

New Rule: We DO NOT hurt those we love!

Since kids are immature thinkers, the best way to enforce this rule is to define it further. It might sound like, “Sometimes someone gets hurt by accident during agree upon play. And sometimes someone uses his or her body as a weapon in a fight. Which one is against the law in our house?”

Comparing and the Message it sends

Comparing promotes competition and ends up making one child feel unappreciated and unloved by you. Comparing never makes a child rise up to work harder. Some kids increase the fighting with a sibling when they feel compared to him or her. Other kids swallow those feelings and seethe with resentment and lack of self worth.

Here are some examples of comparing, the message a child hears and what you could say instead.

1. Statement: “Why can’t you keep your hair neat like your sister does?”

What the child hears: Be more like your sister. Unless you act differently than you’re comfortable with, or capable of, I won’t accept you.

Consider Saying: “I like the barrette you chose today. Do you need any help getting all of your hair in a pony tail?”

2. Statement: “What did you do to her?”  

The child hears: Since your older you’ll always be blamed when your sibling cries, your mistakes will no longer be tolerated.

Consider Saying: “Do you have any thoughts about why your sister is crying?”

3. Statement: “Give that doll back to her!”

The child hears: Her happiness and a calm environment is more important than your needs.

Consider Saying: “I see your sister wants the doll, can you share when you’re done?”

The new way of addressing the examples is subtle, but powerful. One way promotes rivalry, and one way promotes communication, equality and leads to resolution. If the needs of each individual child are not honored the feelings will fester until there is an attack, either verbal or physical, so the unexpressed feelings can be aired.To learn more about how to deal with sibling rivalry, look at pages 55, 91 and 201 in my book Stop Reacting and Start Responding at Proactive Parenting.

If you’d like to ask a one or two line question, go to Proactive Parenting and opt-in. I hope these ideas help you as you deal with the siblings in your family. We’ll talk again next week! Now, go hug your kids!

Sharon