In this corner, 6-year-old Jamie! And in this corner, 8-year-old Marius! Ding ding! Let the fight begin! Sigh.
Life with squabbling kids can get this way sometimes, when you wind up clapping your ears and begging for it to stop. But sure as the sun will shine and the rain will fall, your growing kids will go through the intricate process of learning to peacefully coexist ... but not before they try to destroy one another! The explicit love they knew as littles will fall away as they develop their senses of self and start to experience conflict. It's a natural and normal part of their relational development — and conflict will pursue them their entire lives.
Knowing that pleasant little fact doesn't make kid fighting any easier!
While adults may know how to handle themselves without losing self-control, for young children it can be extremely difficult. Kids growing up have to learn how to control their tendency to hit, name-call, pull hair and engage in any other undesirable activity.
Your home doesn't have to be in constant turmoil because your kids can't get along, though, says Adele Faber, co-author of the bestseller, Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live, Too (Collins Living; $13.99). Faber says if sibling conflicts are creating what feels like a war zone in your home or car, it's time for you to modify what you're doing about it. It's time for more kid-management.
"Parents are rushed more than ever," Faber says. "The pace of society has accelerated to a degree that it's anti-parenting. Parenting takes time. You can't have quality without quantity. It doesn't happen,"she adds. And while one of the current schools-of-thought is to leave your kids alone to work out problems on their own, some experts say that's dated thinking.
"Used to be kids fought to get a reaction from their parents," writes best-selling author Haim G. Ginott in the book Between Parent and Child (Three Rivers Press; $13.95). "The belief now is that kids need more than that from us. As siblings get older, they find more sophisticated ways of tormenting each other. It's crucial that parents pay attention to this kind of hurtful behavior because it can have a far-reaching impact on self-esteem and outside relationships," he adds.
Faber says parents can act as coaches, gently guiding kids through conflicts when they can't — or won't — work it out themselves. The kids need better communication skills. But no matter what, Faber says, parents can't rush it.
"Parents want to fix things," Faber notes. "They can't bear to see their children in conflict. What I'd like parents to know is that their kids don't have to be constantly happy. The message in the home should be that your tears are as welcome as your laughter. I'll accept you when you're happy, sad, overwhelmed, discouraged, disappointed, frustrated and so on. I'll take the whole, human you. You know, the more deeply you feel, the more human you become," she adds.
"If parents change their approach to conflict, the kids will do the same," says Vikki Stark, a family therapist and author of My Sister, Myself: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves. (McGraw-Hill Companies; $15.95).
COMMON SIBLING SCENARIOS
• The children are constantly squabbling and name-calling. When they're not fighting over who sits where in the car, they're arguing over who gets to use the Xbox first.
Lay down ground rules about how family members treat one another, Faber says. Communicate your expectations clearly and often, otherwise, kids will behave as lawlessly as is allowed. Talk with your kids about what's going on and how you expect their behavior to change. You can say while you can't demand they act like they love one another, you do require civility. There is such a thing as kindness without closeness. It's a lesson that will go a long way in the outside world. Emphasize abuse of any kind won't be tolerated. Pinpoint the key conflict and ask the kids to suggest guidelines – and the consequences — for not following them. For example, you all might agree that commandeering the gamer control from a sibling automatically loses the bully an hour of playing time.
"Whatever you try, though, don't do any of the things that pull them apart, like labeling them into roles as the "good" one or the "smart" one or by showing favoritism," says Faber.
• My daughter gripes that her brother gets to have things – like a later bedtime – that she never did. But my son is more mature.
Treating kids equally is usually not possible, says Ginott. What matters is that kids perceive they are being treated fairly. Acknowledge your daughter's feelings, then speak candidly about why you've made the decisions you have, giving her a vote of confidence at the same time. Ask if there's anything she wants.
"She might request an 11 p.m. bedtime, and you'll need to go over why that may not be a great idea," says Faber. Regardless, the point is that you treat her as an individual.
• There are five years between my two boys who are 10 and 5. The younger one tries to keep up with the older one, and the older one gets annoyed.
Little brother is desperate for his older brother's attention, says Stark. And little brother is trying to establish an identity within the family so he's aligning himself with someone who already has one. Bringing the two of them together to acknowledge their feelings is a good idea, Stark says. But it's also important for the 5-year-old to have plenty of play dates with children his own age so he can be secure with who he is without feeling like he has to keep up with an older child.
SETTLING SIBLING MATTERS
- Use "break time." Send each child to separate areas of the room or the house. When they've cooled down, have them come back together to work things out.
- Try role playing or role reversal. Have bickering children switch roles to help them see what it's like to be in the other person's shoes.
- Remove the source of the conflict and distraction. If a particular item seems to be the cause of the conflict, remove it for a period of time.
- Help children understand their actions bring consequences.
- Be clear in setting rules and limits. Instead of barking out commands, tell your children plainly — and in terms they can understand — what you expect of them.
- Teach them the importance of consideration among siblings.
- Avoid labeling and comparing. It's harmful to give children labels such as clown, klutz, the athlete, the slob, the smart one, airhead, the anxious one, the fun one or the crazy one. Labels also can cause jealousy, which leads to contention. Instead of comparing, praise each child for his unique abilities.
- Shield younger siblings from no-win situations. Younger children often want to compete with older siblings, which can be very disappointing when they keep losing.
- Ask older children to help. You can help siblings develop a bond by having an older child teach the younger one new things. But don't require an older child to always let a younger sibling participate in his games or hang out with his friends. Make sure the older child gets some privacy.
- Set a good example for your children. Your kids are watching how you handle disagreements and arguments with your spouse, your friends and extended family. They look to your example for how to work out their own problems.