“CAN’T we all just get along?” I often catch myself thinking or saying that, whenever my kids fight.
But most of the time, Adriana and Juanmi, ages 7 and 5, respectively, are the best of friends who constantly look for each other when they are apart. They enjoy the same shows and activities and have common interests.
However, there are bad days. While getting into the car one Sunday morning, they scramble to reach their preferred window seat. Naturally, only one gets the coveted spot; what follows is the wailing and whining about fairness and equal opportunities —over a window seat.
There are situations in which the younger brother is trying to get the attention of his ate, who’s enjoying her quiet time writing and drawing alone. When he fails to get her to play a game of tag or hide-and-seek, or to simply pay attention to him, he turns to “irritation tactics” in a surefire bid to draw her out of her corner.
Other times, trouble erupts over the words that the older sibling uses. She may just be playfully teasing, but her little brother loses his cool.
Growing up alone, I never had these encounters so I can’t help but be worried about whether it is normal behavior or not.
My friends, and even my husband Migs—who grew up sandwiched between two older brothers and two younger sisters—always tell me that it’s part of a normal childhood and all their fights somehow served as the foundation for intimate and loving sibling relationships.
As it turns out, everyone’s kids fight. So much so that the University of Illinois conducted a study on reducing conflict between siblings.
Said the lead author of the study, graduate student Niyantri Ravindran: “When children fight with their siblings, they learn important lessons such as how to settle, negotiate and compromise. They begin to see conflict as a problem they can solve.”
But while there are positive lessons from healthy sibling rivalry, too much fighting, if left unguided, can also lead to increased depression and anxiety. A toxic home environment is a factor that can push older children into finding acceptance in the wrong places outside the home.
It is important that siblings’ fights do not turn into bullying sessions that can psychologically and emotionally damage their self-esteem.
Dr. Laurie Kramer has created the “More Fun with Brothers and Sisters” program, which teaches children emotional and social skills to improve sibling relationships. The study focused on intervention strategies to help siblings develop better relationships including the following tips.
1) Seeing a problem from a sibling’s perspective
Empathy, whether as a child or an adult, is perhaps one of the most beautiful abilities human beings have. Teaching our children to empathize with one another is a great idea, not just to build a better relationship but to be a better person.
If children can learn to put themselves in the shoes of their sibling and, eventually, other people they interact with, they can develop more patience and understanding.
Explaining the motivating thoughts behind a sibling’s actions may also help them see things in a different light.
2) Identifying and talking about emotions
Sometimes the problem is simply lost in translation. There were many times that an argument could have been avoided, had my kids only voiced out their emotions calmly and properly. But due to lack of proper vocabulary and control, they used more extreme methods such as crying, raising their voices and blurting out things they do not mean.
Rather than hoping that children will simply outgrow this, Dr. Kramer recommends teaching them as many words as you can to describe their feelings and for them to realize and understand the wide range emotions they have.
The first step in learning to express and understand their emotions is for them to know the differences between disappointment, irritation, frustration or being furious.
But don’t wait to teach them until the moment when they are experiencing these things. Talk about hypothetical situations when they are calm. Take advantage of times when you and your child may witness incidents in parties or at the park and ask questions like, “How do you think that kid feels? Why do you think he/she cried?”
3) Create alliances between or among children.
Sometimes we are so busy focusing on the children’s individual needs and time, we forget that there are benefits to treating them as a unit. According to Dr. Sylvia Rimm, getting your kids together to team up or create an alliance where they will work towards a positive goal is a good bonding experience that helps them to psychologically see themselves as one whole, rather than separate parts.
There are ways to make children work toward a particular goal—such as assigning them a particular chore that they have to accomplish together (grocery shopping, cleaning their room), or it could be a family project such as making the family albums.
What’s important is to make them spend time in activities that foster cooperation and give them a sense of pride in their work together.
4) Intervene when necessary but do not take sides and never compare.
No matter how hard I try not to intervene when my children fight, I somehow always end up playing the role of a referee in the never-ending game of “Guess who really started it.” Nowadays, whenever I get roped in, I try to help them resolve the issue without agreeing with either one on who is at fault. I point out their respective faults and ask them to apologize to one another because, in the past, no matter how fairly I judge the situation, it is always deemed “unfair!”
There’s also the golden rule for parents with several kids: Never compare. Comparing, even with the best of intentions—such as inspiring one child to be as good as the other—rarely serves its purpose and even causes more problems.
Going back to intervening— until recently, I would usually tell my older child that she should be more understanding because she is older than her siblings. But now I avoid saying such things so as not to create resentment and frustration.
Instead, I try to establish the same point but through positive reinforcement. When I see her acting like a caring and understanding “ate,” I let her know how much appreciated is her behavior and that I would love to see it on a regular basis.
5) Set limits, rules and consequences and then… let them go.
After all is said and done, it still boils down to the children themselves—how they would reach their maturity level and self control. So, after all the teaching about cooperation and understanding are exercised, if they are still at it, the only thing left to do is to lay down the parameters and rules on how they can argue—and explain the consequences if they commit violations.
Most kids will absorb the “ground rules” and keep within its limits. In our home, the number one rule is no hitting/hurting each other, no hurtful words, and no shouting at one another.
Resolving their problems
Left on their own, they eventually end up resolving their own problems. Or, sometimes, a little time apart and they forget that they were arguing and are soon looking for one another to share an interesting story or discovery.
I also recently discovered that, given the right motivation, siblings learn to stop fighting. The threat of being grounded, if they fought, regardless of whose fault it is, worked wonders during one particularly long day. Now I have a card that I save for special occasions.
Initially, when I started researching for today’s topic, I wanted to find out how I could nip this behavior in the bud completely. However, I realized that not only is it impossible to have a relationship without any conflict, it is also usually a sign of bigger problems—such as having one party being bullied into submission all the time.
It could also be apathy or a complete lack of interest in relating to each other. So, choosing between the bigger problems and a little bit of arguing, I’ve decided to simply accept the latter.
I’ve learned to see their conflicts as part of a healthy relationship. I’ve also learned to give up trying to treat them equally and fairly and, instead, strive to meet their individual needs so they do not get jealous and resent the other.
And lastly, I’ve also learned about the wonderful effects of a good pair of earplugs.