Solving Sibling Strife

by Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE

When Kids Fight

kids fightingSome parents "let kids work it out" by doing nothing, but if the children use insults, humiliation, or physically duke it out, then it will only make matters worse!

Some parents will dive into the action and solve problems for their children. While this may bring peace and order quickly, it robs children of an opportunity to learn and practice resolving conflicts.

The healthiest approach is to teach children how to work out conflicts with each other, then allow them time to use the skills. If they don't, then you intervene in a way that helps them solve the problem themselves, but with your guidance.

Here are some more practical tools to use:

A Helpful Way to Look at Sibling Relationships

Any two people in a relationship will likely experience conflict at some point. How children handle these conflicts and relationships determines whether they will lead to sibling rivalry, which is when the sibling relationship becomes competitive and their treatment of teach other becomes destructive.

Our goal is not to insist that our children love or even like each other, but that they treat each other with respect, even when working out their conflicts.

Six Strategies for Preventing Rivalry

Many sibling conflicts are preventable if parents can address the causes of sibling rivalry. In my "Solving Sibling Strife" teleseminar, I offer the following:

  1. Involve the older child from pregnancy and thereafter when a new child joins the family, instead of pushing away the child out of fear he or she might hurt the baby. Too often, this reject only fuels the child's resentment and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!
  2. Avoid the "Fair & Equal Trap." Instead, give according to individual needs. For example,
    Instead of "I love you both the same," describe why you love that child specially.
    Instead of buying "equal" gifts, give according to need/desire
    Instead of spending "equal" time, give according to needs and make it quality time.
  3. Avoid comparisons. Instead, simply say what you need to say to one child without any reference to the other.
  4. Avoid putting children in roles and using labels -- even good ones. They foster resentment and jealousy.
  5. Avoid unhealthy competition. In unhealthy competition, the pressure to win is more important than the fun of playing or the value of the skills we learn in the process. When parents encourage their children to race, to motivate them into action, there will always be a loser --- usually the youngest or weakest child. Losing only discourages children more --- and the more discouraged the child becomes the more likely the child will resent the winner and retaliate later. Instead, make an activity fun by singing a song or setting a timer to see how quickly the task can be done, with no winners or losers.
  6. Allow expression of feelings. When disagreements escalate into fights, it is a symptom of the feelings the children have but have difficulty expressing. So allow children to have and express negative feelings about their siblings --- as long as they express them respectfully.

Two Quick Responses that Can Stop Conflicts or Fights

1. Problem-Solving "On The Run"
• First sentence: Acknowledge feelings and what the problem seems to be.
• Second sentence: Ask what the child(ren) can do to solve the problem.

2. Quick parent fix followed by problem solution meeting
Tell them they need to solve the problem on their own, respectfully. If they can't/won't, tell them if you need to solve it for them, they might not like your solution AND they will have to do problem solving with you later to come up with a longer-term solution.

F-A-X Listening

If they can't work it out on their own use a 3-step process from The Parents Toolshop™ book that I call F-A-X Listening:

Focus on Feelings

  • Call a meeting and explain the purpose
  • Explain the ground rules
  • Write down each child's feelings and concerns
  • Read them aloud
  • Allow each child time for rebuttal

Ask helpful questions

See if you can help them identify what the real issue is. For example, if they are arguing over the remote but when you listen to their feelings you hear the issue is really personal space, that's the problem you want them to solve.

X-amine possible solutions

  • Invite everyone to suggest as many solutions as possible
  • Write down all the ideas
  • Have them decide on the solutions they can both/all agree to
  • Follow-up to see how things are working

All it takes is doing this F-A-X problem-solving process a few times with verbal children and they will start using the process when you tell them to "work things out respectfully."

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent's Toolshop™ Consulting. She is the author of more than 100 resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop, available at The Parent's Toolshop. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic on her website.

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