No matter how much we dream of children who love each other and are each other’s best friends, siblings fight – a lot. Any people who share living space will rub one another up, but most parents find siblings argue roughly two hundred million times more often than your standard couples, housemates or prison inmates.
Whether or not they have a natural fondness for each other, siblings share their parents, a home life and the closest possible genetic bond, and because so much is the same for siblings, much about their relationship is about learning to separate. “The British psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell suggested the idea of being displaced by a sibling was in the mind of every child,” says Johannesburg counselling psychologist Jade Paterson. “Siblings can be rivals for the love and attention of parents, but they also present children with the task of carving out an identity in a world of others who are similar.”
Of course children who fight (especially excessively) may also beacting out tension they experience in the home; or emulating your poor conflict-resolving strategies; or acting out extreme anxiety around being favoured or not recognised for their space in the family; or not receiving enough of your positive attention; and in these cases, you have a problem.
If you feel the fighting is “creating an unpleasant, tense and distressing environment in the home,” says Jade, seek professional help. But even standard fights can leave parents at their wits’ end, and it is hard to know when to step into the breach or when to let the little soldiers battle it out on their own.
Hands off vs Helicopter
Often parents are invested in their children having a good relationship because they value the relationships they have with their own siblings, or perhaps precisely because their own sibling relationship went awry.
“It can be very distressing for parents when their children don’t get along,” agrees Jade. “Because of this, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is to dismiss their children’s negative feelings towards their siblings. Parents who become angry or irritated or feel guilty in response to inter-sibling difficulties could unwittingly send their children the message that what they are feeling is not valid.”
Ascertain whose feelings you are responding to, advises Jade. “Is it your own distress that is causing you to interfere or even to be dismissive of the children’s conflict? Your role is actually to help your children process these experiences.”
If you don’t give the bad feelings some sun, unspoken resentment can grow, conflict increases, and unresolved feelings towards siblings carried into adulthood. And, adds Jade, “Sibling relationships can be very important in establishing patterns in one’s social life.” So some sort of parental involvement in your children’s disagreements is called for. However, recognise that this is your children’s childhood, not yours. Just as you cannot change your past, you also cannot “make” your children get along. But, as Faber and Mazlish mention in their must-read Siblings Without Rivalry, you can equip them with skills for forming relationships and resolving conflicts over the rest of their lives.
Learning how to listen empathetically, identify problems, express feelings and generate solutions over common ground are skills that even many adults lack – and this book contains many simple examples of how you can practise empathy instead of always only adjudicating. This is as simple as entering a scene saying, “I hear two very upset children,” instead of, “Who the hell is causing trouble again?!” Ask each child to state their grievance, and reflect what they have said back. Insist they are not interrupted. Only then offer a suggestion for moving out of conflict. You do not have to do this for every argument – nor would you want to, it is simply too time-consuming. You are not locking yourself into a role of the mediator – see yourself rather as providing a key to the children finding peace, by themselves eventually.
“If parents find it difficult to know when to get involved, also consider the age of your children,” adds Jade. To expect children under seven to resolve their own conflicts is developmentally inappropriate. Left unguided too often, they may even learn harmful practices such as lying, cheating, hitting, bullying, playing the victim or manipulating – which can set up lifelong patterns.
It's my house
Children learn from observation, direct teaching, and heir own experience of trying out the conflict-resolution strategies they’ve heard about or seen used. But they need to be given that initial toolkit, no matter how sparsely stocked: ground rules for taking turns, asking first, not grabbing, negotiating a solution, or not hitting, for instance.
Regardless of where your children take their relationships as adults (over which you have no control), you are allowed to insist on some ground rules for behaviour while they live in your home. You have the right to some quality of life in your home, after all! Naturally, you need to follow your own ground rules as well. We know you don’t constantly want to be a “policeman”, not least because it is so hard to know which side to take, and the censured child is bound to feel badly treated, even if you are trying to act fairly. But you can doggedly keep enforcing the same old ground rules: “no hitting”, “we don’t call hurtful names”, and so on.
Hands-off parents say bestowing attention on some arguments elevates their importance and lowers the tone of your entire household. You can safely ignore a dispute over whose slice of cake is larger or more delicious, or youmay soon find yourself in puerile, selfdefeating, even degrading pursuits.
You are the adult here. It is okay to choose not to participate in this fight. On that note, “fairness” is something children value but you need not feel you have to treat all your children identically. Rather make it clear they will be treated uniquely according to their own needs, ages, personalities, and so on. For instance, instead of spending the same amount of time with each child, explain that you will spend a lot of time with Cathy today, because she is working on a project that interests her. Then make sure you do the same for little brother John soon.
Fighting can be a way children try to keep parents nearby and involved, so try to give them your presence and attention but not your participation in the argument. “Ambush” your fighting kids by sharply redirecting their attention with a fun and unexpected exclamation: “I hear the ice cream truck! Who wants one?” It may be enough to jolt them out of a squabble.
In the end, remember that “some sibling conflict is normal, appropriate and can even be healthy,” according to Jade. “As an introduction to social life, sibling relationships offer a valuable opportunity to learn to deal with negative feelings towards those you also care about. Don’t get overly anxious and overly involved. Children need to learn that it’s okay to feel negative feelings towards people they love sometimes, and that relationships can survive that.” Amen to that.