Random acts of sibling violence
Why can even slight provocation turn siblings skirmishes ugly?
There’s a scuffle in the corner of the small, over-stocked and crowded pharmacy as I am getting a prescription filled. I turn in time to see my daughter retreating from her brother, and him grabbing her by the scruff of her hoodie to pull her back.

‘What’s going on?’ I hiss through clenched teeth.

‘She randomly pinched me after I tripped her.’

He wasn’t actually being ironic. He knows and wields irony in that pre-teen way that tears you up: on the one hand, it is so skilful and funny you want to laugh, on the other hand... well, he’s being a smartass.

But this time he was not being ironic. His sister pinching him because he tripped her deserved a response, so he yanked her by the hoodie. If I hadn’t intervened, she would have retaliated in some way and before you know it we’d have had two hooded thugs rolling in the pharmacy aisle squealing and pummelling one another.

Ugly sibling skirmishes

I know this. I have seen random acts of mindless - but seldom painful - violence escalate into ugly skirmishes.

Just the other day they were lying on a single bed together reading peaceably, even sharing jokes and lines from their books. Then he sniffed.

She said ‘Don’t sniff in my ear,’ so he got a tissue. She said ‘Don’t blow your nose in my ear.’

But he didn’t move, just continued to trumpet into the tissue even as she was going through the roof with disgust and horror. She kicked her legs on the bed, raising her voice in abject irritation: ‘Noooo! I told you not to blow your nose in my ear!’

He said: ‘Don’t kick me!’ She said, ‘I’m not kicking you,’ and kicked her legs again. He pushed her out of the bed and she fell on the floor. She left the room with her book, snivelling.

What is it with siblings and this need to harass and irritate one another?

Don’t lecture me about communication skills. Don’t tell me that they are learning their behaviour from their parents. Don’t tell me they are taking out their frustrations on one another. I’ve been writing about children – including sibling rivalry – for more than a decade. I know the theories, and I know the drills.

But kids don’t work according to theories and drills when it comes to some things. Banal moments of violence between them – I’m not talking about beating one another up; no-one’s ever bled, bruised or broken in one of these scraps – seem like part of the scenery of childhood.

Or certainly of this pre-teen phase.

The annoying thing is never quite knowing at what point to step in. Sometimes I have stormed into a bedroom to find that the noise and thumping and hysteria has to do with some game they’re playing. Sometimes I hear the kerfuffle and think it’s just a loud game, until someone wails.

Most of the time it seems like the arbitrary hostilities are in some way linked to the arbitrary affection. Often it is linked to playing. Lots of playing and lots of affection seem to end in brawls.

At some point I’m hoping a sense of dignity will kick in and that they’ll spar using irony only.

In my most hopeful moments I imagine one of them simply ignoring the other when they become irritating.

Ridiculous, I know...

At what point in sibling struggles do you step in?

Read more by Karin Schimke

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