I really try to write about what I’m dealing with in my life. What tends to make me feel better is that if I am dealing with something, my guess is that all of you are too. If I help myself, then I can help you. Last week I focused on marital conflict. This week let’s dive into sibling conflicts. A lot of what was written about last week applies to this week too.
I want to take you to my Friday night. My kids were home for a snow day all day. It is winter and very cold, and I want to hibernate in my house under a blanket with a good book and a cup of coffee. I do take my kids to and from school and to and from activities. Other than that, I am really staying home a lot more than usual. Part of this is that my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is coming up. We are going to lay as low as we can and pray that we are all healthy for this special event. Pleases put out good vibes for us.
I don’t remember fighting a lot with my brother. I haven’t looked up the data on this, but I am going to guess that same gender siblings fight more often than opposite gender siblings and I am going to explain this to you. I also think age difference plays a big factor too. My son and daughters don’t tend to fight with each other. It is usually my daughters that end up in a conflict.
I know that they are home a lot more often, and I know that leads to more opportunities to get on each other’s nerves and fight. It is good for them to go to school and activities and get breaks from each other. We all need breaks. I knew that they were together all day Friday and all night Friday night. Lillie stayed home from dance (bad move on my part), and I was on the couch attempting to take some down time. I go gang busters Monday – Friday and by Friday night I tend to crash on my couch.
I am on my couch totally exhausted and my husband is at his martial arts class. Lillie gets up from the couch to go to the kitchen and Ella takes her spot on the couch. Lillie flipped out. Are they serious right now? Can you believe the stuff that they fight over? There was plenty of room on the couch for Lillie to just sit next to Ella, but she was insisting on the exact spot she was sitting, and she was not being nice about it. As Lillie used her legs to try to push Ella off the couch Max appears from upstairs. He was happily gaming upstairs and came down and walked right into the middle of them and separated them. He is tall and strong and easily got in between them. His calm energy settled the whole room. I was on the couch with tears running down my face. I was feeling so done parenting. If Seth was home, I would have been in my room with the door closed. Sometimes mama needs a time out. Sometimes I feel completely and totally exhausted. I handle so much all week long. The sibling conflict over something I thought was so stupid had sent me over the edge. Max talked to the girls, gave me a hug and went back upstairs. He knew his mom was toast. He is going to be such a good husband and father one day. As my friend said in the Whinypaluza Mom Facebook group, he will see his wife overwhelmed and will step in and help. Raising Max as the oldest of three is going to benefit his wife and children one day.
I am human. I am not always going to do the right thing. Even if I know what to do. Even if I know what’s right. That doesn’t always mean I am going to do that. I gave myself grace that night. I didn’t beat myself up. I thanked Max. I used my support. He is not their parent, but I think it was okay for him to step in when I was melting into the couch. I could have gotten up and mustered up the strength. I would have had to calm my energy in order to be effective or I would have made the situation worse. Let’s talk about what would have made the situation better and what would have made it worse.
If I would have stood up and started yelling at them the conflict would have escalated and all three of us would have ended up crying. I would have taught them absolutely nothing good. We all would have been upset and Seth would have come home to his three girls upset. That doesn’t sound good to me and it’s a good thing for me to reflect on.
There is that pause before we react that we all need to take. Take the pause. I can’t tell you that enough for everything in your life. Take the pause and think about what you are about to say and do before you do it. At any moment we can make a situation worse or better. When Seth and I are fighting, we will even say to each other, “Is what you said going to make this better or worse?” We will realize that we are making our fight escalate and will reset, rewind and try again. Kids can reset and rewind too. Seth will even ask me if he can rewind and start over. Kids can learn to pause too. This is all stuff that is our job to teach them. They don’t learn this stuff in school even though I think this would be an awesome class for them. Life skills are so important.
Let’s say Max had nothing to do with that fight. Let’s say that I handled it effectively. What would that look like:
- I would have had to focus on my state. We want to walk into a conflict with calm energy. Kids can pick up on our angry state and feed off it. Our calm state is one of the most effective tools we have.
- Remind them that it’s not okay to touch each other physically when they fight. Remind them that we keep our hands to ourselves and only use them for nice things like hugging. I have to set boundaries and rules with them. It is not acceptable for them to be physical at all with each other.
- I needed to intervene early before it escalated to Lillie trying to push Ella off the couch. We do need to step in to prevent anything physical. We also need to step in if we don’t see them practicing their skills. We have to teach them coping and problem solving skills before we let them just handle fights on their own. There is also something to letting them work things out and learn how to work it out. We just don’t want to let them hurt each other.
- I would encourage that they take some deep breaths and calm down before they start telling me what was going on. If they couldn’t calm down, I could have asked them to go away from each other for a few minutes to be able to reset and calm down.
- I could have asked them to take turns explaining what was going on. Listening is a key tool that we have and that we can teach to them too.
- I could have asked them to state the problem. If I want to teach them problem solving skills, then I need to help them learn to identify the actual problem.
- I could have asked them to tell me possible solutions to the problem. Help them brainstorm options and then ask them each to choose what they think the best option is. Lillie would have said that Ella needs to move. Ella would have said that Lillie needs to move. I could have asked them to come up with other alternatives than those to solutions.
- We could have discussed fairness and how to most fairly resolve this.
- Sometimes Lillie would be nice and will just tell Ella to stay in “her seat.” I would thank her for being a nice sister and watch for future occurrences. I don’t want to see either of them being the one to give in every time. I need to watch for patterns. Ella could also have given in and moved.
- They could have both decided to switch couches together. I could have asked them both to move. I could have asked Ella to give Lillie her seat back. I could have asked Lillie to please move and sit with me (which actually didn’t work I did try that one). Hopefully they would have calmy resolved it in a nice way after discussing. That is an ideal scenario. My telling them which option to pick may have occurred if they kept fighting and I would tell them why I chose the option I did. It is amazing the things that they fight over.
It would be good for me to go back and discuss this with the girls so that we can all learn from it. Just like we can learn from our marital conflicts and try to do better, siblings can learn from their conflicts and learn how to handle things better. We want to teach them skills and encourage them to practice those skills.
We talked about one fight that occurred in my home. What can we do in general to help reduce sibling conflict?
- Just like we talked about marital rules last week – we can develop rules to fighting in the home. For example: keep our hands to ourselves.
- We need to model the behaviors that we want to see. It doesn’t matter what we say to them. They learn from what we do. They are watching us fight with them. They are watching me fight with their dad. They are learning from me. If I don’t want them to be mean to each other then they need to see me be kind to their dad even when I am angry with him. They need to see us identifying the problem and working through it together. We have to show them the behaviors that we want to see.
- Teach them coping skills. What helps them to calm down. Go over this with them and encourage them to use these skills every day. Lillie and I will practice taking deep breaths together. Talk to them about identifying in their bodies when they are escalating and knowing what to do to calm down.
- Teach them problem solving skills. Calm down first and then work towards identifying the problem. What solutions can they come up with? Is there something they can choose that they think is the best option to resolve the conflict? They may need our help to brainstorm options but hopefully they can learn to do this on their own. Remember that I still struggle with coping and problem solving skills. I am still working on this which means….
- Having realistic expectations and knowing that siblings do fight. Just knowing that it is normal helps me to cope with it most of the time.
- Teach them communication skills. Being able to communicate their feelings to their sibling without escalating. Can they tell their sibling how they are feeling in a calm effective manner? Sometimes I succeed in this in life and sometimes I don’t. We just keep practicing this every single day.
- Kids get into negative patterns. Go over the sequence of events with your kids after the event happens. Point out patterns to them. Talk after the fact about how they can handle it differently next time.
- Encourage them to work it out. Let them know that you expect them to work this out in a way that they are both okay with.
- Encourage family time to increase their bond together. When we spend time together as a family, we are all bonding together. We want to encourage sibling bonding. The better the relationship the better they will work together to resolve conflicts.
- Spend time with each child. Point out strengths of each child. Let them each feel important to you. The more important they feel the less sibling rivalry there will be.
- I told you that I think same gender kids fight more. I think part of that is that they want to use each others things. I am sure this happens with all siblings. I didn’t want to use my brother’s things. We each had our own things and that led to less conflict. I can reduce this issue by allowing them each to have their own things. For example, Ella wanted to use Lillie’s makeup brushes and Lillie freaked out. I wanted Lillie to share but I respect the fact that she really wants her own things. She also needs to remember this when Ella doesn’t want to share. I purchased Ella her own set of makeup brushes to reduce the conflict. Sometimes having their own things is the solution. Especially with my girls. I do encourage them to share and want them to share their things.
- Just like Seth and I need time outs from our fights, sometimes kids do too. If they are unable to resolve what’s going on, I can encourage them to take a time out from each other. “Why don’t you two take a five minute break away from each other. Then you can come back and try to work this through.”
- One of the most important ways we can reduce sibling conflict is by pointing out when they are doing something right together. When they share. When they get along. We can shape our children’s behavior by paying more attention to what they are doing well. Giving them praise for getting along. This gives them positive attention that they will want more of. They will feel proud of themselves for doing something right and will want to continue that behavior.
There are so many reasons that siblings fight. They fight because they don’t want to share. They fight because they are in a bad mood. They fight because they’ve been with their sibling too much. They fight because of very different personalities. They fight because they touch each others stuff. They fight because they think you love the other sibling more. They fight because they are jealous of each other. They fight because they don’t have the skills to navigate through conflicts. They fight because they want attention from the sibling and/or from you. It is very normal for siblings to fight, and I also think that there is so much that we can do to reduce it and help them handle it more effectively.
Having siblings and fighting with siblings is not only normal behavior, it is also teaching them so much. You are giving them the gift of learning how to resolve things. They are learning how to live with others and navigate through differences and conflicts. Having a sibling teaches them so much.
Remember that it’s normal. Remember that they are learning a lot. Remember to give yourself grace. Remember to teach them skills. Remember to encourage the family bond. Remember to use your supports. Remember to give yourself time outs too. Remember to make them each feel like an individual who is very loved.
Important notes: Always a good think to seek counseling if you need help with this. Physical fighting with each other is not to be allowed or tolerated.
Wishing you less sibling conflict and more family bonding.
Laughing, Loving, Learning,
Rebecca Greene, LCSW-R
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