“But Mom, she called me a name!”
“Dad, he started it!”
Ask parents of more than one child, and chances are, they’ll tell you that siblings run hot and cold when it comes to getting along. When brothers and sisters are calm, life is usually calm. But when sibling conflict rears its ugly head, it can become World War III in a nanosecond.
“Sibling conflict occurs because we’re selfish by nature,” says Susan Alexander Yates, author of And Then I Had Kids and And Then I had Teenagers. “It’s very natural for siblings to have a hard time getting along. I think parents are shocked at that, but they have to remember we’re all selfish and self-centered.”
Sibling conflict also is caused by foolishness and anger. While selfishness manifests itself as wanting to be first, having the best, or tattling on a sibling, foolishness is being mean or teasing past a certain line—not recognizing how your words affect another person. Anger has fairly obvious outcomes, such as hitting or yelling.
When brothers and sisters are fighting it impacts the family as a whole. “There’s already tension in the family created by the business of what we have to do,” points out Dr. Scott Turansky, head of the National Center for Biblical Parenting. “When you add something else, like sibling conflict, it further weakens the family’s unity.”
Reducing Sibling Conflict
Sibling conflict is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it has to throw your household into constant chaos. Both Yates and Turansky offer parents concrete ways to overcome sibling conflict.
Recognize the blessing of siblings. “I think the first thing to realize is that having siblings is really a huge blessing,” says Yates. “I think the most difficult child to raise is an only child because he has no built-in, 24/7 others he has to learn to share with, to let go first, or who will teach him how to be thoughtful or how to disagree in healthy ways. … You can’t avoid sibling rivalry, but you can use it for good.”
Be firm about not tolerating conflict. Parents should set clear boundaries and consequences for fighting. “Tell your kids that the family is not going to live this way anymore,” says Turansky. And then follow through on your words with actions. For example, a “Do not disturb the family peace” rule in which all brothers and sisters are held responsible for sibling conflict can be effective.
Separate the kids. Send them to different rooms for a while so they can cool down after a fight. “Separation is a great way to avoid, reduce or stop sibling conflict,” says Yates.
Put a positive spin on it. Focus more on the solution than the conflict. For instance, instead of saying “Stop hitting your brother,” try “Brothers love each other.” “We’re visioning with our children about the value of having sibling relationships,” says Turansky.
Teach conflict responses. Show kids how to react when a sibling mistreats them. Coach them on how to improve their relationships with each other. “We want to change the culture of disharmony into one of harmony,” he says.
Schedule one-on-one time. For example, Mom and Dad can take turns going out to breakfast with one child at a time on a rotating basis. “This can help alleviate some sibling conflict, because it gives each child some individual attention from Mom and Dad,” says Yates.
Pray for—and with—your children. Bringing sibling conflict before God can help kids make positive changes in their sibling relationships.
Once you recognize what’s behind the fighting and how to stop it when it happens, you also should teach your children how to resolve sibling conflict in a positive way.
Respect for others. This encompasses respect for the person and her property. Make a house rule that no disrespectful verbal words or physical gestures will be tolerated. Yates recommends role playing to help children learn how to verbalize frustrations without attacking the other person. Also, stress the need to ask before taking another sibling’s property—and to return the possession in the condition it was received, such as washing a shirt after wearing it.
Emphasize servanthood. Being a servant is the perfect antidote for selfishness. “Teaching our kids how to be servants is a very proactive and Galatians 5:13,” says Turansky.
Transfer responsibility. Instead of a parent stepping in to solve the problem, have the children come up with the solution. For instance, when kids are fighting over a toy, have them sit down and discuss how to share the toy without assistance from Mom or Dad.
Treat children differently. Don’t get bogged down with being fair—treat your kids as God treats each of us, according to our own uniqueness. “When you try to treat children equally, you increase competition and comparison,” explains Turansky. “It’s better to deliberately treat children uniquely and not the same.”
Discipline children separately. Don’t punish in a group setting. “Each child needs a specific plan to deal with his own selfishness, and that plan is going to look different for child A than for child B,” he says.
Change strategies as your children age. Be firm in their early years, and then gradually loosen up as your children grow up. “It’s moving from intentional coach to referee to cheerleader as they get bigger,” says Yates.
Stay the Course
Remember that even if you follow this advice, sibling conflict will never go away completely. But that doesn’t have to be cause for alarm or despair. Fighting can provide an important way for children to learn to get along with others.
However, Yates cautions that most parents won’t see all the fruit of this training until the children reach their later high school years. “Parents often put in the input and don’t see the payback until the teen years,” she says. “It’s one step forward and two steps backward. … I would just encourage parents to keep on keeping on.”
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