It is probably one of the most irritating things for me as a mom; listening to the ever present bickering between my two boys. Growing up in a home with only sisters, I am not accustomed with the point at which the fight turns from bickering, to a shove, to a full out wrestling match in the living room. I’d rather my boys find a place to go and talk through their feelings, however, I’m more than a therapist and I realize this is unrealistic. I can’t expect they will have the words to sort through conflict. So how do we manage? How do I teach them this skill?
When siblings fight, is it normal?
This is the first relationship that our children are having to navigate with someone other than their parents. How do we know when it is “normal sibling rivalry” or something more dangerous like “bullying” or “abuse”. In this article, I want to help parents and families understand how to tell the difference, and what to do to sort through it when it happens.
First of all, if you made the decision to have multiple children you probably hoped for some type of friendship between them. Children who can grow up together and create a deep relationship that lasts beyond the family years. Relationships that can withstand challenge and difficulty are hard to imagine when the children only speak to each other with tension and hostility. If this was your image of having children, you are probably very annoyed, irritated, or maybe even hurt when the conflict escalates to kids hurting each other. You might find yourself telling them, “One day you will love each other,” and then secretly asking yourself, how the heck will we manage until then. Here are some ideas I’d like to offer.
You Set the Tone
Consider this: You, as a parent, are in charge in your home. You determine the boundaries, the values and the framework in which the family will thrive. This means you need to lay out expectations and picture the relational goals you have for your family at home. When you see something is happening outside of that framework such as a disrespectful tone, physical aggression or hostility, this is your opportunity to teach your kids a new way to manage the conflict. You also set an example with your kids. If you are using sarcasm, anger and passive aggression to communicate with your kids or your partner, they may be learning this pattern from you. Take the time to train yourself. If you feel that some of the tools needed to change the environment in your home are not accessible to you, it may be time to read a book or talk to someone about parenting, or join a parenting group. A book that I like is “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish for these issues. You may even want to begin some of your own therapy to process the communication styles that might be causing toxicity in your relationships or process some of the ways that you were parented that may not have been helpful to you.
Put them in the same boat
When there is conflict, it’s hard as a parent. We don’t know who started it, what happened or who’s side we should believe. None of these questions are very helpful when it comes to sorting out conflict. Here is what is most important when teaching kids to manage a resolution: Do they have the skills to talk it through? Are they using those skills? Do they know to step away from each other to cool off before talking about it again?
In my home, when there is a fight between my boys, both kids need to step away to their rooms to calm down. When they are calm, and they feel they are ready to talk about it, I help them sort it out. Each one gets the opportunity to say how they felt in the argument and how they see it resolving. They each offer solutions until they come to an agreement of something they can both live with. Some of these skills are pretty advanced so it will take a lot of practice for them to get some mastery over it. Have patience and remind them that part of having a fight is learning how to resolve it. Now when I hear fighting from the other room I’ll yell out, “do I need to get involved or can you figure it out?”. They often will shout back, “no we’ve got it!” and if they continue to fight, I step in and help them come to a resolution.
Another way to help teach kids the skills of conflict resolution is through a weekly family meeting. This is a time where the family meets together to regularly practice the skills needed to work out issues. Maybe it is a time for parents to talk about issues that they see in the home or maybe it is a time for children to give voice to issues that they are having. No matter what the conflict is, the family works together to come up with a viable solution that can be tried and revisited in the coming weeks. One issue we sorted out through a family meeting was when my 9 year old felt like he should have a later bedtime than his 7 year old brother. Through talking about this and making his case, we were able to come to a solution with which everyone was happy.
When working on relationships, the positive interactions need to outweigh the negative interactions 5:1. So, if there are more negative interactions in your home between your kids, be the catalyst for building a more positive environment for them. Work at having more connected and positive experiences. If the kids have a high conflict relationship, you will probably need to pave the way. Have a family soccer game, movie night, or bike ride. Put the kids on the same team against the parents so there is a joint goal in mind for them. Find ways to get them working together, have them cook dinner together, host a lemonade stand together or host a party together for their friends.
Kids will have conflict, it’s inevitable. However, if they don’t have any positivity this is when you are in the dangerous area and the relationship may be causing harm. You may need to be more involved with supervision and guiding them through the conflict. Believe your kids when they say they are having trouble sorting out conflicts and help them. If you are challenged in your ability to manage the conflict between your kids and you would like some support in helping them, a therapist at The Family Therapy place is trained in family counseling for you and your family.