In many families, siblings fighting is just a part of life (but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting). Most of us have been there before: Kids fight over the blue cup or a purple crayon, who gets to push the elevator button, or who gets to play on Mommy’s iPhone first at the dentist. They’ll stick out their tongues, call each other names, even pull each other’s hair when they think nobody’s looking. My own two boys are forever arguing over a sense of perceived injustice, like one of them getting more cereal than the other during snack time. It’s baffling to me, as 50 percent of the time they play together nicely and crack each other up; then, at the drop of a hat, they’re killing each other over a crappy old toy discovered under the seats of my car.
“Conflict is a normal part of any relationship,” says Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a certified parent educator, private counsellor and founder of Toronto-based Parenting Network, a company that runs parenting courses. “We have this vision of harmony and happiness; our bubble is burst when we start seeing conflict.” Turns out, many of us tense up the moment we hear screaming from the playroom. But as Cathcart-Ross explains, “We have to be OK with conflict.” That means finding solutions — and leading by example — rather than avoiding it altogether.
Of course, that is no easy task. In an ideal world, our kids would be lovey-dovey all the time, and so would you, your partner, your own adult siblings, your friends and your co-workers. But that’s not realistic. Which is precisely why Cathcart-Ross says it’s important for us to train our kids to deal with conflict from an early age.
Here are a few strategies to use if you have siblings fighting in your home.
One way of doing so is to stop trying to make everything equal, which just ends up creating even more competition among siblings. Children are indeed hard-wired to compete, mostly for their parents’ approval, love and attention. “We all have a biological need to survive, and survival usually includes a winner,” says Cathcart-Ross. The goal, of course, is to forget about winners and losers, and instead create a family environment that doesn’t award competition, but rather encourages cooperation.
So, for example, instead of giving equal amounts of grapes to your son and saying, “Here, now you have just as many grapes as your sister,” we should give according to individual need (“Do you want a few grapes or a big bunch?”)
Robin Hayeems, a mother of four in Toronto, knows this scenario all too well. Her children, two boys and two girls ranging in age from four to nine, are forever fighting over who has more potato chips in their bowl, or what constitutes a goal when they’re playing soccer in the basement. She has learned over the years that it’s often better not to try and resolve these conflicts herself, but to practise patience. “I’ll just say, ‘You sort it out.’ It might take longer, but they’ll usually come to a solution that they can live with, without turning me into the bad guy.” Hayeems keeps her cool by simply walking away, or she’ll deliberately play with the kids currently uninvolved in the spat. “I want to make the point that you get my attention when you’re being good, not when you’re misbehaving,” she says.
According to Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, this is precisely the approach we should be taking: staying neutral and not playing favourites. “You can’t blame one child, because it takes two to tango,” she says. “Get your kids to try and come up with a resolution together. Then praise them for coming up with a great idea. Praise goes a long way.” This will make them better problem solvers down the line, says Mendlowitz, providing an opportunity for valuable life lessons: learning how to share, understanding another’s point of view and getting along with others.
Even if the same child wins the argument every time, Cathcart-Ross says you shouldn’t take sides. “Be objective,” she insists. “You can say something like, ‘You guys seem to be having a big problem. How should we handle this?’ They’re learning to work something out in a non-aggressive way — that’s really the goal.”
However, most experts agree that parents should get involved when the fighting gets physical. That said, there’s a big difference between, say, squeezing your sister’s arm and punching her in the face. Worry more about the latter, not the former, says Cathcart-Ross. Seriously harmful fighting is uncommon. She recommends intervening before things escalate. For example, if one child is pulling the other’s hair, that would be the time to step in with something along the lines of, “ This is getting too rough for me. I think we need to take a break right now. When you’re both calm we can figure out how to play this game without using so much aggression.”
Cathcart-Ross says it’s tempting to expect our older children to take the high road, but that we should never do that — it puts the older child in a position of superiority over his younger sibling, and also sends the message that he’s responsible and that the second-born doesn’t need to be.
There’s limited research on gender and birth order, Mendlowitz says, because there are so many different factors that complicate the big picture (for example, blended families, kids with different temperaments, cultural differences, and whether or not both parents work outside the home). She does offer, however, that brothers will generally fight more than sisters, especially when they’re close in age, and that girls are more likely to talk it out as opposed to boys, who will become physical, though that disappears as they get older.
As Cathcart-Ross sees it, there’s no perfect setup in any family. “No matter how close or far apart, and no matter what gender, it’s the child’s perception that will rule how they behave,” she says. The trick is to create a family atmosphere where children aren’t competing for their parents’ affection. That includes letting children know they’re being heard — and that you’re there to protect them — without getting involved in every little quarrel.
If the constant bickering still drives you mad, try to focus on those hidden benefits of sibling conflict: negotiation and resolution skills, practising self-control and learning how to regulate their emotions. It may not seem that way when you have one child shouting “Poo-poo head!” while his big brother pins him to the floor. But just think: One day they’ll be stronger for it.
A version of this article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline "Conflict zone," pp. 45-8.