Break it up you two: Sibling fights

Championship strategies for dealing with sibling fights

Laurie Millican was Halloween shopping at Value Village with her two boys when she was sidetracked by a particularly cunning pair of grey pants. With her attention diverted, 10-year-old Riley and seven-year-old Spencer began playing with a ball — a situation that turned nasty in an instant. “All it takes is for Riley to be able to do something better than Spencer to put his nose out of joint,” says the Toronto mom. By the time Millican tuned in, the two boys were embroiled in a full-out brawl, with every eye in the place turned on them. “Stop it,” she said to them, quietly at first, and then with more force as the dispute continued. “In the end I was screaming at them in public,” she says.

Apart from the fact that it is tremendously irritating — and sometimes publicly embarrassing — when our kids fight, “it hurts us to hear them say mean things or hit each other,” says Barbara Desmarais, a parenting and life coach in Vancouver. “We want them to get along. And we aim for a peaceful household.”

That may be an impossible dream. Research has shown that siblings aged three to six fight, on average, seven to 12 times an hour, says Susan Lollis, a psychologist and professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. And you can bet older sibs aren’t much better.

So why can’t our children just get along? Basically the squabbles are a way of jockeying for position and the attention of their parents. In fact, Desmarais says, “it would be abnormal if you had siblings who never fought.”

Whether the tussle is physical or emotional, your job as a parent is simple (if not easy): First, ensure that nobody gets hurt; and second, encourage your kids to resolve disputes on their own, without resorting to name-calling or fisticuffs. Here’s how to accomplish both when faced with the most common sibling squabbles.

“Calvin is a butthead.”

En route to school, Susan McGrath’s three sons, James, 12, Luke, 10, and Mark, nine, sometimes deliberately provoke each other by poking, hat stealing and name-calling. The trip takes just 15 minutes, but for the Whitehorse mom, the boys’ squabbles make it seem much longer, particularly if they’re continuing a dispute they started earlier.

Although such pint-sized torture techniques may seem laughable to you (there is clearly no butt protruding from his head, so why is Calvin getting so mad?), they need to be nipped in the bud if your kids are going to learn to get along.

How to defuse the situation
• Set the ground rules. Desmarais’ time-tested line: “You can be angry, but you may not call your sister a name (substitute: pinch her, poke her, etc.). If I continue to see that behaviour, there will be a consequence.”

• Emphasize the basics of respectful communication, says Lollis: “I don’t poke you or call you names, and I expect you not to do that to your siblings.”

• Offer a distraction. Sometimes these rather inane fights arise out of boredom. A supply of word puzzles, art materials or books might provide a way to refocus kids’ attention.

• Say it without words. “When I yell at them, I’m like the teacher in Charlie Brown — they don’t hear anything I say,” McGrath observes. Instead, she calmly pulls over to the side of the road. “When you’ve stopped what you’re doing, we can go again,” she tells them. “They hate to be late, so they will be begging me, ‘Please, Mom, I’m going to be late for volleyball!’”

“That’s my toy!”

The McGrath family’s video game system provokes the most ongoing dissension in their household. “They only get to use it from Friday night to Sunday night,” says McGrath. “They fight over what game they’re going to play and whether it will be single or double player.”

Property wars crop up regularly among kids, says Lollis, whether over a favourite doll, a particular seat in the car or even a crucial piece of Duplo.

How to defuse the situation
• Make sure the property rules are clear at your house, advises Lollis, particularly when a toy starts out with an older child and gets passed on to the younger.

• If the toy really does belong to one child and the other has no rights to it, a reminder accompanied by a consequence might do the trick. But if kids are expected to share it, you might have to guide them through negotiations.

• Put the ball in their court: “OK, we’ve got one toy and two little girls who want to play with it. Can you think of a way we can make both of you happy?” Kids tend to abide by the solution more readily if they helped come up with it, Desmarais says.

• Offer alternatives. Suggest that each child gets a 10-minute turn with the toy — and set a timer for backup.

• Implement a toy time out, putting the toy away until the kids resolve their problem. While traditional time outs might simply isolate the angry child and discourage co-operation, a toy time out encourages kids to work through their issues. McGrath, for example, turns off the video games until her boys can come to an agreement. “I usually find that if the choice is to play or not to play, they will choose to get over it and find a solution by themselves,” she says.

“I can run faster than yo-o-ou can.”

A recent family video shows Millican’s two boys bitterly competing for the chance to open a hotel room door with a key card, and then slugging it out just as adamantly for first dibs on the bathroom. When older brother Riley wins both battles, Spencer collapses into tears on the floor. “Riley is so competitive and Spencer gets pulled into the game,” says Millican. “But he is younger, so obviously Riley can run faster, throw farther, and he knows more.”

Being sibs makes your children natural rivals, says Desmarais. Ideally, you want them to realize that each of them has unique abilities and gifts, and that they are not in competition with each other.

How to defuse the situation
• Don’t compare kids to each other. Comments like “Your brother is the athlete, but you’re my studious child” only encourage competitiveness between your children, Lollis contends.

• Try to ensure that every child feels secure and distinctive in her abilities by identifying what each can do. “That’s a fantastic picture you drew. You seem to have a real gift.” Head off further conflict by complimenting each child one-on-one, when a jealous sib isn’t in the vicinity.

• Offer “sensitivity training.” Take the boastful child aside and shed some insight on her brother’s point of view. “When you say that to Matthew, how do you think that makes him feel?”

• Forge a special relationship with each child. Millican tries to find a way to connect with each of her kids on their own terms. “It doesn’t have to be an event,” she says. “Sometimes I just say, ‘C’mon, Spence, let’s go for a car ride.’ He chatters away to me while I’m doing some errands. The main thing is, it’s just the two of us.”

“No fair! Why does she get to…”

Karen Ghent’s 14-year-old son, Charles, has had his nose out of joint ever since his 20-year-old sister, Robyn, returned to the family nest in Dartmouth, NS, after a year away. “He got used to having the computer and Mom and most of the treats,” says Ghent. What’s more, Charles is painfully aware that the same rules don’t apply to his sister as apply to him. “You know you’re going to give in to her,” he says to his mom. “You always do. You wouldn’t let me do it.” A key thing to remember about siblings is that they are counting. “If I get three hugs, why did my brother get four? If I have to go to bed at 9 p.m., why does he get to stay up till 11?”

How to defuse the situation
• Explain that fair is not always equal. Differences in age, maturity and family circumstances must be taken into account. As Ghent points out to her son, “When your sister was your age, she didn’t have the same curfew she has now.”

• Aim for balance. If you buy something for one, buy for the other too. Offering a compliment to your son? Extend one to his sister as well.

• Repeat these words as often as possible: “I love you both very much.” Little kids especially need this reassurance on a regular basis. Each of our children has a desire to be the chosen one, says Lollis, but it is difficult for them to understand that you love them all, even though you have a different relationship with each.

“We were just having fun until Marissa got a fat lip.”

“It’s usually during the witching hour,” says Denise Ross, the Toronto mother of seven-year-old Jackson and four-year-old Travis. “I will be getting dinner and the boys will be asked to occupy themselves.” Their solution to boredom: wrestling. Most times Ross lets them play fight, recognizing that her boys are simply very physical. But every now and then, someone gets an elbow in the wrong place or a fat lip, and the roughhousing devolves into a real fight. “You can hear it in the pitch of their voices,” she says.

How to defuse the situation
• If the rough stuff is pure play, don’t feel you need to intervene. “I think it’s something that boys need to do,” advises Desmarais.

• But, she adds, keep an eye on the action. “If it’s beginning to get serious, then you absolutely have to intervene and say, ‘This is going too far. Somebody’s going to get hurt.’”

• Set boundaries. “Remember this is play,” Ross tells her rambunctious boys. “Be gentle.”

• Prevent a more serious conflict by promoting another activity or separating the kids until they calm down.

• Seek help if you feel your best efforts aren’t helping to dial down the level of violence in physical fights.

When tiffs get tough

While sibling squabbles are a normal part of growing up, aggression and violence between siblings sometimes crosses the line into abuse. A recent US study of 2,030 children found that 35 percent had been attacked or hit by a sibling in the previous year and of those, 13 percent were injured in some way (bruises, chipped teeth, cuts, the occasional broken bone).

“People tend to minimize sibling violence,” says David Finkelhor, a sociologist with the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and lead author of the study. “But it can be serious and it can have long-term effects.” Those who are repeatedly victimized, particularly younger sibs between the ages of two and nine, often show signs of trauma, including depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, thoughts of suicide and fear of the dark.

Finkelhor suggests you seek help if the violence is occurring repeatedly (say, several times a week) and you aren’t able to nip it in the bud.

Referees’ handbook

A parent’s guide to the do’s and don’ts of dealing with sibling fights

DO

• encourage your kids to work things out themselves. This helps them learn how to manage conflict through to a satisfactory resolution — an important life skill.

• suggest solutions if they are unable to make headway. Try: “You get to pick the movie this week and your brother gets to choose next week.” If you’re lucky, the kids will eventually come up with alternatives on their own.

• praise your children when you see them sharing and co-operating. “Whatever we put attention on is what we get more of,” says BC parenting and life coach Barbara Desmarais.

DON’T

• banish combatants to separate rooms. “When we separate kids, too often we do it for ourselves because we can’t stand it anymore,” says Desmarais. “Then they don’t resolve anything.”

• step in and referee all of their disputes. When you jump into the middle of a dispute, you frequently don’t know the whole story. “We usually come along when the fight is in midstream,” says Desmarais, “and it’s very easy to target one child over the other. That only escalates things.” Neither do you want to teach your kids that being a victim is the way to get your attention.

• ignore violence and name-calling. Your goal, of course, is to keep your kids safe and ensure they don’t learn negative behaviour patterns that will get them in trouble later on.

• expect that once the issue is resolved, they will never fight over it again. “Even adults go back to the same conflict over and over,” says University of Guelph professor and psychologist Susan Lollis.