Is the serene family life you dreamed of ruined by sibling rivalry? How can you end the sniping and out-and-out violence without getting violent yourself?
It helps to identify what might contribute to the discord. Three root causes, alone or in combination, may be at work.
First, your children’s innate temperament might make them more likely to imagine insults and to retaliate. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas identified three basic temperaments: easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm up. Easy kids are easy-going, of course. It takes a lot to set them off. But difficult children may be quick to pick a fight or simple to annoy. Slow-to-warm up kids may seethe inside until they explode in anger or tears. Because temperament is inherited, your child’s default setting is something you’ll need to work around.
Second, the ages of your children predispose them to be more attentive to some things than others. Preschoolers want to be treated like the big kids, bigger kids are obsessive about rules and fairness, older kids are afraid of being “treated like a child.” Obviously, children grow out of these stages, but of course they grow into others.
Third, bad behavior becomes a habit. Children adopt unwelcome patterns of first response, so that every interaction is predictably laced with bickering and insults. Some kids routinely hit each other, routinely pout and whine, routinely tattle. Habits are ingrained but changing habits is your most effective strategy.
So how do you go about improving your children’s sibling relationship? Where do you start?
1. Identify one problem to focus on. Don’t single out any one child as the instigator: remember that almost always both parties contribute to the trouble in one way or another. Then notice your own default patterns of reaction and how you might be supporting or contributing to the problem. Settle on one frequently-occurring situation to fix.
2. Decide on a way to change the pattern. Depending on the situation and whether this is fueled by temperamental issues, developmental stuff, or just bad habits, settle on your plan of approach. This might involve changing how things happen or it might include having a talk with the kids and settling on a new way of interacting. It might mean that you arrange things so the situation doesn’t occur. It probably means you will change how you yourself react. Whatever you decide to do will signal to your kids that a change is underway.
3. Avoid setting yourself up as the referee or judge. If you sit down with your children and tell them that you will punish the next one who does X, you encourage tattling and extortion. Tattling and extortion are not what you want; you want peace and quiet. So stay positive. Work out with your children how they are to act in the problem situation in the future. Say nothing about what will happen if they don’t.
4. Go on a positive comment campaign. Notice pleasant behavior and comment on it. Notice when children resolve the problem you discussed in a positive way, even if only one child did this and his sibling did not. Mention only the good behavior, not the bad. If you’ve been commenting only on the negative stuff, you’ve been inadvertently supporting it. Ignore bad behavior as much as you can and heap praise on the good stuff. You’ll soon see more good and less bad.
Sibling rivalry is normal kid-behavior but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with nastiness. When you replace unpleasant actions with more acceptable behavior, you guide your children in handling difficult situations and handling themselves. These are valuable lessons.
The calm family relationships you wish for are within your reach. Just take the time needed to put them in place.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.