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How to squelch those silly sibling squabbles

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters offers parents tactics to reduce family bickering.

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

Law #20:
Squelch Sibling Squabbles
Yes, it’s normal for siblings to tease, spar, and taunt each other, but it doesn’t mean that they have to do it at your expense. Put a stop to this nonsense immediately by employing my bad points system, as well as teaching your kids how to communicate with civil words, rather than with their fists or verbal barbs.


Chances are we’ve never met, but I can tell you right now that if you have more than one child in your house, those kids will fight with each other. Sibling rivalry (whether emotional, physical, or verbal) is universal and as old as time. And as most parents report, our kids fight over the dumbest stuff — who gets what (front seat in the car, the largest piece of cake, to sleep on the top bunk) or who did what to who (looked at, ignored, made faces at, burped at, punched, kicked, licked).

Seemingly harmless as the rivalry may begin, small issues have a way of driving parents nuts over the months and years. Researchers actually study this stuff and have found that about 70 to 80 percent of families report some level of physical violence during conflicts between siblings. And that’s not counting the verbal garbage that kids sling at each other (“You’re dumb,” “Hey, ugly,” “Yo, moron”). Why does this happen so frequently?

Over the years I’ve counseled many families enduring sibling battles and have seen five main reasons.

  1. Differences. Kids find themselves living with a sibling whose personality traits are so different that they consistently annoy and drive each other to distraction.
  2. Boredom. There’s nothing quite like a good bicker or squabble to break up the monotony of a slow summer day.
  3. Habit. Cleaning someone’s clock may become second nature if you don’t like a behavior — just clobber the other guy and see what happens. Fighting can become the sport of childhood and many kids don’t care that it bothers their folks.
  4. Acceptance. It’s allowed and therefore is encouraged. Mom and Dad either look the other way or are consistently inconsistent in giving out negative consequences for the bickering.
  5. Resentment. One kid resents the other’s status of even being a family member. This is generally a child who has difficulty sharing attention, parental involvement, or material objects.

If these sound familiar, join the club. Many parents tell me that if they had one behavior to pick that they could change in their children, it would be sibling battles and rivalry. Take Joel, for example. He’s the single father of Noah and Adam. Joel came to see me about the kids’ constant fighting, bickering, and sibling rivalry. Although Adam is older, larger, and stronger at 11 years of age, 8-year-old Noah has the tongue and wit of a shrew. Even with the age difference, their arguments were fairly evenly matched, with Noah throwing around words and Adam throwing around Noah. Usually the squabbles would end in a draw — Adam’s feelings would be hurt and Noah’s arms bruised. Well, it really wasn’t a draw, as all involved, including Joel, felt badly following a particularly grueling day in the boxing ring. The kids got their verbal and physical licks in, and Joel was left angry, annoyed, and frustrated. It was hard enough raising the kids without the help of their mother (who resided out of state), and he had had it with the senseless bickering.

Joel told me about their typical fights — almost always beginning over a meaningless act, gesture, or word. One kid would look at the other and smile and that could be enough to provoke a battle. Noah had the annoying habit of humming during meals or car rides, and Adam just couldn’t stand it. He’d punch Noah, which only resulted in a squeal or a punch in return. Joel would threaten to stop the car and return home, or if the ruckus was during dinner, the meal was ruined.

Joel was also concerned that the boys’ sparring meant that they weren’t friends and that they might grow up feeling animosity for each other. He confided to me that he often felt incompetent as a parent when his kids began to fight, as if it was his job to make sure that the guys not only didn’t kill each other but that they actually enjoyed their relationship. As he spoke, I could feel Joel’s pain — as the single most important guiding force in his children’s lives he had taken on the responsibility of making his children get along as well as respect and enjoy each other.

I informed Joel that his intentions were great, yet unrealistic and logically faulty. No one can make anyone like someone else. When it comes to family relationships, it’s a matter of goodness of fit between personalities. We are born with many of the seeds of our individual temperament. Some kids are naturally easy-going and relaxed. Others tend toward being edgy and hyper, oversensitive and often overreactive to even the slightest stimulation (be it physical or emotional). Then there are the differences between introverts and extroverts, quiet kids versus those who can’t seem to refrain from humming, wiggling, and constantly beating out tunes on the air drum no matter how annoying it is to others.

After meeting and talking individually with each of Joel’s boys, I could see how they rubbed each other the wrong way. Noah was hyper, sharp-witted, and a real pain in the neck. He seemed to constantly have one body part or another in motion and was talking or making noise incessantly. On the other hand, Adam was a slug. The kid was huge for an 11-year-old and was quite content to hang out on the couch all day, watching TV or playing video games. He told me about his little brother’s tendency to disrupt his video viewing by changing the channel without permission, pounding him with pillows, or making disgusting noises.

Noah complained about how his brother would never play with him. Although he recognized the difference in their ages, he felt that Adam was a snob and needed to give him more attention. Noah realized that his behavior irritated his brother but felt that it was justified because it provoked some attention from the big lug. He admitted that perhaps he was a bit pesky, but not nearly as severe as Adam portrayed. Noah liked to flick his brother on the arm or to give him a noogie to the head. Adam, of course, perceived these gestures as tormenting, rather than as good-natured teasing.

I described to Joel just how different his children were, and how they were bound to drive each other nuts on a regular basis because of their proximity (living in the same house) and personality trait differences (hyper, humming Noah versus couch potato Adam). And if left undisturbed, their relationship was bound to grow even more disturbing!

Noah, at 8, had many more years of annoying behavior left in him, and Adam was just entering into the tween/teen phase of exceptional moodiness, intolerance, and touchiness. At this point in the conversation, I think that Joel probably would have bolted from town had he not been such a responsible dad. What also helped was my telling him that his kids were not so different from others, but that each was a bit extreme in personality style. And it didn’t help that their dad was raising them alone, without the backup and support of a spouse.

At the next session we all met together. First I went to work with the boys. Each was old enough to learn to take responsibility for their behaviors as well as to understand and to respect where the other was coming from. I informed Noah that all of his body parts were under his control and that although he liked to hum, wiggle around, and thump his brother on the head, he had to respect that most people are annoyed by these actions. Noah tried to squirm out of taking responsibility by saying that he couldn’t help it, that his hand sort of reflexively flicked Adam’s head, or that burps or even more disturbing noises just erupted from his body cavities.

I informed Noah that that was a bunch of baloney — sure these actions were habitual, but he could feel a burp coming on and tone it down, and his fingers did not have a mind of their own. I told him that his job for the next week, until we met together again, was simply to knock it off. He could tone down the fidgeting and thumping if he really wanted to, and I was determined to find a way to motivate his desire to do so. I didn’t think that just reasoning with the kid would succeed — Joel had been asking him for years to quit bothering his brother. We needed to enforce consequences for his behavior and Noah was placed on notice that from now on:

  • He would receive a bad point from his dad for every purposeful head thump, rude noise, unprovoked pillow fight, or popping of Adam. He would be allowed eight bad points per day (which, trust me, was not a whole lot considering Noah’s tendencies). If he kept it to eight or less, he would receive a red $1 allowance poker chip, a blue $1 chip to save to purchase new sneakers, a white privilege poker chip to be saved and traded in for bowling, laser tag, or go-carting, use of electricity, and playtime for the remainder of the day. If his bad point total exceeded eight, Noah would lose all of these rewards that day.
  • If his bad points totaled 11 or more, his father was going to give away one of his possessions to the Salvation Army. And Joel was going to rifle through his stuff and make the choice of the soon-to-be lost object — most likely a baseball, video game cartridge, or action figure.
  • He was encouraged to ask his father or Adam to play with him rather than to try to tease them into giving him attention. Joel told his son that he would do his best to set aside 15 to 30 minutes each day to play catch or engage in a board game — but only if Noah asked politely and had not exceeded his bad point total for the day.

Next I instructed Adam to:

  • Make a list of activities that he would be willing to do with Noah. This took a bit of coaxing, but he finally admitted that playing computer games together would be fun and that he’d give some board games a whirl. Adam made it clear, though, that he didn’t want to be teased into playing with Noah — he specifically told him not to come up from behind and pop him on the head, running off hoping that Adam would join in the chase. I encouraged Adam to ignore his brother if he did that and to leave the room. I suggested that Joel make the rule that each boy’s bedroom was private and that the other had to have permission to enter. Adam, therefore, would have a refuge to retreat to in order to get a break from his brother’s antics.
  • Refrain from pounding on Noah. Adam was quite strong and had left marks, brushburns, and bruises on Noah’s scrawny frame in the heat of battle, and that needed to cease immediately. We created a new house rule: No physical aggression allowed by anybody. That meant no pushing, shoving, fighting, hitting, or throwing objects. Any aggressive physical action by either boy was to be an automatic loss of a possession to be given to the Salvation Army. Adam would lose, at Joel’s discretion, a CD, video tape, game cartridge, or a model airplane. Instead of hitting back, he was to leave the room, calmly tell his father about the incident if he wished, and move on.
  • Try to give his little brother some quality time and positive attention. Adam had agreed to try playing computer or board games, as noted above. I explained to him how left out his little brother felt and that some of his annoying manners were probably ploys to gain Adam’s attention. Perhaps if Noah felt more accepted by his brother, he wouldn’t feel the need to resort to the teasing and taunting.

Finally, I instructed Joel to refrain from asking “Who started it?” when the boys got going. If a verbal squabble began, he was to automatically give each one a bad point. The message to the boys was that bickering would no longer be tolerated. If one started messing around with the other, there was a decision to be made. The victim could:

  • Ignore the perpetrator
  • Leave the room and go to the sanctity of his bedroom
  • Calmly ask his father for help
  • Participate in the fight, squabble, tease, or taunt

The first three options would be applauded by their dad, and the last would result in the meting out of bad points for both boys. The bad points would be tallied each day and would result in either receiving or losing rewards. It was each boy’s choice, but the message was clear — squabbling would not be tolerated. Bickering is an option — you can engage or disengage, and either choice would result in a consequence. Joel was no longer playing referee — he was now the keeper of the bad points and would give them out in a nonchalant, consistent manner, willing to take away privileges and possessions if necessary.

And the system worked well. I saw the family again the following week, and Joel brought along a log of the kids’ bad points. Noah, surprisingly, did slightly better than Adam. All of a sudden this 8-year-old, somewhat-hyper kid seemed to gain self-control of his legs, fingers, and tongue. Although he did push the limits and received six, seven or eight bad points a day, Noah received his rewards on six of the seven days! Joel kept his word and played catch, rode bikes, and went inline skating with him on the days that he stayed within his bad-point limit. Adam played cards most nights with Noah and hesitantly admitted that it was “almost fun.” Although Adam had lost two possessions (a CD and a video tape) to the Salvation Army for smacking his brother, he had otherwise shown considerable restraint by ignoring many of Noah’s taunts.

Joel was pleased with the boys’ progress but still concerned that they didn’t seem close with each other. I allayed some of his fears by telling him that most siblings fight (either verbally or physically) and many are not particularly close during the grade-school years. I implored Joel to focus on the positive — the toning down of the squabbles rather than the few eruptions that had occurred during the week. Also, the kids were beginning to play together more, and that was a good sign. Joel had little control over whether Noah and Adam would end up best buds in the future or not. That was their road to travel over the next several years, and their decision to make.

With maturity comes sensitivity, tolerance, and acceptance of others. As the boys grew I had no doubt that their interests would become more in tune with each other, that Noah would become less hyper and that they would develop greater common ground. Whether they become true friends is out of Joel’s hands, but at least he will no longer be allowing them to clobber and annoy each other at will. Noah and Adam would now have a chance to develop a friendship, no longer squabbling because of habit or lack of consequences.

Living the Law

Teach your kids communication skills. To best help your family with sibling squabbles, try to teach your children to communicate their complaints, gripes, and grumps about each other appropriately. To help avoid miscommunication, consider the following:

  • Acknowledge the feelings that the kids are expressing.
  • Help them to label feelings accurately.
  • Teach them to create compromises or other actions that will resolve the problems.
  • Set guidelines for future behavior when the conflict occurs again.

Be prepared to use a bad-point system. If the kids continue to be unreasonable and you see that miscommunication is not the problem, consider using a behavior management program. Include in your system loss of privileges and possessions as well as the ability to earn rewards.

Realize that sibling squabbles are normal. Most kids fight, tease, and even become aggressive with brothers or sisters.

Step in. If you’re allowing it, you’re encouraging it. Realize that if you let a lot of this nonsense go on, you are actually supporting the battles.

Don’t be consistently inconsistent. If you say that you will be giving a negative consequence for bickering, do it and don’t back down!

Don’t play judge and jury. Try to catch yourself asking the kids “Who started it?” It really doesn’t matter, and they probably will blame each other, so what’s the point? Just give all of the involved parties a bad point and move on! Of course, you should listen to real concerns and emotional meltdowns, but the daily sibling squabbles are a no-win situation. If you stay out of the way, many kids will either resolve the problem, learn to ignore the sibling annoyance, or decide to take some quiet time in their bedrooms.

Try not to compare the kids. Children are always on the lookout for your “favorite,” and even though you love them the same, you probably like different things about each of the kids. Try to compliment when deserved and direct constructive criticism to the action, not the child.

NEXT WEEK: Listen to your teen — and take a stand

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.