It happens in every family — sibling battles that can sometimes seem like all-out war. Although they may make parents want to take a permanent vacation, these conflicts can often be a positive learning experience for kids, according to child psychologist Dana Chidekel. She was invited on "Today" to share her expertise on how best to handle sibling rivalry.
Why do sibling spats happen?Because there is only one mom and dad and as soon as children realize there is a competitor for your affections, the contest is on, like it or not. This will occur no matter how fair you are, no matter how equally you try to divide your time and attention. We are talking about matters of perception in children, which is a far cry from objective reality. These spats occur to get your attention, and to get the upper hand over their siblings in order to win attention and love.
How involved should parents be when settling a dispute between two kids?
Not too much, beyond keeping everyone safe. You cannot allow anyone to hit, kick or harm anyone else. Does this mean you take the side of a child who appears to be bullied? Not at all. You don't want to teach a child that there is mileage to be gotten out of being a victim, because the future ramifications of this position are pretty negative. It's also important to keep in mind that the "victim" is as much a participant as the "perpetrator."
You shouldn't agree to play referee, because often these spats are enacted to bring you into the fray and grab your attention. If you take on the role as referee, you will never have all the information that your need, and will teach your children that they can reliably get your attention by fighting.
It's a good idea to have a dispute resolution area — a special place with two separate chairs. If there is an ongoing issue and it's driving you crazy, tell kids they are in the chairs until they figure out a way to work things out. Make them responsible. This empowers them and when you take yourself out of the equation it's amazing what they can accomplish. Then, of course, heap the praise on both when they do come to a détente.
If kids are arguing over some object, take the thing out of the picture for a day. The message: Anything that creates problems is a loss for both of them. It's a nice opportunity for them to take the focus off of each other and put it onto you as the bad guy.
How can these sibling fights be avoided in the first place so you don't have to play referee?Parents have to accept that if there is more than one child in the family, rivalry is going to be part of the equation. And it's not necessarily a bad thing. The roots of good conflict resolution and resilient social skills lie in sibling conflict. Who hasn't been in a situation at work in which many vie for the boss's attention? When children learn to deal with conflict and feelings of competition, they have a substantial advantage as an adult.
Many parents take the "let them work it out themselves" approach. Is that a good idea? If a child being bullied is very young and can't possibly defend himself, it's a good idea to remove the older child while, at the same time, articulating the issues — "It's hard to have to share Mommy," or "You don't like that little Johnny gets Mommy's attention too" — so he can use the experience to further his self-knowledge.
When children are on a more level playing field vis-a-vis their ages, you want to make sure one child is not victimizing another, while keeping in mind that if a child is being victimized, he is allowing it to occur as much as the other child is enacting it. You also want to be sure that you are giving enough attention to your kids for the types of behavior you want to see, so they don't feel that going at each other is the only way to reliably elicit your attention.
A natural reaction for many parents is to ask the standard question, "Who started it?" Is that a good idea? Never. There are two sides to every story, and often you will find that in any given sibling pair, there is one child who is more surreptitious (usually the older one), so the other one ends up looking like the instigator. Siblings fights are a circumstance in which you need to keep in mind the "takes two to tango" principle, and hold both kids responsible.
Is it unreasonable to think that your kids should not only love one another but like one another too?
One of the very wonderful things about having a sibling is it provides an opportunity to work out a variety of feelings about sharing with someone else. Only-children are at a serious disadvantage in this department, and often ill-equipped to cope in a world in which they are not always focal. Siblings may not like one another at different times during childhood, but if we allow this and let them know that their feelings are okay with us, then we model for our children that they too can accept their feelings. A child who likes and accepts himself is a good deal more capable of liking others than the child who feels there is something wrong with him and fundamentally objectionable about his feelings.
Also, sibling rivalry is a good arena in which we can teach children (and remind ourselves) that feelings and behaviors are separate. Being jealous is okay. Hitting your brother over the head with a fireplace poker is not. The more we can accept these feelings in children and give them language for them, the less need children will have to act these feelings out, and the more they will develop their capacity for self-awareness, so they can know and be in charge of themselves.