Squashing Sibling Squabbles


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It’s a familiar refrain: “I was here first!” “That’s mine!” On days when you contemplate equipping your children with boxing gloves and letting them duke it out, remember this: The bickering, teasing and flashes of jealousy aren’t just to be expected, they’re signs of healthy, albeit exasperating, childhood behavior.

By learning how to negotiate and compromise, your kids strengthen their social and communication skills, as well as discover how to be good winners and losers.

Experts say siblings who are able to work out their competitive feelings with one another tend to be better friends in the long run. Still, it’s hard for a parent to stand aside and not jump in to stop a heated argument or protect a younger child.

But joining in the fray — by pleading, lecturing or yelling — often exacerbates the situation and interferes with your children’s abilities to work through problems. So retire that striped referee jersey and follow these expert tips to put an end to your family’s feuds.

Acknowledge your children’s differences

Conflicting personality types can be a major source of friction in families. Extroverts thrive on social interaction and constant activity; introverts need more quiet time and solitude. A sensitive child might burst into tears after his brother calls him a name, whereas a more resilient child might take the taunts for a while — and then finally slug his sister.

The best thing to do is recognize these personality differences and educate your kids about each sibling’s traits. For example, explain to your outgoing child that his more reserved sibling needs quiet and space right now. Then help him respect these wishes by finding a fun activity or getting him together with a playmate to satisfy his own social, extroverted needs.

Praise good deeds

You have a greater chance of changing your kids’ behaviors with positive rewards than punishment, so compliment any altruistic behavior you witness between siblings. Set your children up for this recognition by offering an older child opportunities to teach a younger sibling or providing a young sibling with occasions to help out his big brother.

Let them know how proud you are of them both for being so helpful and giving. To reinforce this, ask each child at dinner what nice thing they did for their siblings that day and applaud their efforts. They might surprise you by treating each other more kindly.

Find healthy outlets for competition

Competition between siblings can heat up as they grow older and is usually at its worst between ages 8 and 12. Siblings who are close in age or who have many of the same interests tend to compete more.

Whether it’s shooting baskets or creating artwork, encourage each child to aim for his personal best and be enthusiastic about his activities. Since the green monster of jealousy is often to blame for many sibling squabbles, make sure you recognize each child’s passions and accomplishments without comparing kids to each other.

Set rules

Research shows that sibling rivalry is least likely to occur in homes where rules are set and strictly enforced. Encourage your kids to work through their disagreements by setting house rules, such as no physical aggression or name-calling. Or implement the five-minute rule: If the dispute isn’t resolved within that time frame, take away any items being fought over and separate the kids for a short cooling-off period.

Make sure children respect each other’s property. If your kids share a room, provide each with private space that’s off-limits to siblings.

Stay out of it

Stay nearby when trouble is brewing, but don’t get involved unless necessary. After all, your kids created the problem, they should be held accountable for putting an end to it.

Of course, siblings will try to get you to take sides by tattling (“Joey spit on me.” “I did not. She messed up my drawing.”), but spending time figuring out who’s to blame is draining and unproductive. Besides, it only teaches youngsters to blame one another when each party likely holds some responsibility for the fight.

Instead, try phrases such as, “I don’t want to hear about it” and “Gee, that’s too bad.” Once your children know you’re not going to serve as judge, they’ll involve you less in their petty bickering and work more toward resolving their own problems.

Guide children

If dueling children reach an impasse or it seems physical injury is imminent, it’s time to work with them to resolve the problem. Experts suggest guiding quarreling kids by asking questions such as, “Could you play with this toy for five minutes and then let your sister have it for five minutes?”

If the situation gets heated, send the children to separate rooms, wait for everyone to cool off, and then have them share their feelings and brainstorm solutions. Ask, “How did you feel when your sister called you stupid?” or “I know you were mad because your sister took your doll, but what else could you have done to get your toy back that wouldn’t have hurt her feelings?”

If a child has damaged one of his sibling’s possessions (especially one that he “borrowed” without asking), he should earn the money to buy a replacement by taking over some of the wronged sibling’s chores.

If the feuds continuously center on the same themes — a video game, computer time or who gets the car — you can halt the bickering by setting a schedule so that everyone gets a fair turn.

Even with your best efforts, fights are bound to break out. By staying impartial and letting your brood resolve their own conflicts, you’ll teach them to be flexible, take turns, communicate respectfully and put others first. As kids master these lifelong skills, life at home should become more peaceful.

Jeannette Moninger is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting, health and women’s topics.

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