First, you need to recognize the difference between fighting and rivalry. Once you determine that, only then should you choose your strategy. Each calls for different tactics.
Sibling fights are often about possessions or territory. Where there is more than one child in a family, and any two of the children are closer in age than 6 years, there's bound to be conflict of some degree between them. Sibling fighting, like marital arguments, is simply inevitable and just as normal. Young children battle it out by pushing and hitting. Older kids shout.
Sibling rivalry is a different issue. It appears when children compete for their parents' love and attention.
Villain Vs. Victim
Rivalry develops out of sibling conflict as a result of parental intervention. When parents intervene in a conflict between siblings, one child almost always ends up being identified as the villain and the other as the victim. This is surely not the parents' intention. In fact, when asked why they intervene, parents tell me, "I want to keep them from hurting each other," or "I want to help them learn to get along," or "I'm just trying to teach them how to resolve their problems without fighting."
Nonetheless, far more often than not, the unspoken message to one child is, "You did something wrong," while the message to the other child is, "You did not deserve to be treated like that." This villain-versus-victim showdown transforms conflict into rivalry, because now the children begin competing for the coveted Victim Award, which only a parent can hand out. In effect, the parent sides with and sympathizes with the victim, making him or her the "winner."
Two things usually happen as a result of this villain-versus-victim showdown: First, the most important: The parent's strategy backfires, as evidenced by more and greater conflicts between the children. Second, the siblings begin to learn that when in conflict with someone else, there is an advantage to playing the role of the victim.
This realization usually shocks parents, and rightly so. No one wants to teach children, however unintentionally, that playing "victim" is desirable under any circumstances. Unfortunately, this family drama can lay the foundation for a lifelong pattern of misconceptions about how problems are solved. This is especially true if parents consistently award one child the victim role.
Even though fighting jangles your nerves, realize there are hidden benefits. Your children have the opportunity with every skirmish to learn to solve conflicts on their own. But you can't ignore every battle. Sometimes they really do need your help.
When a fight ensues, you have three options:
- Step in and end the battle. Take this approach when one child is unmercifully teasing, bullying, or hurting the other. Separate the combatants and say, "I love you both. I won't allow you to hurt each other."
- Teach them skills for managing the conflict. Suggest strategies for trading or taking turns, such as using a timer to determine when time is up for each turn-taker.
- Allow them to resolve the conflict themselves. Even if the older one is clearly taking advantage of -- but not hurting -- the younger, stay out of it. How else will the younger child learn to stand up for himself?
Make it Their Problem
When your children are younger, you do more intervening. As they mature, you'll do more retreating to the opposite end of the house.
Once you've decided to step back, make the children equally responsible for any disruption their conflict causes to the family. And, set limits on their squabbles, such as:
- No hurting, meaning they cannot hit, pinch, kick, throw things at each other, and so on.
- A sibling conflict must not disturb the parents; it should be fairly calm, or at least not escalate toward bedlam.
- No tattling. Tell your children you don't want to hear about their problems with each other.
If any one of the rules is broken, send both children to their rooms. Make no attempt to determine who did what to whom, why they were fighting, or who was "right" and who was "wrong."
If your kids want to stay out of their rooms, they have to learn to manage their conflict without bringing it to you. There are no villains or victims, just two kids who tango into trouble every now and then. When they do, they both pay the price. And make sure the price is one that they will quickly learn to avoid.
When children battle over something minor, such as who sits where at the dinner table, the feud probably involves feelings of rivalry. The one who "wins" is regarded by both children as more loved or favored. Focus on the following tips to reduce rivalry:
Avoid the fairness trap. Don't try to make everything equal or soon you'll be hearing remarks like, "No fair! He got new basketball shoes -- what do I get?" Give possessions according to your kids' needs and interests, knowing that in the long run it all comes out even.
Don't compare. Your oldest keeps his bedroom tidy; the younger one's room is a mess. Don't try to motivate your younger child with words such as, "You need to clean your room so it's as neat as your brother's." Comparisons breed competition.
When they're fighting, don't add rivalry to the mix. Rather than demanding, "Who started it?" and punishing the perpetrator, just separate the two.
Validate negative feelings. Siblings feel love and loyalty toward each other, mixed with frustration, resentment, and jealousy. You can't squelch the negative, so respond like this: "I know your sister irritates you, and you see her as a pest. When your friend comes to play, I won't let your sister tag along."
Don't force siblings to share everything. If the older child received a Lego set for his birthday, let him keep it as his own. Help him find a safe place for it, away from the busy hands of a younger sibling.
Avoid labels. "She's my student" might make the other feel like he can't be a good student too. "He's the family troublemaker" places that boy in a role that's difficult to change. Let each child naturally carve out his spot.