Today I want to talk about Sibling Rivalry. If you have more than one child you are bound to have experienced some form of sibling rivalry or bickering or even fighting. And if you have siblings of your own, you’ll likely remember fighting with your brother or sister every now and again.
So, as a parent, how do you deal with this? How do you help your children learn crucial problem solving and conflict resolution skills, while at the same time not always feeling like you are the ‘police’ or the ‘judge’ in your house? And even if you have a single child – how do you deal with them arguing with their friend on a playdate or in the park?
These are the four simple things that we do in our house and they seem to work wonders:
#1 They don’t have to share
This is a basic thing in our house. My children do not have to share. At first other mums often comment that this surely makes my children really hard to play with and get on with. But I have found they have always been able to share MORE (not less) and I think to a large extent this is down to them not having to share when they are not ready.
The way I can explain this best is when I think about it from an adult's perspective. Imagine you had just bought yourself a very expensive nice new car and absolutely loved it. You wanted to show it to your friends and let them take part in your joy about your new prized possession. Imagine then, somebody told you, you now had to share this – give the keys to one of your friends and let them drive off in your car (without you) to have a little test drive and a ‘play’. I have no doubt that most adults would find that an unreasonable request. They may be happy to take their friend on a test drive with them, or let them take a look at the car, but not drive off with it by themselves. If this same adult was not forced to share and instead in her own time was allowed to get used to her car, enjoy it, have some fun, and then when she is ready to share, a friend asks her if she can borrow (share) her car, she would no doubt be much more amenable to that idea.
I think it is the same for children. Especially when they have a new toy, or something that they are particularly attached to, sharing can be really hard. So in our house, the other child or sibling can take a look, express their desire to have a turn and will have to wait until the child is ready to share. If they aren’t ready to share that particularly toy for a long while (or ever, if it is their special toy for example) then that is ok too. But I have found by giving my children that space and control over their things they feel far less pressure to protect their toys and will share much more readily. There is no need to hide the toy or fight over it. And from that relaxed state of knowing that when they are ready to share they can, they can ease into that.
#2 Help them hear the real message and feel the feelings
When my children fight, I do my very best to not become the ‘police’ but instead, I get down on their level and get them to tell each other what is really bothering them. This has three effects: 1) it teaches them to put their desires, feelings and needs into words, 2) it helps them to hear the other side of the story and put themselves in their shoes and 3) It allows all parties to have their feelings heard and accepted.
So, a recent example of this is our house was that my middle one had taken her younger brother’s cars off him and he was shouting at her to give them back. When she didn’t, he was about to resort to pushing and hitting, at which point I stepped in. I asked him what was going on and why he was so mad and he explained he wanted his cars back. I asked him to directly address his sister. The conversation went something like this:
Rupert: Isli, you took my cars and I want them back.
Isla: You can’t have them, I want them.
Rupert: But they are MINE. I want them back
Me (clarifying): Rupert, why do you want them back? Isli, why can’t he have them?
Rupert: I want them back because I want to play with them.
Isla: He can’t have them back because I want to play with him.
Me (clarifying): So, Isla, you don’t want Rupert to have his cars because you want to play with him?
Isla: Yes, Rupert, I want to play with you, I missed you at school today and I want us to play together. But I don’t want to play with cars, I want to play dolls with you.
Rupert: I don’t want to play dolls, I want to play cars. I don’t like you taking my things. But I missed you too and I want to play with you.
Me (clarifying): So you both missed each other and want to play together, but you can’t decide what?
Rupert and Isla: Yeah.
Isla (after a moment of thinking): I’m sorry I took your cars, Rupert.
Rupert and Isla think for a while longer.
Isla: Let’s pretend the dolls go on an aeroplane and take the cars with them to play with them so they don’t get bored, yeah?
Rupert: Yes, but I look after the blue car.
Of course, this is not always how it works out. Sometimes, especially when they are tired they can’t hear what the other person is telling them, let alone what the real underlying message is (I took your cars, because I missed you and I wanted you to play with me). But so often it really DOES work. The key is to get them to tell each other what their problem is and then clarify just a tiny bit every now and again to help them see the bigger picture.
#3 Let them find the solution
This one is another one that always blows me away. Whenever I put the problem back to my kids to solve, I am always amazed at how creative they are at finding a solution (often far better than anything I could have come up with). There are so many positives to doing this:
It helps them work together – they are suddenly on the same ‘team’ trying to figure an issue out together rather than fighting against each other.
Because it is their solution, they will own it and believe in it far more than if I had told them what to do.
It helps their creative brains get active
It helps their negotiation skills (especially if they need to convince the other person of their solution)
#4 Give them positive attention
Our children crave our attention and when they don’t get enough positive attention, they will resort to any kind of attention, including negative attention through fighting with their siblings. To combat this, I have found filling their attention ‘buckets’ with positive things by putting aside 10-15 minutes each day for each child to connect with them and give them my undivided attention works wonders. They get to pick what they want to do (within reason, and anything that will fit in the 10-15 minutes) and I put phones, emails, chores to one side and just play with them. It is amazing how this really does fill their little cups up and provides us both with that much needed connection again. Examples of what we do in our house are playing on the trampoline, playing catch with a ball, reading a story together, drawing together, cooking together, doing a puzzle together, playing one of their made up games…anything really that gives them that much needed one on one attention.
The one thing I don’t do enough of yet, is
Making sure I label this time, so that they can understand that they do get special mummy time and that this feels good
Making sure I put that time aside with each of them every day as best as I can (often it is bedtime that becomes that special 1 on 1 time with each of them) – so that they know that they can rely on this time being available regularly
I have found that all of the above things work with my each of my children equally well despite their age differences. As always, it’s about the connection, giving their feelings space and allowing some freedom for them to decide what is right for them – whether that is sharing or finding a good solution to a problem together.
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