Why Kids Fight and How to make it Work For You

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Original posted as: Sibling Rivalry [December 2016]

Today I thought I'd talk about Sibling Rivalry…definitely a parenting topic and certainly something that can help you be a vibrant, powerful mom.

So this is one of my few podcasts that will be most relevant if you have more than one child… however the ideas I'm sharing will also help teachers, daycare workers, coaches, grandparents and even those with only one child, but who often likes to invite over other kids.

In the case of Sibling Rivalry… There is so much emotion around it – it's irritating, it's hurtful, "someone is hurting my cub… but wait the monster who is hurting my cub is my other cub…what did I do wrong to raise such a monster?" The result, sibling rivalry itself can cause plenty of  GUILT – CONFUSION – FEAR, etc and awaken both your protective instincts and your moral alarm. If others are watching us it's even worse!

2 common ways to view sibling rivalry

The way we look at Sibling Rivalry is going to influence how we feel about it and what we’re going to do about it… here are a couple of dominant beliefs around this topic:

1) Kids fight. Let them work it out and all will be fine… survival of the fittest….

The truth is kids are resilient and learn a lot from working out disagreements with their siblings.  Coddling and over-protecting our kids sends a message that they are not capable which means it damages their connection to their own resiliency and is not a good thing.

The problem is this way of thinking comes with a whole host of presumptions:

  • Kids come here with the skill to work things out
  • Parents have the self-control and ability to stay out of it or… If/when you do respond as a parent you'll have no trouble ignoring your Mother Bear instinct and deal with it objectively!
  • The kids are equally matched

This way of thinking typically results in one or more of the following:

  • The one who is bigger or willing to hit lowest will win! This desensitizes the winner to “crushing others” in order to get their way = Bullying
  • The smaller or nicer one can often slip into victim and/or revenge mode
  • The kids grow up to hate each other and never have anything to do with each other once they leave home.
  • One or both kids develop trust issues

2) Sibling rivalry is bad and it is our job to stop it!

This is the exact opposite of the first way of thinking and it too has its problems. First it assumes a parent has control over their kids i.e. they can hit a  button on a remote and they'll stop fighting with each other.

The second problem, is that anytime we believe we should eradicate something and move into FIGHT mode, we attract more of that negative (battle zone) type energy into our homes, which leads to punishment thinking and often causes the parent to feel like a failure when their kids fight.

A family that forces their kids to follow their every rule in a MILITANT style, is not teaching their kids how to think or helping them learn how to get along with others.

A new way to look at sibling rivalry

One of my main goals today is to help you form a new belief around this topic and specifically that sibling rivalry is not bad. Instead, it is an opportunity for your kids to practice skills that they will need throughout their lives. They need your guidance to learn how to do that, and you will need to set limitations on what is okay in your home, but having disagreements with others is a natural part of life.

Kids fight for a variety of reasons and how we deal with it is going to change depending on the reason.  For example, if they are fighting to get your attention (#1 reason kids fight) you will deal with differently than if they are fighting because they have excessive energy and simply need an outlet for it.  Becoming aware of the underlying cause of the struggles guides you in how to proceed.

Common reasons kids argue:

  • To get attention
  • They feel an injustice has been done (it’s the principle of the matter)
  • They spend a lot of time together
  • The family is a safe group to vent frustrations on
  • Their social skills are still developing
  • They are tired, hot, hungry, stressed, grouchy or otherwise bothered
  • They are full of energy and really need the physical release
  • They are not getting their way and they really want their way

Possible red flags of a bigger issue:

  • The have a personality conflict and simply do not like each other. Could be karma, could just be personality, in either case they have chosen this family to learn how to deal with this, so it's a great idea to help them work through it.
  • To feel powerful; they may be being treated poorly elsewhere (and feel powerless there) so they take out on sibling or they may be learning that it is fun to bully others and get their way. In some cases, it is learning to manipulate rather than bully (like the cute little sister who everyone thinks is too sweet to hurt anyone!)
  • They are jealous or resentful of their sibling. Often this arises from things like one child having health issues and sucking up all their parents love and attention. Maybe they have special rules for some reason that seem unfair or it can even be clear parent favoritism.
  • They have a chemical imbalance that is interfering with their regular behaviour and causing them to enjoy hurting others (sociopath); or their brain is wired differently and cannot empathize, pick up on social cues or feel remorse.

These situations can be red flags and often suggest the need for more help. If you suspect any of these are relevant to your situation it would be a good idea to seek out further assistance in the form of parenting support, school social worker, mental health worker, family counselor, psychologists, etc.

Sometimes changing how you parent by participating in a parenting program or hiring a coach can create enough of a foundation for things like jealousy, resentment, bullying tendencies or personality conflict to correct themselves (or at least teach the skills needed to tolerate one another). Sometimes you will need to learn how to protect one child without severing relationships with the other one.

My point;  sometimes more intensive support will be required.

The Role of the Parent in Sibling Rivalry:

  1. Establish clear family boundaries; It is perfectly fine and in fact necessary for you to decide what is acceptable and not acceptable behaviours in your home. The problem is often we are not clear on what those boundaries are and we do not always share them with others. It’s not easy to enforce a boundary or abide by a boundary you don’t really know about.

So the first step to dealing with sibling rivalry is actually becoming aware of your bottom-line behaviours: What is okay, what is not, why is that important to you and how are you going to enforce them,these are the questions to ask yourself.  Talk them over with your partner if there are two (or more) of you involved in raising the kids.  If you miss out this part of the step, there can be confusion, inconsistency and over-reaction.

For example let's say you have a 12 year-old daughter and a 14 year old son. Your husband also has a 13 year old son who lives with you alternating weeks. In your mind there is a rule that says boys do not hit girls and when it was just you and the kids you simply did not allow hitting.

When your husband joined your family 5 years ago the boys were often rougher with each other than your kids ever were, but your husband felt this was normal for boys and you let it ride. On occasion their roughhousing got out of hand, but overall they seemed to enjoy it and as long as they were in the basement you didn't fret about it.

So what if one day you walk in the room right when your 14 year old son hits your 12 year old daughter?  The chances of you REALLY reacting in that situation are huge… in your mind it's clear… he’s bigger and should know better, boys do not hit girls, that has never been okay and just because he does this with his step-brother does not mean he can act out in this way.

The problem: you think you have a clear boundary when in fact it is not clear at all. This allows for confusion, testing of the limits (which kids tend to do even when the boundaries are clear) and overreaction – even misguided anger at your husband – is very possible.

Make your rules as clear as possible and be prepared to explain them (especially in blended family situations). Have friendly discussion around them rather than introduce them as ultimatums.

In my house the rule was very clear:  You hit, you sit.  This applied to everyone and every love tap.  It had to be clear for it to work and it had to apply to everyone. As a result my husband had several time-outs for tapping my bottom in front of the kids as I walked by.  The clearer you are with rules like these the better it will be for all involved.

You do not need or want a rule for every possible bad behaviour… just be very clear on your bottom line.

For example:

  • We treat each other nice – nothing physical, hitting, biting
  • Respect each other’s property – we do not destroy things that belong to each other (creates trust issues and one-up revenge)
  • This is a Bully-free zone – you are bigger and stronger than your little sister…if you use this to hurt her or get her to do things she doesn't want to do you are bullying.

2) Teach your kids social and emotional skills – often we are taught these kinds of tools in our work environment (getting along with problem customers, conflict resolution, being assertive…) yet we don’t always recognize this is something we need to teach at home. Your kids will be more open to the idea of learning these skills when they are younger, and modeling is the most effective way of teaching it.

Kids will benefit by being taught all kinds of skills, such as;  I messages, problem solving, empathizing, compromising, synergizing, active listening, being assertive …

If you don't know what these are or how to teach them it's a great idea to start learning. We become comfortable with a lot of these skills in the Sisterhood of Vibrant Moms, so please check out that option if you are looking for a way to do this.

3) Be aware of how you might be adding to the problem – if your kids are fighting to get your attention or to get the other child in trouble and you react, they score. This means you have become a weapon they are using to get their way and get the other in trouble. If this is the case you want to remove yourself from playing referee as much as possible while teaching them how to work it out together.

In my house it was clear, if you want me to be the ref I will put you both in the penalty box, so it's in your best interest to work it out (following the boundaries we have in place) on your own.

You might also be the igniter, which means you add fuel to the situation by overreacting, stepping in when you were not needed, always siding with the one you see as weaker, etc.

Once you know what role you play you can decide whether or not what you are doing is okay with you. As long as you are oblivious to it, you will continue to create the very thing you are trying to eliminate.

4) Give them permission to disagree - Anytime you give someone permission to do something, you remove the power they could get by doing it without your permission.

What this means, is by saying something like: “You guys have the skills for working out disagreements with each other and from here on in I’m going to let you practice them.  Remember our house rules and understand it will always be in your best interest to work things out without involving me.”  When you do this you remove part of the “temptation” for fighting with each other.

If listening to them disagree drives you crazy, go to a different room, tell them to take it elsewhere or put on your headphones.

Some final tips

So those are 4 things to keep in mind when it comes to decreasing the amount of sibling rivalry in your home and even helping your child get along with other kids when they come over. The more you understand this challenge and work to use it in a positive and skill-enhancing way, the less your kids will fight and the more peaceful your house will be over the holidays.

There is a lot more I could say on this topic, but in the interest of time/length… here are some final tips to keep in mind:

  • People always believe they have a (good) reason for what they are doing
  • Any time you are dealing with sibling rivalry it is always in your best interest to stay calm and deal with the problem in a matter of fact way. The way you behave anytime an altercation occurs between your kids is always going to influence the learning, the potential outcome and the memory of the situation.
  • It takes two to Tango…even the sweetest, most gentle seeming child is fully capable of starting a disagreement and lying to you. If you allow this to happen you are teaching your little sweety how to manipulate others…which isn't a life-affirming skill.
  • When you hear the words “I’m telling Mom!” know that you have become a power card in that interaction. It doesn’t mean you aren’t needed, but it is possible you are being played.

If you become the neutral zone – home free – no judgment, just a sounding board willing to give suggestions, they will stop coming to you except when they really need you. When my kids were young, my first response was – do you need a hug?  And my second was - What do you need from me?

  • Having a preset consequence will help you stay calm when you have to step in.

To supplement all I have shared with you today I've decided to share my sibling rivalry e-book as a gift! Be sure to pick it up before I put it back in the store.

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