Our boys are constantly fighting. Suggestions? — At my wits end mom, New Hope, MN
This past Saturday morning our kids were up at dawn, crackling with excitement for Leo’s first ever basketball game. By 7:30 a.m. the family was trussed up warm, sitting in the school gym with eyes fixed firmly on the fourth-grade players as they tipped off. And though Scarlett looked sleepy and Yasmin bleary, I couldn’t have been prouder. I was proud of my son’s sportsmanship and proud of my daughters’ sisterly support. I couldn’t help but think that they all made a great team.
Sibling harmony and togetherness in some families is the stuff of story books — while others, not so much! Why? Fighting siblings often cite age and gender (“I’m seven years older than my brother and we just argue over everything”) or personality differences (“She’s an extrovert, I’m an introvert and we’ve never seen eye-to-eye”) as being the cause behind their conflict. Some siblings cite adversarial astrology and the disruptive alignment of the stars as the root of all differences. While each of these factors may exacerbate sibling conflict, at the heart of most sibling rivalry (even in adulthood) is mom and dad.
Simply put, kids want our love and focus and they will vie for it, especially if they feel or perceive that they are not getting it. As Frances Walfish, Psy.D., says at Parenting.com, “The rivalry you see — whether your children are fighting for a toy or the first turn on a swing — is really rooted in a struggle for your love and attention.” If left unchecked, sibling rivalry can be detrimental to our kids’ mental and emotional health.
How so? Time magazine published a study of sibling rivalry by psychologists at the University of Missouri who surveyed 145 sets of adolescent siblings and found that siblings who reported conflict at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop other emotional issues one year later. Specifically, siblings who fought about “equality and fairness issues” (such as who did what chores and how many) at the study’s onset were at a high risk of depressed mood one year later. Siblings who experienced conflict about “personal domain areas” (such as entering one another’s bedrooms without permission) prior to the study were at risk of developing anxiety symptoms and lower self-esteem.
As parents, it’s our job to take sibling conflict seriously, take steps to adjust our parenting style, and help change our kids’ sibling dynamic so they will develop harmonious bonds today for a beautiful, uplifting and supportive relationship, tomorrow.
So how do we do that? The first change starts with our thinking.
The Buddha said, “You are what you think!” So, think “team!” Thinking of the family as a team provides each of us (including our kids) with a clear set of guidelines for how we should behave and why. Even our younger kids understand the concept of teamwork. They practice teamwork at school, they are inspired by teams on television and they may have even played on a team themselves. That mutual team understanding allows for meaningful family discussions about team values (like cooperation, respect, responsibility and support) and where teamwork may be lacking — especially in the sibling relationship. As our kids embrace a sense of themselves as a team player, they’ll be less likely to view their sibling as an opponent and more likely to show them kindness, cooperation and support, for a sibling relationship that’s simply a win-win.
Thinking “team” helps us as parents, too. It reminds us to be good coaches to all of our children, to treat each child equitably (providing each child with our time and our positive attention), and to set fair rules and consequences for issues that cause problems, such as ensuring that every kid must knock and wait to be invited into their sibling’s room. Similarly, embracing that team spirit also reminds us to be a good sport ourselves and own our parenting mistakes, when we’ve made them — including when our actions contribute to sibling conflict.
Next, encourage the kids to embrace “team talk!” As Norman Vincent Peale wrote in his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, “Words have profound suggestive power, and there is healing in the very saying (or thinking) of them. Utter a series of panicky words and your mind will immediately go into a mild state of nervousness…. If, on the contrary, you speak peaceful, quieting words, your mind will react in a peaceful manner.”
So talk to your kids about being on the same side. Remind them daily that they are friends and teammates, not enemies or opponents, and praise your kids for demonstrating teamwork with one another (such as when they share toys or are kind to one another.) You can also hang inspirational posters in your children’s bedrooms and use coffee cups and cushions that display sayings and quotes about sibling harmony and togetherness, as a way to get that team message across.
The more you use team talk, the more likely your kids will learn that language of mutual cooperation, and the more they’ll use it. And that will make for less arguments, more positive negotiation and conflict resolution and better sibling relationships all round.
Finally, honor that family team spirit with high-fives, back-pats and group hugs. The more every kid feels loved and appreciated by the entire family (including their siblings), the more likely your children will become one another’s greatest fans down the road of life. Also, make a special effort to celebrate sibling togetherness when you see it. For example, when your kids have helped one another raise money for charity, or helped each other pass a test, offer a heartfelt cheer so that your kids are clear that sibling harmony is worthwhile.
What are the long-term results of embracing a family team spirit? Researchers at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State University also utilize the team-spirit approach to help promote positive relationships between siblings in their program entitled “Siblings are Special.” Researcher Professor Mark Feinberg noted in Huffington Post, “By encouraging siblings to feel like they’re part of a team, and by giving them tools to discuss and resolve issues, parents can help their kids develop more positive relationships with each other, which can benefit everyone in the family.”
In fact, siblings in this team-spirited program developed more self-control and social confidence and were significantly less likely to internalize problems, such as depressive symptoms, than siblings in the control group. That means teaching kids to think team is simply a winning formula!
Maya Angelou said, “I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.”
So this year, help your kids develop their sibling relationship by teaching them to work as a team. And know that if your kids follow this lead, they’ll all be winners — and they may even discover that behind every sister and brother stands a very good friend!