By Mariel Uyquiengco
Conflict is a fact of life. Plants compete for nutrients in the soil, predators establish their hunting territory, and herd leaders exert their dominance over other members. Sibling rivalry is one way that conflict manifests in family life. There is bound to be conflict along the way as each child tries to have his needs met, attempts to establish his individuality, and explores the limits of his freedom.
Sibling rivalry is almost always present in families with multiple children, often starting before the second child is born. It may be readily apparent in some and undetectable in others. In extreme cases, it can even be destructive to the family dynamics. Our goal as parents is not to stop all conflict; rather, we should coach our children into how they should resolve their arguments and turn something negative into something beneficial. Here are some tips:
1. Never Get Involved
Never getting involved is an important tenet in managing sibling rivalry. Unless the fight has become violent or ground rules have been broken, it is imperative that parents merely observe what is happening and give the children a chance to resolve it on their own.
When parents get involved even in petty arguments, insinuations of favoritism might crop up; moreover, it robs the children the opportunity to practice negotiation techniques and to accept compromise.
Parents should remember that it always takes two sides to fight. Placing blame only makes matters worse most of the time.
2. Set Ground Rules
As fights are bound to happen anyway, parents need to be prepared. Establish clearly what is allowed and what is prohibited. For example, physical violence, name-calling, tattling, cursing, swearing should not be tolerated. Time limits for a problem to be resolved should also be set.
Parents have a wide leeway in setting ground rules. Whatever they are, these should be set early and not during the heat of an argument. Family meetings, which should be held regularly, are a great venue to lay them out. More importantly, they should always be followed so as not to confuse the children.
3. Recognize their Differences
Handling children fairly does not mean dealing with them equally. An older child might be allowed to do certain things that a younger sibling can’t. Differences in their temperament, physical traits, and medical condition are all factors we need to consider when managing sibling rivalry.
Sometimes these traits are not apparent and parents need to actively search for them. A good way is to spend some alone time with each child. Ten minutes a day focused on one child is a great way to start.
Once differences are identified, we also need to explain these to our children. For example, if we explain to a child that we need to spend more time his brother because he is sickly, the reason becomes clear to the child and chances of feeling neglected are lessened. This also teaches the child empathy, a valuable adult skill.
4. Teach Them to Express Themselves
Siblings in conflict are often emotional, sometime to the point of being overwhelmed by their feelings. When a parent says, “Stop crying”, the message a child gets is that crying is wrong and should be repressed.
On the other hand, the question “Why are you crying?” allows a child to examine himself and voice out what actually is bothering him. This exercise of acknowledging and expressing emotion instead of suppressing it allows the child to take control over his emotions.
In dealing with emotions, it is important to note that children will take their cue from their parents. A parent who easily gets angry and lashes out sends mixed signals to children who are learning to control their emotions.
5. Take Timeouts
Tensions are often high during a quarrel. Sometimes, even the parent who is supposedly there to referee gets dragged into the conflict. During these times, it is better to have both parties retreat to their respective “neutral corners” first for a few minutes before tackling the problem. An exasperated parent may also need a time out and defer to the other parent for the mean time.
Timeouts are not periods when we expect high emotions to passively dissipate. Parents should continue to coach each child during these times. Teach them relaxation techniques and guide them through it.
Sibling rivalry is inevitable; it is a part of family life. As parents, our role is to guide our children, but not dictate to them what they should do to resolve conflicts with each other.
Teaching our children to handle themselves in arguments provides positive long-term benefits in terms of social behavior instead of just always curtailing fights wherein children do not learn what to do the next time around.
Mariel Uyquiengco hopes to inspire parents to be their children’s first and best teacher. She does this through her blog and online children’s book shop www.thelearningbasket.com and by giving parenting seminars about early childhood development, preschool homeschool, and raising children to be readers.