If there was ever a time for today’s parenting question, it’s the beginning of summer–marked by picnics, popsicles, s’mores, flip-flops…and the beginning of sibling fights that will, at least 12 times this season, put us all over the edge. Sibling fights lead me to one of my favorite parenting quotes of all time…”I can’t do this anymore.” Jeffrey and Amy of Growing Connected tackle sibling rivarly today in our series of parenting questions with them, and I am here for it.
My kids seem to fight constantly. They can be so mean to each other! I feel like I’m constantly mediating and sorting out their differences, and sometimes I just want to walk away. But I worry they will grow up hating each other if I don’t help them smooth things over. My siblings and I are so close, and I don’t want them to miss out on that. — Losing it
Dear Losing it,
Of course you want to walk away. Being in the middle of your children’s wars with each other can be absolutely miserable. And constant conflict between the people you love most can make your days feel grey, long and difficult. So we’re going to share some things we’ve learned and tools that seem to help, but if today you need to close a door and just try to be alone for awhile, please go ahead and do that. You and your kids have a lifetime to figure out how to communicate with each other. In the long run, you’ll love them best by taking care of yourself, too, especially when things feel hard.
Most parents of multiple kids face sibling conflicts on a daily basis, and they worry over what those fights will mean for their children’s relationships down the road. It’s very hard to sort out when and how to step into their battles. Of course there isn’t one right thing to do for every family, every time. But if we step back and look at the big picture, some principles can guide us.
First, know that conflict is a normal and even healthy part of life.Wherever there are people sharing lives and space with each other, there are going to be hurt feelings, offenses, and annoyances. Learning how to navigate these hard things will serve your kids very well later in life.
Second, unless one of your children is targeting the other in a cruel or abusive way, there is no reason to believe that your kids’ future relationships will be defined by the way they’re fighting today.
Children haven’t lived long enough, and their brains aren’t developed enough, to understand what’s going on behind people’s actions. They often grossly misread others’ thoughts, feelings and emotions—the real reasons people act as they do. Kids usually don’t fully understand their own thoughts and emotions, either.
But you know your kids’ hurts and biases, and you can often guess why they have a particularly strong reaction to something. So your fully-developed adult brain can help your kids see conflict in ways that they are not yet able to see for themselves. You do this by imagining with them what they and their siblings might be experiencing in moments of conflict. The scientific term for this is “mentalizing,” and it is an essential life skill for building and maintaining fulfilling relationships.
For instance, after a fight, you could say something like this to one child: “Your sister shouldn’t have hit you, but I wonder if she was feeling left out because you didn’t want to play with her today. I noticed you shutting the door on her a lot. I remember feeling left out by my older brother when I was her age.”
And to your other child, you might say, “I’m wondering if you hit your brother because you were feeling sad that he didn’t want to play with you today. I can understand feeling like that, but is hitting the way to handle it? What could you have done instead?”
Inviting your children to wonder about another person’s experience is a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives, so it never hurts to take a compassionate guess about what they are thinking or feeling. Even if you’re wrong, your guesses will give your kids insight that could take them years to grow into otherwise.
Once your kids have a better idea about what each one of them has brought to their fight, they can often find a solution themselves. So when conflicts come up, help them imagine what the other one might be thinking, and then send them to a couch or a room together to work out their own solution. If it helps, give them an incentive for reconciliation that works for both of them. We’ll go to the park after you work this out, or No one will play with the dinosaur until you find a way to share it. When siblings are stuck in the same boat, you’ll be surprised how quickly they find a way to move forward. But if they expect you to take sides and announce a verdict, all their energy will go toward convincing you that they are right and the other person is wrong.
Then, in the quiet moments between storms, remind your kids that you’re all on the same team. Gather together over meals, tell and retell family stories, and celebrate each others’ accomplishments. When something hard happens to one of them, ask the others to talk about similar things that have happened to them. Sharing experiences of pain or embarrassment can build closeness and bring hurting kids comfort.
It’s also amazing to see how much hurt falls away when people tell us that they love and appreciate us. Ask your kids to share what they like about each other. If you don’t think they’ll be able to think of anything to say on their own, prepare them ahead of time. Tonight at bedtime we’re going to be sharing things we all love about each other. Can you think of three things you love about your sister? Or something great you saw her do today? Do you want me to help you think so you’ll be ready? Teaching your children to see value and beauty in the people they find most difficult is another skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. And all of these acts of solidarity work on us at a deep and enduring level, giving us an identity and assuring us that we have a place to belong.
If your kids continually struggle despite your help, it may be a sign of deeper disconnection. Sometimes personalities simply clash. Or age, life-stage, and developmental differences make relationships hard. Also, traumatic things can happen within the walls of our homes, in our own families. Especially if you suspect that there might be some deeper pain or harm going on between your kids, make time to be present for each of them one-on-one. A walk after dinner, ten minutes of sitting in the car before school, or a few moments of quiet conversation at bedtime can give you a window of understanding into your kids’ experiences and a better idea of how to help them.
It’s the patterns of love and respect we build over a lifetime that chart our families’ paths, not the inevitable hard patches. So go ahead and disengage when you need to, set boundaries when your children are clearly out of line, and give them insight about themselves and each other when they’re stuck. Life won’t ever be perfect or conflict-free, but, over time,we truly believe things will get better.
You can connect more with the Dr. Jeffrey Olrick and Amy Olrick on their site, Growing Connected, and follow them on Instagram @growingconnected or Facebook. If you have a parenting question or issue you’d like Amy and Jeffrey to tackle, feel free to leave it in the comments. You can also sign up for their newsletter where they share more questions, answers and encouragement for any parent seeking more connection with their kids.