After last week’s question regarding sibling rivalry, the same issue has come up repeatedly, compelling me to add to this challenging topic. There’s always much more that can be said about this family dilemma. Families are certainly under considerable stress — with financial concerns, time limitations, job anxiety, exhaustion, relationship dynamics — the confluence of these factors undermining the tenacity of families. Children are certainly not immune to their parents’ stress, their conflicts, the palpable undercurrent of tension. The common phrase “We need to find more time to do _______” is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Although we might “find” a quarter (25 cents) in the parking lot, we will certainly not “find” an extra 25 minutes. We must be committed to “making” the time for our own self-care and for our families.

Our children provide us with the opportunity to become the parents we always wished we’d had. That’s easier said than done, depending on our own childhood and how we were parented. There are many siblings who are the best of friends, unconditionally loving each other. There are just as many sisters and brothers who chronically fight, yet it’s also common for these siblings to vacillate between loving and hating each other. For parents, it’s both discouraging and frustrating to listen to our children fight. When stress is high in families, there is minimal tolerance for sibling battles, and yet, that very behavior is usually children’s reaction to the prevailing conflict.

Several parents requested having some helpful examples of what to say to your fighting children, hoping for more guidance. Some scenarios and examples to simply use as templates follow:

To avoid taking sides, identifying the perpetrator and the victim, keep your response neutral, without judgment or blame:

“You guys sound pretty upset with each other. I wonder what you could do to change this.”

Owning your emotions about some fighting:

“I’m having a hard time listening to all this fighting. I’m sure you two will work it out, and while you’re doing that, I’m going outside/upstairs/downstairs, etc., where it’s not so noisy/or away from the yelling. Let me know when things have calmed down and I’ll come back.”

It’s critical to allow children all their feelings towards siblings — no matter how intense. You don’t have to agree, simply acknowledge. Never dismiss, diminish, or punish negative feelings. Be sure to distinguish between those strong emotions and actions. All feelings can be released uncensored; however, do not allow your children to physically hurt each other. Establish a rule about hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. Parents have the job of teaching their children how to express anger without “doing damage.”

Good feelings, restoring peace, and reaching resolution can’t happen until all the negative feelings are expressed. There will be times when the conflict will be too much to bear — take some deep breaths and try to disengage. Consider whether there’s a pattern to the contention:

Same time of day?

Similar circumstances?

One parent versus the other?

Reactions versus responding?

Hunger and sleep deprivation? — sleep is the first consideration, as lack thereof or poor quality undermines mood and resilience.

Then, if possible, sink into your own feelings to dig up what your reaction is about. Reflect on what you’ve been doing and why it hasn’t been working — ask yourself what’s at the root of your reaction. What makes it so hard to detach from your children’s battles? Have you been doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? ... (definition of insanity).

No matter how many times I write about this, it continues to come up with parents. The chronic frustration, impatience, anger, feelings of incompetence, sadness resurface with this challenging issue. There are many different reasons children fight. What’s most important is to focus on the feelings behind the rivalry, to speak directly to the disconnect. There is likely some jealousy, resentment, some degree of competition. A family can only brace themselves for a certain measure of conflict; so what can be done when the fighting begins? Keep in mind that as children have disputes, they are also learning life skills that will serve them well as they grow — such as, how they can hear and respect another’s view; conflict mediation and how to compromise; and impulse control with their aggression. Let them know that they are safe, valued, and loved, and that their needs will be met. Pay attention to when your children need some time apart from each other and some space from challenging family dynamics.

Sibling rivalry is undeniable. Your only sure way to prevent it is by having a single child.

“To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely — for one’s own special self — is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.” — Adele Faber

Stay tuned for next week.... I may write more on this subject.

Please send me your questions.