Q: We let our kids have an hour, more or less, of TV time every day. They constantly fight over who gets to sit in the “best” (it’s more comfortable) chair to watch television. One will say, “You always sit there, now it’s my turn.” The other reacts with, “I was here first. It’s my turn.” Then they always expect me to decide for them. This happens with just about everything; it’s constant competition about who gets to sit next to me when we go out, who had time alone with mom, and on and on. It’s driving me crazy! It seems they also have a hard time with decision-making, so we end up with me making the rules and them being angry. I would really appreciate some tools on how to handle this differently, because obviously what I’m doing (yelling, or choosing who gets to sit in the chair) is NOT working!

A: I appreciate how exhausting this competition between siblings must be. It sounds like your children need some help in solving this problem themselves. The “competition” represents their perspective that things aren’t fair, that their sibling is loved more, gets more, is favored, etc. Offering some choices that you present from a neutral perspective, without judging either child as being the “instigator” or the “problem,” will help. If it is difficult to maintain a neutral position, because you find yourself aligning with one child against the other (due to birth order, gender, or your perception of which one is the “victim”), this won’t work. What’s most important is not choosing sides, judging or fixing, as that will only backfire in due time. Before you proceed with problem-solving, you could initially say something like: “It seems you guys have a real problem with each other when it’s your TV time.”

You mentioned your children expect you to decide for them. We want to help our children develop the ability for decision-making, as this is a basic skill for self-esteem, problem-solving, and responsibility. Children need experience with having many different kinds of choices. When we offer them at least two options, we can then let them decide what they will do.

With the television and other competing interests, here’s an example to apply to these challenges for problem-solving:

1. Despite knowing the information, indulge them in providing the “data,” such as having the more comfortable chair for TV watching. Be sure to avoid blaming either of them (even if you see one child being at fault). Some possible questions: “Tell me what makes this chair the only place you both want to sit?” “How do you feel when you don’t get the chair?” “How do you think your sister/brother feels?” “What happens then?” This helps get to the root of the feelings between them (although you may not like to hear these!).

2. State the problem clearly, in terms of both children’s needs: it’s much easier for children to solve a problem when they have a clear understanding of it. Try one of these approaches or develop your own: “You want to sit next to me and your sister wants to as well. What can you do so you both can be happy?” OR “I know you’re both upset about what happened when you were watching TV. Let’s talk about some things you might do to make this work better for you both.”

3. Brainstorm lots of ideas. Encourage them to think of silly ideas as well as useful ones. 

Write down ideas

Encourage different approaches

No criticizing or judging ideas

Stick to the problem

Focus on children’s solutions

4. Evaluate the ideas

5. Ask for a decision

These steps help children process what’s at the root of their disagreement, competition, while also focusing on how they can make positive changes. What’s most important is guiding children (as well as adults having a disagreement) to consider different options that are workable, implementing a viable plan. 

Another example with the above:

“You both really want to sit in the big, comfy chair when you watch TV. It means one of you isn’t happy with the other chair. I wonder what you could do to make this a win-win, so you can decide on a plan that works for both of you.”

Their solution might be that one child uses it even days/the other odd. Whatever the outcome, we must ensure that our role is only for guidance, mediating their conflict and supporting problem-solving. This works for all situations, not just for sibling competition. Just think about the many other examples of competition, perceived inequities, or power imbalances — at work, extended family scenarios, neighborhood disputes, etc. The goal is to transform the conflict, by changing the quality of the conflict interaction. It calls upon us to dig down to discover what each person’s interests are, if we’re to successfully rise above the fray.

May this Thanksgiving bring together family and friends, with renewed hope and abundant blessings.