You hear the scream from the other room and run in to find one kid crying and the other child holding a treasured toy. The accusations and explanations fly back and forth while the tears flow. After a few minutes you realize you’ll never really know the whole story so you:
- Take the treasured toy away for a while so it’s not a source of conflict.
- Give both the kids a time-out since they need to be separated for a while to cool off.
- Throw up your hands and go cry in the other room since this is the fourth time today you’ve had to mediate a dispute.
- Yell at the kids since you are so frustrated that they can’t share and get along.
Every parent with more than one child is faced with sibling disputes all the time. Whether its toy stealing, physical stuff like pushing/poking, or verbal trash talk that drives the sibling to anger or tears, sibling rivalry is a feature in every family at one time or another. Understanding what drives the behavior will help parents address it appropriately.
Sibling rivalry is triggered for a reason. The child who is acting out wants or needs something. Sometimes he is looking for a parent’s attention. Sometimes she is looking to cure boredom, and sometimes they are looking to get a reaction from their sibling. Figuring out which is the main trigger is very important as it will guide the intervention.
Young children under 5, who are arguing with their siblings, are almost always looking for parental attention. If you really think about it, they aren’t getting any “joy” per se out of their sibling’s reaction but will amp up the behavior if you don’t intervene. They want you. If you don’t run in, the screams get louder and the tussling gets more pronounced.
Another sign that kids are looking for your attention rather than the sibling’s is when they look over at you for your reaction when they are about to do something to their brother or are in the middle of the fight with their sister. They are less engaged with each other than they are interested in your response. A sure sign that the interaction is all about you!
The challenge is realizing that by paying attention to these little scuffles you are reinforcing them and creating a pattern of behavior between the children that can lead to bigger issues down the road. With young children, often ignoring your children’s interactions rather than negotiating, punishing them, or trying to play referee can allow them to work things out on their own and prevent you from become the object of their attention.
The time to help teach children how to negotiate with each other, share well, and be kind is when you are playing with them, not by intervening when they are arguing on their own. Comment on and model these behaviors with your children when you are playing together. You can even role play and practice what to do when you are upset when they aren’t mad; you can give them tools to use at other times.
Another strategy that works well with kids of all ages is to be a play-by-play announcer when you see something happening between your children. Sometimes you don’t want to ignore what you see but know you shouldn’t solve the problem for them. Instead, by describing what you see (the actions and the feelings), you give voice to both of the children in the scuffle and allow them to work things out themselves, perhaps even seeing the other child’s point of view. Here’s an example: You walk in and find 4-year-old, Joey, holding the 2-year-old’s, Jimmy, favorite stuffed animal and he’s crying. Say something like: “Jimmy, you sure seem sad and mad. Joey, you’re holding Jimmy’s best friend. He seems sad and upset. Jimmy is reaching for the toy. Joey, you are keeping it from him. That seems to be making Jimmy even more sad and upset. What are you both going to do?” and then walk away.
When rivalry becomes bullying
As children get older, sometimes what may have started off as an attempt to get the parent’s attention has turned into something more. One sibling has begun to enjoy the “rise” she gets out of the other. Instead of wanting to get the parent’s attention, now the child enjoys the emotional drama that the sibling shows when verbally triggered or egged on in other ways. When this sort of behavior occurs, it can become more serious and, if frequent and unchecked, it is no different than bullying in any other environment.
Most children wouldn’t want to think of themselves as bullies or be labeled as such, but somehow bullying behavior at home isn’t thought of in the same way. Parents have a responsibility to intervene differently when they start to see behaviors that are targeted, affect self-esteem, are power/dominance driven (regardless of which child is older), and persistent. Ignoring these sorts of exchanges can lead to an aggressor-victim dyad in the family that can persist for a lifetime. If one sibling consistently taunts (especially when the verbal taunting is personal and drives the other child to feel insecure or inadequate), intervention is required. Managing both the bully and the bullied in this scenario is key. Both parties are fragile and need support. Bullies often lack self-esteem, are anxious or depressed, or are looking to get attention in unhealthy ways. Getting them help is essential. The child who is being bullied needs strategies to disengage, as well as support to feel secure and safe at home. This last bit can be challenging since the child was the victim of bullying in the place that should feel the safest.
Many parents downplay sibling bullying. “Kids will be kids.” “All kids fight.”
You have to develop a thick skin.” “Siblings will always be meanest to each other.” All of these are examples of things parents say to themselves. And the occasional argument between siblings is normal. But when these interactions become taunting, physically targeted, humiliating, or dehumanizing, it is not normal anymore and intervention is necessary.
The relationships within our family are the best practice we have for relationships in the rest of our life. How we learn to talk to each other and treat each other is the key to our success in friendships, work relationships, love affairs, and as parents later. Teaching your child how to solve his or hew own problems through proper attention to the stuff that matters, ignoring the stuff that doesn’t, creating a culture of positivity in your home, and intervening early if any sign of bullying rears its ugly head is the key to raising kids who will be friends for a lifetime.
– Dr. Molly O’Shea, a board-certified Beaumont pediatrician, offers traditional medicine in non-traditional ways including newborn home visits and emailing parents directly. She has practiced pediatrics for nearly 30 years and was the “Ask the Pediatrician” columnist for the Detroit News for many years. A journal editor for the American Academy of Pediatrics, she also organized the AAP’s national continuing education programming for pediatricians. Dr. Molly loves cooking, traveling and spending time with her family.