Experts say they’re normal, and can be beneficial if handled right
“She took my seat.”
“He’s kicking me.”
“She won’t share.”
Any parent with more than one child is likely familiar with the maddening, all-too-frequent sounds of sibling bickering. From toddlers squabbling over snacks in the back seat to pre-teens slamming doors and hurling cuss words, sisterly and brotherly spats are enough to make a frazzled parent pull the car over, lock their bedroom door for a little peace and quiet, or wonder “Where have I gone wrong? Why don’t they like each other?”
“These are the longest lasting relationships that people have in their lifetime and they are very emotionally intense.”
“It is a topic frequently discussed at well care visits,” says Dr. Nancy McDermott, of Advanced Pediatric Associates, in Centennial. She says sibling spats are normal, and teach important skills. “However, many parents become upset and worry that their children will never get along.”
Mental health experts and researchers say the relationships kids have with their siblings can have a big impact on the way they feel about themselves and the kind of adults they become.
One landmark Penn State University study showed that by the time children are 11, they spend roughly one third of their time with their siblings (more than with parents, teachers, friends or alone). Later in life, sibling ties often outlast those with everyone else.
“These are the longest lasting relationships that people have in their lifetime and they are very emotionally intense,” says Clare Stocker, PhD, an associate research professor in the department of psychology at University of Denver. “They are very important.”
Stocker’s research has shown that substantial sibling conflict during middle childhood can have its downsides, increasing the risk of “depressed mood”, anxiety, and destructive “acting out” as much as two years later. “It should not be ignored.”
“Parents really need to be consultants rather than rescue helicopters or drill sergeants”
But handled correctly, it can also have tremendous upsides, providing a safe and valuable training ground for kids to learn how to resolve conflict, express empathy, and practice assertiveness, impulse control, and negotiation skills, says Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist with the Child and Family Therapy Center at Lowry: “It is a very normal part of the developmental process.”
Studies from the University of Illinois have shown that siblings between the ages of 3 and 7 argue as many as 3.5 times an hour, while kids in the 2 to 4 age group squabble every 10 minutes. Girls tend to get along better than boys or boy/girl combinations, studies show.
For all siblings, discord is at its highest when the first born child is about age 13 and the second-born is about age 10, and begins to wane in the later teen years, according to Penn State researchers. By early to mid adulthood, only about one-third of siblings report strained relationships.
So why do we fight so much as kids?
“We are striving for significance – to determine what makes us individual and different in the family,” says Ziegler. In toddlerhood, that individuality might rest in a favorite toy or doll, so fights over “not sharing” are common.
In school age, children start to develop a sense of “fair” and “not fair” and fights often erupt out of jealousy over Mom and Dad’s attention.
During adolescence, as kids strive for independence, older siblings often become resentful of things that make them feel tethered to the family (like doing chores, babysitting, or a younger sibling who “won’t leave them alone”).
While the bickering can sound like nails on a chalkboard to a weary parent, experts say that – unless one child is seriously hurting the other physically or emotionally – the worst thing you can do is step in and end the fight for them.
“Parents really need to be consultants rather than rescue helicopters or drill sergeants,” says Charles Fay PhD, president of the Golden-based Love and Logic Institute, which offers parenting workshops. “Consultants offer ideas and strategies. They don’t solve problems for people.”
He advises parents to express their empathy first. “Don’t take sides or try to figure out who started it. Just listen and tell them you understand how that could hurt.” Then hand the problem back to them and offer them advice if they ask for it: “Don’t take the conflict from them. Say good luck, and back out.”
If you must separate the kids (often for your own sanity), meet with them separately afterward to devise a “conflict resolution plan,” says Ziegler.
And if the fighting persists with no resolution in sight?
Present consequences (perhaps you are too tired from all that bickering to take them to soccer practice).
“A lot of times they will continue to hand it back to you, fighting around you and giving you no peace,” says Fay. “Explain to them that there is a consequence for not solving their problem.”
While no parent can prevent all sibling rivalry, there are things families can do to minimize it:
Fight nice: Studies show that families in which the parents fight frequently have more sibling conflict. “When parents are modeling really bad problem solving skills, the kids sense that tension and they act it out,” says Fay. That is not to say that parents should hide disagreements. Instead, “fight nice” in front of the kids, focusing on issues instead of character. “It’s OK to say ‘I love you, but I totally disagree with what you just said,” advises Fay.
Don’t show favoritism: Studies show as many as 70 percent of parents exhibit some favoritism toward one child. When kids pick up on this, it can be a lethal catalyst for sibling feuds. “For instance, pointing out to a child that they do not have grades as high as their sibling’s grades can be destructive,” says McDermott. Also, avoid making stereotypes, like “She’s the wild one and she’s the smart one,” says Ziegler. And make a point of setting aside “alone time” with each child.
Give kids space: “Kids generally play until somebody’s feelings are hurt or something has gone wrong,” notes Ziegler. End the game while they are still getting along, praise them for how well they played, and ask them to take some “alone time.”
Seek professional help if needed: If children are physically aggressive with each other on a regular basis, or if one child is always the victim, this can be a red flag that outside help is needed, says McDermott.
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