“Junia,” one mum turns to me in exasperation, “my two kids seem to be fighting more during this HBL season. What can I do?” I winked at her knowingly, and quipped, “Join in the fight!” There’s a multitude of reasons why siblings fight. One snatches the other’s toy, another says unkind words to hurt…. Or they just have different ideas about how something should be done.
Children under seven years tend to bicker more than older siblings who have more developed executive reasoning faculties. So you may need to employ different strategies for each group. Let’s start with the little ones.
The What-How Strategy
I believe that children understand more than adults often give them credit for. That is the premise of the What-How strategy. It is a thought process I teach our developing minds when we are alone. For example, the child wants a sweet at the supermarket. Perfect opportunity to teach them to rationalise.
What do you want? – Go beyond the superficial object of their interest. Explore WHY they want this particular sweet and not others. The flavour, the wrapper, an immediate sugar high? In slowing down, I quickly get into their world. Once I understand the WHY, I then ask what other options there are.
For example, if a child wants a particular sweet, I invite a shift away from their fixed position by asking if they’d like to try a new flavour, a new candy. That shows them they can still satisfy their want with an alternative. The child gets the experience that there are options to fulfil their want. And that understanding leads them to fixate less on a certain object or outcome, definitely a life skill worth learning.
How else can you get it? – We then move on to explore other means of achieving the same goal. We brainstorm ideas like not getting a sweet but a healthier snack instead. Or not getting a sweet because we still have so many at home, and delayed gratification is a skill that will serve them — yes, they can understand this! If they still insist, then suggest they share the sweet with someone else.
Any other option that they choose is a win because they will have realised that there are many solutions to the same problem. Remember that this has to be taught in private during happy, normal times. Not in the heat of an argument where the pre-frontal cortex is not leading the discussion, but emotions are.
A Fighting Chance
So when the time comes to get in the middle of a fight, I tackle each of the children with “What do you want?” The question itself is designed to get them off their fixed position and to think of what truly matters. This shifts them from fighting mode into problem-solving mode. Having gotten their WHY they disagree on a certain issue, I follow up with “How else can you get it?”
The more we repeat these thought processes with them, the better equipped they will be to create their own solutions. While their answers may not necessarily be what we prefer, know that the goal is to raise independent children who are responsible for creative problem-solving. Any alternative they choose is a better option than fighting. That, I have found to be a more realistic expectation to have as they gradually move towards making smarter decisions.
With older kids, the same method generally works too. If parents would spend just three minutes listening to their WHY, that connection is often enough for them to experience being heard. This may lead them to adopt a less closed stance, or what I call a shift to being open. However, while older kids may be able to quickly come up with alternative solutions mentally, the common issue is that they have a pre-existing grudge against their sibling.
Getting Hysterical and Historical
The fighting becomes more than just about getting what they want. They are clearly aware that there are a multitude of ways to problem-solve. But for them, this battle is now personal. An insistence on their way comes with a truckload of emotional baggage. You would recognise this baggage when you hear claims like “Why should I give in? She’s always like that!” or “It’s not fair that he always gets his way.” Or simply, “I hate him/her!”
There’s obviously more work to be done by the time dark grudges cloud their perspectives. Actions and words are no longer impartial and targeted at the topic at hand. They are instead performed and spoken with the intention to elicit evidence of the negative image of their sibling. Whether it is to show them as lazy, selfish, irritating, or some other unkind adjective. Your job is to help reconnect and rekindle their brotherly and sisterly love.
(See also: Should Your Kids Share a Bedroom?)
There are a variety of ways to dissolve this bias experientially, but here’s a simple way to start: by listening to them.
Hope – Separately, in a private conversation with each child, I remind them how much they used to love that sibling. Use specific incidences from younger days. Do you remember how you used to rush to kiss her when you came home from school? How you answered for her before she could speak? Or protect her when Mummy was angry with her?
Reminding the child brings them back to a different memory of whom their sibling was for them. It forms an alternative of who their sibling can be, and dislodges the existing ‘fact’ that they are ‘annoying’. Intentionally delve deeper into the conversation. It has to be memories they remember and can own.
Evidence – Further expand the line of inquiry with “Why did you do that?” Listening to their own reasons anchors them to a time where they loved their sibling. We are getting them to list evidence of a different relationship they used to have.
When the child shares, it not only allows us to see through their lenses and understand their unique motivations, but makes them present to a different perspective in their walk down memory lane. You would notice a shift when their facial expressions soften at the vivid memory of how things used to be.
(See also: How to Take the Best Family and Kids Photos)
Authenticity – Acknowledge that many things may have happened to cause the current negative bias. Pretending things will automatically go back to what it used to be is neither honest nor realistic. It will take purposeful action and mindset changes to return to a space of love and affinity between the siblings. The question to ask them is, “Do you want that loving relationship with [enter sibling’s name] again?”
Only after we get the affirmative can we move on to the next step, which is to get them to newly describe how their sibling can be for them. This idea is to replace the unkind label from before. Allow the child to choose a word that is meaningful for them to own. Not a word we would like. It could be loving, helpful, generous, or my BFF!
Repeat – The fastest way to anchor the new identity is to repeat it numerous times, with matching examples and positive emotions. Remind them when they’re playing happily with each other. “Wow, I see you’re having fun with your loving sister.”
Affirm the other sibling by telling them what their sister or brother newly described them as. And remind both that siblings are for life. A positive life or one full of nasty fighting, it’s their choice.
HBL Season Doesn’t Have to Be Fighting Season
The home can be a battleground of angry tension or a playground of love and affirmation. Each individual plays a critical part in creating the environment we want. If we would like to be supported when we’re going through rough patches, can we choose to be a pillar for another who is in a bad place?
Indeed, siblings are the truest friends we get to have. Most friends see us at our best because they do not live with us. Your siblings see you at your worst and yet accept you for who you are.