Does this seem to be a daily struggle in your household? It sure was in ours! The kids would squabble over toys, who has more of this or that (not fair!), who sat here first (this spot was mine!) and other seemingly ridiculous issues, both big and small.
If you are at your wits ends, try these 10 pointers and see if it helps. We made so many mistakes in parenting them, but have learnt and gotten better over the years. And despite having some nasty fights when they were younger, my kids have grown to love and care for one another.
1. Expect and Accept
There was an article by a psychologist which changed my perspective. He gave 6 reasons “Why siblings squabble all the time.” The first reason:
Because they can.
We think our children should naturally get along beautifully.
I used to get annoyed when they started quarrelling, and sometimes I would yell at them in anger. Again! Why can’t you all just get along?
Children are not born having the skills to resolve conflict and the family is where they learn how to get along with others peacefully.
After I realised that, I stopped fuming and got to work helping them learn the skills to get along. This would also help them deal with friends and with their future spouses or flatmates.
2. Make it a Family goal
This is a great place to start.
If you haven’t already done it, sit your children down when everyone is in a happy mood (definitely not when they are in the midst of a quarrel) and make your expectations explicit, explain why it is important for them to have a good relationship and give them examples of what it looks like. Decide as a family on something fun to do on the weekend if they have tried hard to get along during the week.
3. Don’t be the referee
When a quarrel erupts, we typically jump in with What happened? Who started it? The stories from both sides will come fast and furious and sometimes it’s hard to know who to believe.
If you take sides, there will be a child who ends up thinking you are not being fair. This fair/not fair business is something we need to be mindful of. Some adults continue to harbour unhappiness at their parents for favouring another sibling (despite it being true or not).
An older sibling might use language to make it sound like he is not the one at fault, while the younger one may use tears and play victim. Either way, by going in to be the referee, you may end up siding with the wrong party and someone (usually the older sibling) may feel wronged and resentful (and may lash out at the younger one when parents are not around).
Instead, tell them that you expect them to settle it themselves. They are to stay in a designated room together (without toys) and are free to come out after they have worked it out.
4. Use “I feel” not “you did this”
Teach them positive communication skills, using “I feel” sentences instead of “You did this or you were mean”. This enables their sibling to understand how that made them feel which they may not be aware of.
Eg. “I felt embarrassed when you called me a loser in front of my friends” instead of “He was such a horrible, mean brother for calling me names.”
5. Sharing is caring
Allow them lots of opportunities to share. My dad, the doting grandpa used to buy them 5 of each toy because he couldn’t bear to hear them quarrel. I explained to him that they had to learn to share. Even though they were 2 years apart, they would pass down their toys to the next sibling and were used to receiving hand-me-downs. In fact, the younger girls looked forward to having the “cool” clothes from their older sister and sharing became a normal part of life.
6. Welcoming a new baby
Start by acknowledging their emotions, that it is tough that mummy has to give her attention to someone else. Shift the focus from why is the baby getting all the attention to wow, you are such a caring brother/sister and instead of feeding the jealousy, help them be aware of all the “big things” they can do with mummy and daddy that baby can’t, such as playing on the swing, cycling or going out for ice cream.
My kids were allowed to help with baby chores such as holding the milk bottle for the baby, changing the diapers and their favourite was to be given the great responsibility in carrying the baby.
7. One-on-one time
Make an effort to spend 1-on-1 time with each child. They need your attention, and are fighting to get it. When you allocate a specific time which they can look forward to, it helps to give them a sense of security.
It doesn’t have to be a huge effort. We used to take walks to the nearest petrol station and would get an ice cream and walk back. Depending on how many kids you have and their ages, you could allocate 1 day per week for each child. The important thing is to stick to your promise to keep this time special just for that child.
This is easier said than done, and I have learnt not be too quick to promise so much if I know that my schedule at work may be unpredictable. It is better to promise something small which you can commit to 100% than to promise them too much and they end up getting disappointed and lose their trust in your word.
During the 1-on-1 time, don’t focus on homework or grades. Talk about their interests, or each other’s day and let them know that they can open up to you if there is anything bugging them. What you don’t see doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Besides one-on-one time, have different permutations of family time. Dad and the kids, mum and the kids, dad with one kid while mum with the other. I noticed that some siblings are naturally closer to another, and when the group dynamics are mixed up, different bonds are given the space to form.
8. Don’t discourage them from being a “big brother” or “big sister”
So long as it is within safe limits, encourage them in their older sibling role and they will develop a sense of responsibility and joy from being of real help to their little brother or sister.
#5 wanted Kate to share in his great delight of riding the bicycle and begged me to allow him to “tompang” her. As he was steady on the bike, I allowed it. I supervised by walking next to them as they went round and round our garden. He was a proud big brother that day!
Find a comfortable balance between being over-protective and ensuring the safety of the kids.
9. Find challenges to bond them
Our kids have too comfortable a life. It’s no wonder that they bicker a lot! My aunt used to tell me that even with 11 siblings in their family, they hardly fought because the older siblings were busy taking care of the younger ones and in their free time they made up their own games from pretty much nothing.
What I do is to set up bonding activities for them, like our Family OBS where I took the 6 of them by myself (without the hubs!) to experience climbing real cliffs. They learnt to rely on each other and everyone had to pitch in.
10. Take sibling concerns seriously
Sometimes the younger child may be tormented regularly by an older sibling and tries to speak up but if the parent doesn’t seem to be listening or thinks it’s a minor issue, the child will stop trying to tell you. Some siblings bully each other quite badly when parents are not around.
Don’t let things escalate. If physical acts like hitting, scratching, spitting or throwing objects at one another are not stopped quickly, it will get worse. Make it known that such is not acceptable in your household, and punishments have to be meted out.
Sibling rivalry may be the one thing that is driving you almost insane right now, but hang in there, take a deep breath, know that you can turn this around and never for once feel guilty. We all make mistakes. We all started at a place where we didn’t know better.
Take it one step at a time, and celebrate small wins. You can do it!
Learn from the million mistakes we made along our parenting journey so you don’t make the same!
Michelle is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 6-turning-16 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in their 4Qs to survive today’s volatile world. She also makes time to volunteer with children and the elderly in her community.