Even though you may believe that the sole purpose of your children’s fighting is to drive you crazy, they are actually exhibiting basic survival behavior. Human survival is based on ability to get needs met. Children need food, shelter, clothing and their parent’s attention. When your attention is in limited supply (and whose attention is NOT in a limited supply these days?), your children will do whatever it takes to get you focused on them again.
While many people believe that it is best to let your children figure out how to get along, many children have not yet developed the language or skills to always negotiate fairly. A few good ways to help children navigate conflict are to:
Model the behavior that you would like to see regarding conflict. Keep your own emotions in check and work hard at talking through your disagreements with other family members.
Set firm ground rules about the behavior that is expected in your family and review the expectation during a time of peace. For example, tell your children that “we do not tease each other in this house” rather than yelling “your teasing is driving me crazy.” Making general house rules helps diffuse children’s feeling that they are being singled out because you favor another child. Children feel better about rules that sound like they apply to everyone equally.
Don’t compare your children. Avoid setting them up against each other and setting the stage for hurt feelings. Even caring labels like “the athlete of the family” or “our quiet one” can be seen by children as measurement of worth and favoritism.
Reward good behavior. Parents tend to get involved when things escalate. Be sure to take time to notice siblings helping each other, negotiating with each other or playing well together.
Take 5-10 minutes per day to give each child a little undivided attention. Even a short burst of attention has been shown to reduce negative attention seeking behavior significantly.
When everyday sibling rivalry turns into ongoing threat of physical harm, repeated emotional harm or ongoing destruction of property, parents need to step in and consider professional help. This intense and ongoing interaction between siblings is called sibling aggression or sibling bullying and the effects can be even more profound than when bullied by a stranger. Research has shown that those who were physically assaulted, had their toys stolen or broken or endured emotional abuse that made them feel frightened or unwanted by their sibling had higher levels of depression, anger and anxiety than those who did not.