Sibling Conflict-August letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Hot, humid and draining are the August dog days of summer. Hot days lead to hot tempers, whether from too many hours in the heat or too many days cooped up in air conditioning. Sibling relationships get testy. A squabble over a toy or rules of a game can escalate into name-calling, slammed doors or an exchange of pushes and shoves. Conflict between siblings is part and parcel with having more than one child, but how parents respond impacts not only the clash of the moment, but the long-term relationships within the family.

I was amazed when your Uncle Dan wondered why the kids squabbled over toys. As an only child who wanted a sibling, he couldn’t understand why they would ever fight. He wondered aloud, “why aren’t they just happy to have each other”.  I explained that fighting and disagreements were common occurrences amongst siblings and didn’t mean they weren’t happy with each other. Kids must share the attention of their parents, the space in their homes, and their belongings (occasionally, if not all the time). Teaching sharing, tolerance of each other’s personalities and idiosyncrasies, and resolving conflict was continual work in our family.

While ‘only child’ Dan had to learn about sibling struggles, I had much to learn as well. Growing up the youngest of seven, I fought with my siblings. I was a seasoned combatant and thought this made me an expert on sibling conflict, but I quickly realized that my shift in perspective from child to parent, made it otherwise. As a kid, my priority was to win, to get my way, but as a parent my considerations were how best to achieve the short-term goals of respect and household harmony in combination with an end-goal of healthy sibling relationships.  I set some rules for myself and a few for our home, then did my best to live by them.

Don’t choose favorites. Don’t choose sides. Kids keep score and rarely was one party at fault. Generally, there was more to the situation than met the eye. Before I jumped into the murky waters of who started it, I did a quick analysis of situation. Observed the power dynamitic and body language. The older kids often used their physical strength to get their way and younger kids occasionally used crying and telling to get theirs. Sometimes when voices were raised there was real conflict that needed addressing and direction, but other times it was a matter of learning to get along, taking turns and understanding each other particularities. If tempers were flaring, I tried not to be sucked into their disagreement but rather stayed objective to help them determine cause, effect and potential compromises with questions like: Why are you upset with each other? How are you going to solve it? It was a tricky balance, determining when to intervene and when to walk away.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Aretha sang it and I encouraged it. When there were disagreements I tried to listen to the kids, pushing them to use their words to identify their complaint about their sibling. My approach was to listen, validate their feelings, but not necessarily concur with them. Validating frustration or anger was a great way to diffuse it; we all want to be heard and understood. But I squashed any meanness, physical cruelty and had a ‘no put downs’ rule. Name-calling and belittling were unacceptable. Occasionally I offered an explanation to understand the behavior or asked if they could think of an explanation. Maybe the ‘offending’ sibling doesn’t want you to touch her American Girl dolls because she finally got the hair combed just the way she likes it and you aren’t always gentle when you play with the dolls. Or maybe your brother doesn’t want to play pirates on the swing set because he is tired from a long day at school. Understanding that everyone had moments when they were irritable or impatient, was useful to learn. Respect for each other’s moods, personal space and feelings is important for healthy relationships.

Monitor sibling rivalry. Siblings compete, but I hoped that recognizing the competition would limit it and stop it turning from innocuous rivalry to contention, or worse, to enmity. If I saw a behavior repeatedly, such as asking about someone’s grades or number of goals scored, I gently pointed out he or she was competing with a brother or sister. Your siblings were not your opponent. Then I would remind the competing child that there were and always will be people better and worse than them at some things. Compete with the person in the mirror, be better than you were yesterday.

Don’t expect a conflict-free life. From sit-coms that resolve family conflict in 22 minutes to social media feeds that reflect conflict-free families, there was(and is) great pressure to project our kids as continually happy siblings. I didn’t want conflict to dominate our household but, my dear niece, just like you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t raise a family without some conflict. I avoided dictates like ‘say you’re sorry’, or ‘don’t fight with your sister’ or using guilt to smooth over rough patches. Underlying conflict won’t be resolved by command, manipulation or guilt. Rather the kids learned our family occasionally experienced conflict. There were peaks and valleys in the relationships. When conflict arose, they needed to deal with it, not get bogged down in it, and move on after the disagreement was resolved. Sometimes the results of a quarrel  improved communication or understanding of the other’s perspective; a needed clearing of the air. And learning to agree to disagree; to move on and let go of hard feelings when they can’t readily find a compromise was vital.

Make them a team. I tried to make my kids a team, forging their own relationships without me at the center. Our moves helped because you don’t take your friends with you when you move, only your siblings. Together they faced new schools and neighborhoods. But there were lots of little things that helped the team mentality. We had a family number that each wore when they played soccer. It started one August when MK and Patrick picked up jerseys with the same number, and continued through their playing days. We had kid clean up nights where they had the kitchen to themselves to do the dishes. They put on music, selected their tasks and spent more than enough time romping about while ‘cleaning’. And sometimes I pushed them into an alliance against Dan and me. It was harmless fun, dividing into parents versus children teams, for games and such. I vividly recall the cheer they let out when they realized they had arrived first atop a maze we were navigating. They had beat us. They were champions. They were team Mannix.

Finally, and most importantly, teach them to forgive. We all disappoint each other, no matter how much we wish we didn’t or wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love one another. Fights and arguments gave them an opportunity to learn how to forgive, both the sibling or themselves. When they were small they were quick to forgive because they enjoyed each other’s company and wanted to resume their play. As they grew older, when the squabble was over differing behavior or ideas and forgiveness appeared complicated, the underlying desire and joy of each other’s company continued to help them look for compromise and forgive each other.

Don’t avoid or hide from conflict, rather teach the kids to use their words, to argue their point respectfully and to learn to forgive.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie


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4 Responses to Sibling Conflict-August letter to my niece

  1. happyoutlook says:

    As always – another warm, wise, and insightful blog post about family!

  2. Mary Hendriksen says:

    Oh my goodness! SO much wisdom in this post . . .thank you!
    As our kids entered college and became young adults, it took me way too long to learn that as much as I wanted to be “in” on the family fun as much as possible, the kids need their own time alone to build their relationships. After all, the goal is that –long after Spike and I are ensconced in the nursing home — they will all be renting houses on the North Carolina shore together!

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