Sibling Rivalry, Controlling (cont.)

MEMBER QUESTION:
When my kids fight should I put them both in time-out and for how long? My oldest is 6 and his brother is 4.

SPARROW:
When your kids fight with that kind of age difference, it's pretty unlikely that they are going to seriously hurt themselves. The best response may be to tell them, "Look, the two of you need to sort this one out on your own and get yourselves settled down." without intervening with time-outs.

If it really does look like someone is going to get hurt and you feel like you must intervene, then it makes sense not to try to figure out who started it, but to help both children settle down by sending each to their room or putting them both on time-out.

At this age, the time-out really doesn't need to be very long at all. It also is not helpful to offer the time-out as a punishment because that just pushes the child to rebel against it and a child is not going to stand the time-out if they can't be engaged to do it. So instead, offer it as what they need to calm themselves down. Then the amount of time that you set up for them really depends on how long it takes them to settle themselves. You can tell them, "Look, you're both on time-out until you can get yourselves under control and calm down enough so we don't have anymore of this fighting." Of course there will be fighting but hopefully they can hold it together for another 20 or 30 minutes, and that means that at least that particular cycle is broken .

MEMBER QUESTION:
Will my kids ever be friends? I'm just hoping that I live to see the day when they will get along. They are both in their teen years and they've been fighting since they were toddlers!

SPARROW:
It's hard to answer this question without knowing how old they are or what the age difference is or what genders they are.

I guess what I would wonder about with you is whether or not there are any moments where they do actually get along, look to each other with admiration or for support or guidance. Or even as they fight, still imitate or identify as a sign that they may care about each other more than they outwardly seem to.

You certainly can't make two siblings get along more than they do but there are some things that a parent can try, to avoid to keep from intensifying the conflict between siblings. In the book that I wrote with Dr. Brazelton, we have a section on comparing and competition. Those are both things that parents can feed into. That can intensify sibling conflict unnecessarily. I would recommend that you avoid talking about one sibling with the other. Avoid picking out one for punishment for anything that both have had some involvement in. Focus on the strengths of each of them without comparison. These at least are ways of keeping your role as a parent from making whatever tension there is between them even worse.

MEMBER QUESTION:
It seems like a lot of these rivalry issues are inevitable and the best we parents can do is to not make it worse! Do you think we make the mistake of trying to avoid confrontations in families instead of just being there for them when the kids do clash?

SPARROW:
Yes, I do. I think conflict and confrontation are inevitable parts of relationships. When we acknowledge the existence of a conflict and confront it, share our difficult and uncomfortable feelings and get through it, the relationships are deeper and stronger.

On the other hand, if we deny that these "negative feelings" exist, we make our children more frightened of them and deprive them of the experience of learning to handle them and to grow stronger as they learn to handle them.

MEMBER QUESTION:
How do you counter outside influences that disrupt the advances you try to make at home with your children? For example, my neighbor has two children, 2- and 3-year-old girls. One was climbing on top of my son so the mom told my son to bite her daughter so she'd stop. I see her kids fighting together all the time and I don't want that at home!

SPARROW:
Later in life it gets harder and harder to protect the child from outside influences. Fortunately, at this age, parents can exert some control on who their children's playmates are. It may create for your own socially awkward situations, but if you really have vehement disagreements with another parent's approach to parenting, you may want to limit or cut off the amount of socializing that your child does with their children. Or, you may want to have their children over at your house far more than you have your children over at their house.

I certainly agree that telling a child to bite another child is a very confusing message for the child. And certainly there are so many other ways to teach a child to defend himself and stand up for himself.

"It might be helpful to try to stop and reflect back on one's own memories of which parent one was closest to because these certainly can be more powerful than we realize in influencing our feelings about each of our children."

MEMBER QUESTION:
I've been told by a friend that I shouldn't react at all to my kids' fights - to just stay out of it and let them solve things themselves. What's your advice?

SPARROW:
My experience has been that your friend is right. Kids rarely cause each other serious harm when there isn't a parent whose attention they are trying to draw into the situation.