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Overcoming sibling rivalry: positive discipline techniques

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Fighting between brothers and sisters is a concern for almost all parents of two or more kids. Anoush Davies shares some positive discipline techniques to help everybody get along

All children fight no matter their age or gender. This is simply a fact and we have to accept it. (I have three sons and the fights they have with each other are part of our everyday life, and I remember my own childhood fights with my younger sister). Moreover, conflict is a very important part of human relationships. It is necessary for personal development and setting boundaries. It also enables kids to understand emotions such as annoyance, anger and rage, which is just as important as an understanding of joy and happiness.

As parents, however, we do need to do everything we can to make sure that fights between kids don’t become too violent with bullying of siblings, or the suppression of one child by another. It is important for us to understand where the line lies between innocent pushing and shoving, and the development of unhealthy relationships with one child forever the victim and the other always the abuser.

There are very many reasons why brothers and sisters fight with each other: To gain the attention of parents: “Why is Daddy playing football with my brother when I want to play cars with him?” To win at any cost: “I need to fight back. No one likes wimpy kids.” Feeling upset and not knowing how to deal with it: “He is calling me names so I will kick him.” Fighting for justice as they see it: “That’s so unfair – he always gets the first slice of cake.” Sometimes kids fight simply because they are bored and don’t know what else to do. And then, of course, there is the classic, where the younger sibling annoys the elder one who puts up with it for a long, long time and then one day… Kapow!

Often, when parents interfere, things only get worse as we tend to take sides. We label our kids: “Come on, you are a big boy and she is small. You should be the smart/ kind one and let her have what she wants,” and so on. Then, without fully appreciating a situation, we punish the kids: “Go to your room and think about your behaviour.” “I am not interested in your reasons; you are grounded for a week.” “No iPad until Easter.”

But what if we look at things from a different point of view, focusing on the idea that there are no bad children, just good and bad behaviours? What if we try to get our kids to hear each other, to develop their emotional intelligence skills and behaviour, and to look for compromise and conflict resolution?

Positive discipline tips

1 Stay neutral – don’t take sides. Even when it is clear who is right and who is wrong don’t simply side with the victim. All you will do is confirm the obvious and it is unlikely that you will resolve the problem.

2 Remain calm on the outside, even if you are angry inside. Breathe out and speak calmly. This is usually much more effective than shouting.

3 Break it up. Physically remove your kids from each other but not necessarily to different rooms – just create distance and, again, stay neutral while doing so, even if a much younger sibling is involved. Take the younger child’s hand and say to him in front of his elder brother or sister: “We are going to sit down on the couch now and calm down.” Then ask the elder sibling to calm down and sit down also. Once kids are treated equally there is no victim or bully.

4 Remove the object of the fight. If kids are fighting over a toy or gadget, calmly take it away. Promise to return it once they have agreed on how they will share it.

5 Pay calm attention. Sometimes kids like having a fight in front of their parents. They may be hoping for tacit acceptance of such behaviour and they could be seeking to impress you with their strength and fighting ability. If the situation is contained and it is more play-fighting than anything violent, then don’t interfere. Just stay nearby and express your full awareness that they seem able to resolve their differences without you. After a while you can safely leave the room knowing that the fighting will end quickly – the kids will see no point in performing without an audience.

6 Leave them to it. Sometimes fighting is necessary simply as a release of energy, especially for boys. So, if you are sure they are having fun and just practising their skills, and that no one is in danger, then let them be.

7 Provide an alternative. Kids are full of energy so the busier they are with physical and mental activities the less time they have to fight with each other. Encourage them in their various pursuits and also participate. Lay down a challenge: “Let’s all do 15 press-ups and see if we can make it 20 by the end of the week.”

8 Make them think. If the fight is getting out of control, pull your kids apart and tell them they are now responsible for each other and have to stay seated until they both agree to continue. This will encourage them to seek an agreement rather than carry on fighting. Alternatively, you could send both kids to another room and tell them they can come out once they have reached an agreement.

Once the conflict has passed and you are sitting together, perhaps at dinner, talk about feelings. Tell your kids how sad it makes you feel when they are fighting with each other and how good it would be to find mutually acceptable ways of preventing conflict in the future. Express your readiness to listen to both sides, to stay neutral and to brainstorm possible solutions. You can even write a ‘conflict-resolution plan’ together and put it up on the wall. Then, the next time a situation threatens to develop, you can raise an eyebrow and point to the plan that they helped create.

And, once again, stay neutral and don’t compare your kids. When we compare, label and take sides, we encourage competition and conflict and create a victim/ bully relationship that in the long run simply won’t work.


The founder of UpBright, Anoush Davies is a professional life coach, positive discipline parent educator and certified NLP and Emotional Intelligence practitioner. To find out more and check out her blog, head to upbrightglobal.com.

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