Sibling Rivalry: Honor One Another - Even Your Brothers and Sisters!
Arnold, age eight, wrote: "Dear Pastor, I know God loves everybody, but he never met my sister. Yours sincerely, Arnold."
One of the greatest sources of frustration for parents is sibling conflict. Parents often feel overwhelmed by the continual teasing, put-downs, sarcasm, bickering, bossiness, tattling, temper flare-ups, meanness and on and on.
Children seem to naturally compete with and compare themselves to each other. The task of helping children get along is daunting. One parent defined sibling conflict as "anytime my two children are in the same room at the same time." Another added, "Mine don't have to be in the same room." Seeing the problem is easy; finding a solution seems impossible.
Some parents think that if they ignore the problem it will go away. One mom said, "When the bickering gets too bad, I just go in my room and shut the door!" In fact, many parents believe that the solution to arguing and bickering is to allow children to "fight it out." Other parents choose another alternative: When their children struggle, they separate them and try to keep them apart in order to maintain peace. They imitate a referee at a boxing match, breaking up the conflict and sending the fighters to their opposite corners. Unfortunately, continually separating children doesn't solve the problem either. In fact, the children often come back again to fight some more.
We believe that both these solutions are inadequate because they lack the depth needed to bring about lasting change. When parents only separate the offenders or walk away, they miss valuable opportunities to help their children grow. Conflict with brothers and sisters is a child's first class in relationships. Your home is the classroom, you are the teacher, and honor is the curriculum. Each conflict situation becomes an opportunity for teaching children how to get along.
God created the family as a place to learn and grow. Within the family, children can learn to treat others with kindness and to respond in a healthy way to unfairness or perceived injustice. They can learn to tolerate irritations, manage their anger, and work closely with people who are different. Addressing sibling conflict isn't easy, but the work you do now will not only make family life more peaceful, it will help your children develop adult skills that will assist them for the rest of their lives.
The secret to family harmony is to teach your children to honor each other, but that's not easy. In fact, there are three roadblocks that hinder children from honoring each other: anger, selfishness, and foolishness. These roadblocks and their corresponding solutions provide the curriculum for "relationship school." Understand them and you will learn to focus your parenting on the right areas, keep your cool, and help your children improve their relationships with each other and with their peers.
Honor Roadblock # 1: Anger
Angry outbursts are common occurrences in most homes. Children easily become irritated with each other, often leading to hurtful words and actions. Little Bobby walks into his older sister's bedroom and she yells, "Get out!" Two brothers race down the stairs, and one elbows the other to get the advantage, soon they're pushing and shouting at each other. Little sister Meg starts to scream and hit when her older sisters exclude her from a game. An important lesson in the relationship curriculum, then, is anger management.
The first task is to help children recognize anger before they blow up. For some, there seems to be little or no time between the trigger and the outburst. There are, however, in all of us early warning signs that anger is developing. Raised shoulders, clenched teeth, pursed lips, lowered eyebrows, and a heightened tone of voice are just a few cues. People are different, and everyone must recognize his or her own personal cues that warn of approaching anger. Sitting down with a child, brainstorming about early warning signs, and being transparent about your anger management can all contribute to a child's growing ability to recognize anger.
Stop Anger from Escalating
Once a person can see anger coming, the next step is to stop and settle down. If the irritation is just at a frustration level, such as when your view of the TV is blocked by someone, then a deep breath may be all you need. If the anger has become more intense, such as when the baby spills apple juice on some homework, the way to stop it may be to walk away for a few minutes. Sometimes children and adults become enraged, that is, they can no longer think rationally. The anger is controlling them. If this is true, they need a larger stop or break. The child or adult must get away, settle down, and then come back to discuss the situation.
After the child takes a break and settles down, a debriefing is essential. In a non-accusing way, ask questions such as, "What did you do wrong?" and "What are you going to do differently next time?" Having a discussion around these questions will help children see the problem and know how to make appropriate changes.
Children need alternatives to their explosive outburst. Healthy outlets for the energy include talking about the problem, getting help with something, or slowing down and persevering.
Anger itself is a flag. It tells us that something is wrong. Sometimes that something is inside the angry person. Anger may come from unrealistic expectations, for example. Other times, anger is caused by injustice, violated rights, or a blocked goal. Whatever the cause, anger is helpful for identifying problems but not for solving them. The person bent on solving problems with anger leaves a trail of hurt and pain. Angry outbursts create distance in relationships. Rather, people who are angry need to recognize the anger, stop and settle down, and then choose a more helpful response. Teaching children to recognize and manage their anger with siblings will help prepare them for life in an adult world.
Here are a few more guidelines for anger management in a home:
- Never argue with children who are angry. Have them take a break and continue the conversation later.
- Help children recognize anger in its various disguises: a bad attitude, grumbling, glaring, or harsh tone of voice.
- When angry words or actions hurt others, individuals should admit their fault and seek forgiveness.
Becoming a Peacemaker
Children can learn to manage their anger, but that's not enough for harmony. Honor means that children do more than what's expected and treat people as special. In order for children to overcome the roadblock of anger, they need a vision for being a peacemaker, rather than a problem maker.
Here are a number of practical ideas for helping children become peacemakers. Teach them to look for common points, not areas of difference:
- Try to agree, not disagree;
- Work toward common solutions where everyone wins, not where one person wins and the others lose;
- Use love, not anger or meanness, as a motivation.
One single mom said, "The key for me was separating my four children and talking to each one alone. I was able to connect with them individually. Separately, we were able to look past problems to solutions. Since dishonor looked different for each one, I was able to talk about what honor might look like for them.
'You can be the solution here. Look for an idea that will please everyone.' Now, whenever I see one of them compromising or trying to please, I'm quick to encourage and praise. It's taken a lot of work, but my children are learning to be peacemakers, and I'm pleased with the results."
Tattling is one way that children point out problems rather than trying to make things better. It's important to teach children what offenses they should report to a parent and what they should try to resolve themselves or just ignore.
Sometimes a child should overlook an irritation and not be so easily provoked. If a child has tried to resolve the problem, and the offense isn't one to drop, then a child should report it to an adult. This isn't tattling. It's following a model for conflict management. If a problem cannot be resolved between two people, then one of them should involve another person in the process.
Being a peacemaker means that children learn tolerance. People have an alarm in their heads that is set to a specific tolerance level. When they're irritated or annoyed, the alarm goes off. Each person's alarm is set differently. Just compare your answers and your children's answers to the following questions: How close can someone get to you before you start feeling irritated? How much talking can you listen to before feeling uncomfortable? How long can you put up with a repetitive noise before it become annoying? Children and adults have different tolerance levels.
The good news is that tolerance levels aren't permanently set. With a little work, children can change their tolerance levels and adjust how many times a day the alarm goes off in their relationships with each other. Honor helps children learn to value the person above the irritation.
It is fascinating to watch children when they catch a vision for being a peacemaker. The creative solutions they develop are encouraging. One mom shared this story. My eight year old daughter, Jenny, loves to be a peacemaker. She now sees anger as an opportunity to help. When others get angry, she takes it as a challenge, often starting with, "I've got an idea…"
The other day we were in a store, and a customer in front of us in line was getting angry. Jenny looked up at him and said, "I've got an idea. Let's talk about something fun while we are waiting." At first I felt a little embarrassed, but the man responded and enjoyed the conversation with my daughter. I was proud of her. She was being a peacemaker.
Honor Roadblock # 2: Selfishness
A second major cause of sibling conflict is selfishness, always wanting to be first or best. Children are usually self-centered and demonstrate this in various ways: boasting and envy (wanting the biggest piece, being first, or wanting the best seat are all examples of this). Children go to great lengths to prove they are better, loved more, or got there first. One dad found his two daughters counting sprinkles on their cupcakes to see who got the most.
Children often think that if you want to be great or honored you need to build yourself up. Children naturally want to grab the best for themselves. In contrast, parents should honor the child who gives the other person the biggest piece or who lets someone else sit in the best seat or who can listen to someone else's story without saying he or she know something better.
Being a servant doesn't come naturally. One way to help children develop a servant attitude is you teach them that fair doesn't mean equal. Every parent had heard this phrase, "That's not fair!" The basis for this statement is comparison. Children who rely on comparison to feel good about themselves often end up in conflict. They want to have what others have. They think they wanted to be treated the same as everyone else, but what they really want is to feel special.
Rather than trying to treat children as equals, it's better to treat each child as unique. Each of your children is very different, so why try to teach each the same? They have different gifts and needs. Treat children according to their own uniqueness. Treating children as individuals and telling them up front that they will not be treated equally can help reduce some of the comparison in a family.
In one family, Robert had a problem with dawdling in the morning before school. He was often running late and needed frequent reminders to keep on schedule. Mom chose to set up a chart system to motivate Robert and included a reward at the end of the week. Robert's sister, Jane, complained, "That's not fair. He gets a treat, and I don't get anything." Mom wisely responded, "Robert is getting a treat because he's working on something in his life. If you'd like to work on something, I'll set up a chart for you, too." Mom didn't try to treat all her children equally. She knew that fair doesn't mean equal.
Boasting is another demonstration of selfishness. "I know how to do that." "I can do that better than you." Children try to feel good by exalting themselves. They seem to say, "I can feel good about myself when I tell you how much better I am. " Sometimes children think that because they did it faster or neater, they're more valuable. That's not the way God looks at them.
Children must learn not to compete with others but to do the best job they can, comparing themselves with others but to do the standards and goals appropriate for them.
Parents can help their children become servants. Here are some concrete suggestions to help you out:
- One way to help children become servants is to teach them how to listen. Listening isn't easy. Children interrupt, yell, and talk over other people, resulting in misunderstanding.
- Teaching children to affirm others before telling them their own story is another important way for children to honor each other. Encourage children to say, "I agree," or "You're right," rather than, "I know!" Instead of launching into their own version of the story, "Well, I saw…" teach them to encourage the other person first.
- Here's another fun way to teach children to be servants. The "I Cut, You Pick Rule" helps children who both want the last piece of cake or who plan to split a candy bar. This plan motivates the person cutting to be as equal as possible.
- Playing games is a good way to teach children how to be servants. Choose noncompetitive games and activities that require teamwork. Encourage children to work together to solve a puzzle, build a project, or reach a goal. Teach children to coach each other along the way.
- Some families have a "Servant for the Day." This child not only sets the table and takes out the trash but also gets to sit in the front seat of the car, bring the mail in, and help with dinner. Throughout the course of the day, Mom or Dad has an opportunity to talk about more subtle aspects of servanthood that involve how children talk, listen and even think.
Teaching children to be servants will promote harmony in your family. Becoming a servant will help children deal with the continual desire to build themselves up while putting others down. Learning to be a servant honors others in the family and brings honor back as well.
Honor Roadblock # 3: Foolishness
Foolishness is the third roadblock that causes sibling conflict and hinders harmony in a family. Foolishness is acting before thinking, laughing at others, or acting without considering the consequences.
Children often act foolishly, not thinking of how their actions might hurt someone else. Alice, age four, her brother, Andy, age three, and Emily, ten months, were together in the living room. The babysitter was in the kitchen getting some milk and cookies when she heard the baby scream. She ran quickly and found Alice pinching Emily." Alice, what are you doing?"
"We're playing ambulance, and Emily is the siren."
Children are like that. Sometimes we want to pick them up and look them in the eye and say, "Why?!"
I Was Wrong
Foolish children don't take responsibility for their actions. "I was just playing," "He hit me first," and "She started it" are common excuses for hurtful behavior. Blaming is the opposite of taking responsibility. Blaming is a sign of foolishness.
Teaching children to take responsibility is the first step toward empowering them to change. One way to do this is to ask the child, "What did you do wrong?" as part of the discipline process. Ask this in an encouraging and helpful way, with emphasis on learning from mistakes. No matter what others have done, children are responsible for their own actions; the sooner they learn that, the better. Blaming others is never a wise response. Having children say what they did wrong teaches them to take responsibility for their actions.
Often children will act carelessly or thoughtlessly and end up irritating others. This is foolishness. Children need to learn to anticipate the results of their actions and control their impulses that hurt or irritate others.
One mom told of a typical problem in her family. "On a cold winter day my daughter, Colleen, stepped out the front door to get a book she'd left in the car. As soon as she walked out, her sister, Aimee, closed and locked the door so Colleen couldn't get back in. Aimee thought her prank was funny, but Colleen was cold and irritated.
"I heard what happened and later took Aimee aside. 'It looks like Colleen didn't appreciate your little joke'
"I was just playing around," Aimee said.
"'I realize that, but you were having fun at Colleen's expense. It's good to be funny but if you get enjoyment out of hurting other people, then something's wrong. I know you didn't mean to hurt Colleen, but if you'd think about the consequences of your actions you'd make wiser choices.'"
The Stop Rule
Teasing is a common area where foolishness turns into conflict. Although many teasing games start out fun, one child usually wants to stop before the other, resulting in conflict. One solution is to implement a "Stop Rule" that allows any child to end a teasing game by saying, "Stop." Even a parent, when tickling or teasing must also obey the Stop Rule, demonstrating to children the importance of their words.
If a child says, "Stop," but the teasing continues, the child needs to be able to appeal to a parent who will enforce the rules. Julie, age fifteen, decided she was done playing the game of tag with her brother. Gordon, age twelve, didn't know how to quit and kept pestering his sister. Julie told Gordon to stop, but he continued. Instead of becoming mean and ugly to her brother, she went to her father, and he enforced the Stop Rule.
Know When to Step In
Children can be downright mean to one another. In fact, unmonitored sibling conflict can turn into habits of meanness rather quickly. One mother of three young boys said the third child's first word was "Ow!"
The problem of meanness challenges children as well as parents. Some advice suggests that parents get out of the way when children argue and let them work things out themselves. Although this can be helpful there's a point at which parents must step in. Otherwise some children become resentful, and others develop habits of meanness.
A neighborhood baseball game illustrates a parent's role. Two teams were playing baseball without an umpire. It wasn't long before the children were yelling at each other and arguing about the game. Hurt feelings developed, and the game became a battleground. An older child happened by and offered to be an umpire. He called players out and safe, relieving the tension and allowing the children to enjoy the game. An umpire made the difference.
What the children needed in that ball game, and what families often need, is a workable system of justice. As much as possible, we want our children to solve problems on their own. But when that becomes difficult, children need a parent who will enforce fair play. A workable system of justice helps level the playing field.
Use Sibling Relationships to Teach Honor
Anger, selfishness, and foolishness are the roadblocks to family harmony and the cause of much conflict. Learn to target your parenting in these areas. View them as opportunities to develop honor. Teach children to be peacemakers and servants to the wise.
Sibling rivalry and disharmony have been occurring for generations. It takes work to be a parent, and the challenges in this area can be intense. But time spent concentrating on this now will yield great rewards later. Your children will benefit tremendously. When you show them how to honor each other, you're giving them a valuable gift. After all, they'll be relating to people all their lives.
Used with permission from Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller's book, Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes…In you and your Kids!
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