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Child Caring

Checking the child wars

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / April 6, 2000

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An exchange between a 7-year-old and his 5-year-old sister:

"Did you know you were born as a puppy?"

"I was not!"

"Yes you were. I was there. I saw you."

"I was not."

"Were too! Were too!"

"I hate you! I hate you! Mommyyyyy . . ."

For those of us whose children tease and bicker constantly, the sound is like water torture: One more drip and you'll go out of your mind. No wonder we throw up our hands in despair, roll our eyes in exasperation, or yell at them out of frustration.

Sighing or shouting may be human, but it isn't helpful: The number-one reason siblings bicker is to get our attention.

This doesn't mean we aren't giving them enough attention as it is. "I look at it this way," says psychologist Peter Goldenthal, author of "Beyond Sibling Rivalry" (Owl Books). "Kids don't respond to a good enough job. They always want more of us, even just 15 seconds more."

Unfortunately, they don't care if it's 15 negative seconds, so when we roll our eyes or throw up our hands, we become enablers, participants in a familiar and comforting script: "OK, here we go again." And what could be more reinforcing than the power and attention that come from getting Dad so riled up he shouts "I can't stand another second of this bickering! Go to your rooms!" and cleans up the mess himself?

Terms of endearment

While teasing and bickering is primarily for our benefit, there are other reasons it happens. The 7-year-old who told his sister she was a puppy, for instance, may actually have been trying to be nice, not nasty.

Family counselor Nancy Samalin, founder and director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York City, came to this realization when her sons Eric and Todd were 9 and 10. Todd was going away for the weekend, and Eric left him a note to say goodbye.

"It was a messy, torn piece of paper with a horrible, insulting message," says Samalin. "I thought Todd would be furious, but it made him laugh uproariously." She pauses. "That's when it hit me: This was a love letter, the closest Eric could come to saying, `I'll miss you.' "

Samalin says this "sibling-ese" is a way of expressing affection and intimacy and is often what's behind bickering and teasing. Goldenthal agrees. "Some kids are just at an awkward age or don't know how to express affection positively to a sibling," he says.

Indeed, Samalin says bickering typically indicates a level of security and comfort, not animosity. "You bottle up anger and frustration all day at school, and then you come home and take it out on someone you feel safe with," says Samalin. In fact, she adds, "Don't assume that because kids fight, they'll hate each other when they grow up. One has nothing to do with the other." She is the author of "Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings" (Bantam).

Natural frictions

Of course, there are plenty of times when bickering does reflect temporary hatred and unhappiness, and/or significant differences, says parent educator Adele Faber, co-author of the best-selling book "Siblings Without Rivalry" (Avon).

"Two siblings like loud music, the third doesn't. One likes to draw, two think drawing is stupid. These are natural frictions. Even the best marriage has them," she says.

As natural as bickering may be, it can't be left unchecked. "That leaves at least one child feeling unsafe," says Faber. On the other hand, it's a mistake to impose rules or solutions. "When the solution is a parent's decision, kids only get invested in fighting more. When it's their decision, their investment is in making it work," she says.

As in the best marriage, the trick is to respect differences. "I'm looking for more than managing the children," Faber says. "My goal is to empower children to manage themselves."

Keeping bickering in check is a process that begins in the toddler and preschool years by setting ground rules - "There is no hitting or grabbing in this house, and no teasing" - as well as expectations: "In our family, when someone is upset, we use words to describe what we want and how we feel. We don't use words to hurt people."

Strategies to use

When an infraction occurs, here's what Faber suggests:

Restate the problem. Ask each child to describe the problem, then restate it yourself: "You both want to sit in the same chair, and you each were mean to the other. Is that right?"

Acknowledge feelings. "No wonder you're both so upset, this is a hard problem! Two brothers want to sit in the same chair at the same time."

State the rule. "You know the rule: We don't say anything mean."

Offer options. "Let's figure out what you can do to solve this problem. Should you set a timer, so you each have a turn? Can two brothers sit in the chair together?"

Express confidence in them: "Jeff, I think you are a fair person. Matt, you're also a reasonable person."

Walk away: "I trust you two to work this out in a way that's fair to you, Jeff, and to you, Matt." Don't go too far away in case things accelerate, but resist going back in unless it does. Psychologist Phyllis Sonnenschein of Families First Parenting Programs in Cambridge recommends the Toilet Technique: "Go sit on the toilet and resist the urge to get involved."

If bickering escalates or graduates to hitting or pushing, you do need to intervene: "This is a dangerous situation. You three are so angry with one another, you can't work this out. You each need to go to a separate room to cool off." Children are usually grateful for this, says Faber: "They don't like it when bickering escalates but they need a face-saving way to stop."

Sure, this takes patience and repetition, she says, but the more you put the problem back in their hands, the less bickering there will be. One of her favorite anecdotes involves six siblings. She knew she'd had a breakthrough when they were fighting for a turn on the swing and were able to negotiate themselves: Each person would have 10 swings apiece, they'd take turns pushing, and they would all count out loud.

Empowering children is not the same as yelling in to them from the next room, "Work it out, kids!"

"That gives permission for the oldest or more powerful to turn to the youngest or weakest [and say]: `I'll kill you if you don't let me go first,' " says Faber. A better response: "Do you three need help or can you work it out yourselves?" That gives permission to any one of them to say, "Yes, we need help," and it states clearly that all of them need to work equally on the solution.

Praise and structure

Here are some other strategies:

Lavish praise. Goldenthal tells parents to say something positive to each child 50 times a day for a week. Fifty times!?

First of all, he says, "fifty makes you notice trivial things. If the theory is that competition for your attention drives the bickering, they need more attention no matter how much you're already giving. Second, this doesn't take any more time than it does to intervene every time they fight." Fifty isn't magic, he says, but it does flood them with positive feeling. "In 10 years, it's worked almost every time. If it doesn't," he says, "there's something else behind the bickering."

Keep the praise simple and low-key, however. If Lucy uses the fork instead of her fingers, tell her, "I noticed you used the fork, Lucy. Thanks!" not: "Wow! Lucy! This is great!" If three of them watch TV without fighting, acknowledge their effort instead of walking past the room: "I noticed your brother had on `Sesame Street' and you didn't flip the channel. Thank you both for being so considerate."

Provide structure. Does teasing get out of hand every day at the same time, like an hour before dinner? Do they fight whenever it's time to get into the car? "They need structure," says Goldenthal, like an extra snack or a seating chart for the car. Charts only work, however, if you involve everyone in making them. For instance: "Every time we get in the car, there's a fight over who sits next to the baby. It's great the three of you love your sister, but I wonder what the squabbling sounds like to her? Let's brainstorm ideas so we can do this without quarreling."

He suggests drawing a picture of the car with the baby in her seat. Find something to praise in each suggestion they come up with and try to craft a plan from their ideas, perhaps a turn-taking system that gets posted in the car. (This is a pretty common problem, by the way. In one family Faber knows, two sisters came up with the idea that one would sit in front on even days because her birthday was an even number, and the other on odd days because her birthday was an odd number.) Two caveats: Be sure to follow the chart yourself, agree to consequences ahead of time - "What should I do if you refuse to do what you agreed to do?" - and be prepared to follow through on them, even if it will make you late: "I can't start the car to go, remember?"

Break the cycle. Sonnenschein recommends a family meeting to restate your values: "There's constant bickering in the house. This is not the kind of family or atmosphere Mom and I want. We want everyone to think about this and come up with at least two suggestions for a family meeting Saturday at 10."

Samalin has a dramatic idea that works well with older children. In the midst of their bickering, get out the video camera: "Don't stop, don't stop! I want to get this for posterity." That usually shocks them into stopping, but she knows one family where three sisters ignored the camera and kept fighting. When they watched it weeks later, they were horrified. "The bickering stopped," she says.

On some occasions, inserting yourself may be the best way to break the cycle, says Samalin: "Girls, you've got five minutes to agree on what you're going to watch. If you can't figure it out, I'll turn off the TV."

One of the reasons she likes that strategy so much is because it turns their focus away from each other and on you.

"There's no better way to make allies out of siblings than for them to hate you together," she says.

What parents can do

Bickering diminishes as children become more involved with peers and less with each other, usually by 12 or 13.

If you're worried that bickering masks true hostility, keep track of how often a child does something kind or loyal for a sibling. If it's less than once a week, consider it a red flag. Consult a professional.

Although most bickering is normal, it can sometimes be fueled by a mood disorder, learning disability, or a highly charged issue such as divorce. If you suspect any of these, consult a professional.

Look at bickering as an opportunity, not a nightmare. The more you express confidence in their problem-solving, the more they will think of themselves as problem solvers and the better they will be at resolving conflict in general.

Give children specific tools to nip bickering in the bud: If a 4-year-old gets victimized by a toddler, tell him, "When you see the baby coming and you know he's going to take something, say, `Stop!' and hold out your hand." Tell a preschooler who gets teased by an older sib, "Walk away to another room."

Be sure to tell your children that you hope they can solve disagreements themselves but when they can't, they can always say, "Mom/Dad, we need help."