By Mary Teresa Bitti
Georgie Binks’ 14-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter get along pretty well now, but there was a time when doing the dishes was cause for all-out war. Their constant fighting prompted their uncle to dub them “the Bickersons.” One particularly violent row stands out for Binks. The kids were about six and 11 at the time, and they had taken a trip from their home in Toronto to Vancouver to visit said uncle. “They were just beating each other to a pulp in my brother’s car,” recalls Binks. “My brother and I got out and chatted, ignoring them while the car rocked back and forth.” Eventually they stopped, and the journey resumed ““ no harm, no foul.
“I always felt their fighting was more to entertain themselves and get a rise out of me than anything else,” says Binks. “I felt if I became involved it would only make things worse.” So “unless there was blood,” she let them settle it themselves.
While it’s not always easy to stay neutral, that’s often the best approach, says Calgary-based child psychologist Jennifer Raymond-Bhatt. “Parents have become over-sensitive, and when things aren’t tranquil we get scared about behaviour.” That could be in part because increased news reports of child violence leave us unable to normalize what goes on between siblings, says Raymond-Bhatt. But make no mistake: sibling fights ““ whether they take the form of name-calling, arguing, shoving, pinching or full-blown boxing-ring scenarios ““ can be brutal.
“Yet a sibling also represents safety, a good opportunity to learn how to deal with a disagreement knowing you won’t be abandoned,” says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power in Calgary. Of course, if the behaviour is out of control and someone is getting hurt emotionally or physically, then that may be indicative of a larger problem, says Bell. You’ll want to talk it through with your kids to pinpoint the cause ““ something like stress about school could be the culprit. Some advice from a parenting coach, family counsellor, or even another parent whose wisdom you value could be helpful, too.
In most cases, however, fighting often becomes a problem only when parents step in ““ something many of us do too early and too often, says Raymond-Bhatt. “Siblings have to learn to set boundaries with one another on their own. Parents should be observers and sometimes referees, not part of it.”
Calgary mom Babi Szojka describes her household as a passionate one, and chalks the constant nagging and teasing between her two eldest children up to their close bond. “It’s a love-hate thing,” says Szojka. “Leave any two people together in a space long enough and they will get on each other’s nerves.” So while she hears her share of, “He’s breathing funny,” and “Don’t look at me like that,” Szojka doesn’t get stressed out over it. “They have a lot in common and play together all the time.”
But what do you do when the fighting is non-stop and your stress level is through the roof? Here are four tried-and-true strategies you can apply to restore harmony in your home.
Hold Regular Family Meetings
“There should be no blame, shame or pain,” says Bell, who holds weekly family meetings to share the good, the bad and the ugly in her home. “You just say, “We are a family, we have this issue with you guys fighting and we need to solve it.’ And make them part of the solution, because then the kids have ownership and responsibility.”
Divide and Conquer
When fighting between her nine-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son escalates to an eight out of 10 on Szojka’s personal fight meter, she separates them. “If they can’t solve it, I send them to separate floors. It’s not long, though, before they ask when they can see each other again.”
Let There Be Consequences
Every time sisters Madison and Georgia of Delta, B.C., really get into it, they risk losing whatever it is they are fighting over. “It’s an immediate consequence,” says mom Karen Taipalus. It also shows the girls she won’t take sides.
Schedule One-On-Ones with Each of Your Kids
A few minutes of alone time ““ away from their siblings ““ can do wonders. “Play checkers or go for a walk,” says Bell. “It’s special time just for them so they don’t try to get the attention in other ways.”
Finally, Have Faith In You Kids
“I tell my daughters, I know you’ll figure this out,” says Raymond-Bhatt. “And, most times, they do.”