brotherly love 88 .
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Dear Dr. Batya,
My two boys seem to fight all the time. I am at my wits' end because it seems that I no sooner stop them and they are at it again. We could use some help before they actually hurt each other seriously.
- R.B., Haifa
You don't state your children's ages, but I am assuming they are relatively young. It is perfectly normal for two children to disagree. How they deal with their differences of opinion has important ramifications for their relationship as time goes on. While some siblings seem to get along better than others due to personality, sex, age and even luck, there are lots of things that you, their parents, can do to help things along and improve their relationship.
1) Only intervene when you are truly needed. My rule is to never do for your children what they are able to do for themselves. Often when left alone, children can work out their own issues and feel quite empowered when they arrive at a solution on their own. Your role may be to stay out of it or help them each achieve a win-win solution. They will be more likely to follow through on ideas that were their own and that they thought important enough to implement themselves.
2) Insist that there be no physical contact. Not now. Not ever. While I recognize that this does not make me popular in some homes, I believe that play fighting rarely stops until someone gets injured. I'm much happier promoting communication as a way to solve one's issues. Children need to be taught to talk about what is upsetting them and not to act it out. Make a "no hitting" or "hands off" rule and make sure that you consistently enforce it.
3) Referee only those fights that you witness. If you don't see it, don't take sides. Having both children present their view often prolongs the inevitable and results in the more articulate child "winning." I'd make it clear that if you don't see what happened, you'll assume both children were equally responsible and both children will have to be punished. The younger child may have been the instigator and the older child may have been holding back, or the older one may have been teasing "the baby." Most likely, neither is innocent.
4) It usually doesn't matter who started the fight or what it was about. Both children may need their own separate "time-out" areas in which to calm down. Acknowledge, validate and be there to listen. You can be there to take each child aside separately, hear his frustrations and help him problem solve. By praising or "catching him" when he behaves appropriately, each child can be rewarded for "cooperative behavior."
5) Teach your children that words can hurt and words can heal. Help them understand the difference through some fun role plays. Ask your child if what was said is good, helpful or hurtful. How might they feel if were said to them? What might be better to say?
6) Look at when and why your children are fighting. Is someone tired, hot, hungry or bored and can you structure things differently to help? A change in sleep time or moving a meal could help. Are they fighting over toys? Which toys are shared and which don't have to be? Who gets to use the toy first and for how long? If children know the rules and the rules are fair and consistently reinforced, there will be less fighting. Children need to learn how to appreciate working cooperatively and not competitively.
7) Treat children fairly but not necessarily equally. Each child has his own unique style and wonderful attributes. Don't compare one to the other but find the good in each child. For example, Daniel will not eat better because Jonathan eats nicely. Daniel will eat better if you can make a game of catching him eating appropriately and reward his behavior with praise or a sticker.
8) Help children to celebrate their siblings' special events with homemade cards and gifts, a special breakfast that they might help prepare or a family celebration of the special performance, game or birthday. Reward cooperative behavior through special treats such a family outing to go bowling, working together on a puzzle or even going out for ice cream.
9) Set up dates with each child so they can have one-on-one time just with you. This helps them to be less competitive for your time and attention on other occasions and lets them see how special you think they are.
10) Teach your children how to become friends and learn to like each other. Help them do special things for each other and celebrate in the joys of their sibling's success.
While all children have their share of fights, it will be nice if they can learn to be there for each other, as friends, to show concern, support or even provide help. You might just discover as they get older that they actually like each other, and as the fights stop and one moves out of the house, they will actually miss each other.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.