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Siblings are naturally going to bicker and battle on a regular basis, no matter how much you try to keep the peace. “It is unrealistic to expect siblings not to fight,” says Jamie Rishikof, a Massachusetts-based licensed psychologist specializing in child and adolescent therapy. “They are rivals because they are thrust into a situation of constant negotiation and sharing. They have to share mom, dad, the house, the TV and the car -- and not by choice.” Constant fighting, however, can put a real strain on relationships. The best parents can do is encourage sibling activities that promote teamwork, cooperation and respect.
The 'I Love You' Game
Naomi Tapia, a mother of three in Douglasville, Ga., is no stranger to settling sibling disputes. “My daughter is three years older than my son, and they would often argue over any little detail,” Tapia recalls.
Tapia found that positive statements and reflections worked best to defuse the fighting among her children. “I would make them sit down on the floor in front of each other and hold hands while looking each other in the eye,” she says. “They would have to say, ‘You are my sister/brother and I love you. I’m sorry that we are fighting.’ They would hardly be able to follow through to the end of the sentence before they started laughing, and they wouldn’t even remember what their conflict was about.”
Tapia’s goal was to maintain harmony in her family, so positive statements were a big part of the conflict resolution whenever her children fought.
Teach your children a valuable lesson by encouraging them to put themselves in each others' shoes. If one child is interested in football, set up a family football game so siblings can join in the fun. If another child is interested in theater, take the family on an outing to a local play.
Expressing interest in each other’s passions often opens the door for better understanding of each other. You can even minimize sibling fighting by letting each child excel in his own way, suggests Jeanette G. Smith, a family therapist in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. “They can each excel on their own without taking something away from the other. Even as small children, they need different roles -- one can be the ‘teacher’ and the other the ‘learner’ for one activity, and they can switch roles for another.”
Parents can also foster activities and games that tackle communication barriers. Although a family game of Pictionary or charades will likely keep everyone entertained, creating your own family trivia game may help minimize misunderstandings, too. Simply have kids create questions about themselves, such as their favorite color, food or even vacation destination. Embark on a game of family Trivial Pursuit to test the siblings’ knowledge of each other and watch the fun unfold.
“It’s important to teach kids how to be good sports with each other,” advises Jonathan Caspi, Ph.D., a professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. "Take the opportunity to encourage teamwork and pay attention to the good behavior, praising it often.” Phrases such as “I love the way you guys are sharing and getting along” and “You’re a good team” will help reinforce the positive behavior and put less emphasis on the fighting, says Caspi.
Appeal to your child’s creative side and minimize sibling fighting with art projects to distract them from the annoyances and frustrations of their siblings. From getting messy with finger painting to scrapbooking family photos, group art projects will help your children learn how to compromise and feed off of each other’s creativity.
“The earlier you start in helping your kids operate as a team versus competitors, the better off you are,” says Caspi. “If they are getting along, recognize and acknowledge the good moments between the siblings. Always praise the good behavior.”
If the fighting ensues during a project or game, Caspi recommends that parents point out unacceptable behavior. “Parents and teachers expect that kids know how to behave well when in fact, good behavior needs to be taught,” Caspi points out. “Establish a 'no violence' rule that includes name-calling and reiterate that hurtful behavior will not be tolerated.”