Tag Archives: marital conflict

Sibling Rivalry

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Here is another question posed to me by a number of parents recently: How do you deal with sibling competition and aggression?

This problem is common and has a simple answer. That does not mean it is easy to “fix”; it just means that it is easy to understand. The answer has three parts: (1) create a comfortable and relatively stress-free family environment; (2) create routines that teach children skills in sharing, turn taking, and negotiating; (3) separate siblings who cannot be together without fighting and then create short, parent-facilitated times together that have maximum probability of successful outcome, and practice them.

I am going to start by answering #2, then #3, and leave #1 – perhaps the most complicated one – for the last.

(2) This answer is a mixture of two of my favorite recommendations for parents – routines and family values. The routines function to put into place and practice the family values of sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. Remember that the power of “family values” is that you can’t argue with them. That is, you could try to argue, but the answer is always unarguable – “That’s just the way we do things in this family.” For example, if one child calls the other child a name or makes an insulting remark that the parents consider unacceptable, the response is, “In our family, we don’t use names like that or say insulting things like that.” That cuts through the child’s argument that another kid said the same thing – even if the other kid was in the same family. Or, if one child insists that he always sit in a preferred seat in the car, the response is, “In our family, we share.” Then the routine that practices the family value is something like – on the way to school X gets to sit in that seat, and on the way home from school, Y gets to sit there, or something like that. Another common conflict between siblings is fighting over the same toy. In that case, the family value of sharing is implemented by a negotiating process that is taught beautifully by the teachers in the Cambridge Ellis School. The child who wants the toy is helped to ask the child holding the toy, “Are you finished with the toy?” If the child holding the toy says no, then the other child is helped to ask, “How many more minutes do you need before I can have a turn – 1, 2, or 3?” (For older children, the time period is usually longer.) This scaffolds both children’s agency in the situation and supports the child who ultimately has to give the toy up.

(3) The third answer is similar to what I have recommended for play dates. Although parents certainly need relief, play dates are not primarily intended to serve that purpose but instead are meant to provide the child with opportunities to learn how to have fun playing with other children and learn to get along with them, among other things. The same can be said for the time siblings spend together, although sibling relationships are of course much more meaningful and intense than peer relationships. If siblings are going through a period of not getting along (this can happen for many reasons, including one sibling in particular having a hard time and taking it out on his or her brother or sister) then the time they spend alone together should be minimized (I realize this is often difficult) and they should be given short periods of structured play time together with parents facilitating the interaction. For example, the parent might say, “Since you guys have been having a hard time getting along recently, then X is going on errands with me while Y stays home to do homework with Dad, and then later this afternoon we will all go to the park together. It is important for the siblings to have enough good times together for them to want to spend time together in the future, which will motivate them to behave well with each other. While they are together in the relatively short enjoyable times the parent is playing the role of the teacher (above), scaffolding the development of sharing and good negotiating skills, as well as the respect for family values.

(1) Create a comfortable, relatively stress-free family environment. Of course this is not at all easy to implement. The reason I include it as #1 is because it is so important and because parents often forget that a major source of sibling conflict is preexisting tension within the family. Sometimes the original source of tension is in the marriage or between separated parents. Sometimes the tension is related to problems with extended family members, or to financial worries or job dissatisfaction. Other times tension is generated by conflict between one particular child and a parent, and the parent holds the tension within him or herself in between actual times of conflict. Then, when a demand has to be made on that child, the parent anticipates noncompliance and approaches the request in a negative frame of mind. Sometimes this tension is communicated by the parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and abrupt gestures, and aggressive choice of words.
Regardless of the origin of the tension, the children in the family pick up the stress, and often they will express the stress they feel by fighting with each other. Partly, this fighting response emerges from the irritability the family stress causes in the children. Also, the children unconsciously may be distracting the parents from the original source of their tension by calling attention to the problem they are causing in the moment. Interestingly, that can make everyone feel “better” because at least they know what the problem is – “fighting kids” – instead of living in a situation in which the cause of the unhappiness is hidden or unacknowledged. The answer to this problem of tension in the family is to refocus attention on the parents’ need for support. Remember the old directive of what to do with the oxygen mask in the airplane. First put it on yourself and then put it on the child sitting next to you. That is because the child will need you to be alert and strong in order to take care of him or her. In some cases, this need for support means getting more help from extended family and friends, or hiring someone to help take care of the house or the children. In other cases, the parents need professional help to manage the trouble in their lives.

Read this blog in Spanish.

What to do About “Bullies”

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Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that you decide your child is being bullied.

There are three main tools to teach your child how to avoid being bullied. The first is the tried and true “ignore it” and turn or move away from the bully. If that doesn’t work, the child should be encouraged to tell the bully to “Stop!” Finally, the third tool is to get help from a trusted adult, such as a teacher or a parent.

However, as we attempt to identify procedures to deal with bullying, we right away run into a problem. Is bullying the same in all age groups? I think we would all agree that it is not. The definition I offered describes behavior that “has at its core the intention to harm or intimidate”. While this is true in the most experience-near sense – that is, the behavior seems designed to produce that result – it is not at all clear that the preschool child has the conscious intention to “harm or intimidate”. Usually, when I speak to even older children of school age, they will explain that the other child, the victim, was “annoying” them, or something like that. In other words, although nonsensical to the observing adult, the bully often really believes that the other child is the provocateur. For example, I observed a 5-yo boy telling another child that he was a baby, while puffing up his chest and looming over him in a way that clearly intimidated his classmate. When challenged by the teacher about his behavior, the boy claimed that his classmate had “lied” to him about being older than he. Of course, this seems ridiculous to an adult, so let’s take it apart and see if we can understand it better. In doing so we are engaging in the other extremely important approach to bullying – understanding the mind of the child.

In order to find a lasting solution to bullying – bullying of your child and bullying in a community such as a classroom – we need to answer the question of why children bully.
To answer this question, let’s consider three kinds of bullies – the group bully, the “reactive bully”, and the long-term, or chronic, bully.

Probably the easiest bully to understand is the “group bully”. This bully is a child who is attracted to a powerful peer and joins a group attack on another child. This is a terrible experience for the bullied child, because there is nothing more frightening than being confronted by a hostile crowd. Often the group bully is ambivalent about the bullying behavior and quietly ashamed of her participation in it, yet is afraid to challenge the powerful leader.

The second kind of bully is the “reactive bully”. In simple terms, this bully feels wounded, wronged by the world, and takes his out his anger and frustration on someone else. The source of his hurt may be short lived, such as feelings about the birth of a younger sibling. Or, it may be long lasting, such as the enduring threat caused by chronic illness, an alcoholic parent, or by domestic violence. A common cause of this kind of bullying is severe marital conflict or divorce. It is important to realize that a child does not have to “learn” bullying behavior in the home. Preschool children are not cognitively mature enough to understand that their hurt feelings from family problems are motivating their aggressive behavior towards peers. When a young child behaves this way in response to family stress, the bullying behavior usually resolves when the family stress improves or in response to an empathic adult’s attention – for example, a teacher. However, it is also true that if a parent assumes a bullying stance, for example talking aggressively about what he will do to a neighbor if he keeps putting his trash barrels on their side of the driveway, children will often identify with the parent and his behavior.

The third kind of bully is a chronic bully. There are no chronic bullies in preschool. It takes longer than that to create a chronic bully. Chronic bullies are the tragic consequence of children brought up in high stress environments in which they themselves feel bullied.

Let’s consider responses to each kind of bully. In each case, the best first response is to collaborate with the teacher and other school personnel. The teacher can be present when you are not there to protect your child. If you think that bullying is going on when the teacher is not looking, then bring this to his or her attention. The first goal of the collaboration should be to stop the bullying immediately. An adult must step in to protect the victim of the bullying if he cannot protect himself. The next step is to prevent future bullying. In the case of the group bully, that means diminishing the power of the leader through non-punitive confrontation with the bullying behavior, appropriate consequences, and talking separately to the members of the group so that you support each child’s behaving like his or her best self. In the case of the reactive bully, it means identifying the source of the bullying child’s distress, making the link for him (“When you are hurting so badly sometime you think it will make you feel better to make someone else hurt.”), and trying to make his home environment better. In the case of the “chronic” bully, professional help is definitely needed.These children need psychotherapy to provide them with the kind of trusting relationship in which they can face their fears of isolation or injury and find more adaptive ways of coping than frightening other children.

In my next blog posting, I will discuss the most substantial, long-term solution to “bullying”.