Sibling sparring: Mom, counselor offer advice on when to intervene, when to let kids work it out
FARGO - When Rhonda Torreson buys her twins LEGOs, she finds herself comparing the number of pieces per set to help keep things even.
But, inevitably, quarrels over the colorful little blocks arise.
Recently, the lone “bendy piece” in the 8-year-olds’ collection came into question. The piece came in a set given to Matthew, but he wasn’t using it at the time and Christopher wanted to use it. Then Matthew changed his mind. Bickering ensued.
“At that point, I took the piece, put it in my pocket, and said, ‘OK, if you guys can’t figure it out, no one’s going to use it,’ ” the boys’ 47-year-old mother says.
Whether it’s over LEGO pieces, Wii time, which movie to watch, or who gave who a dirty look, siblings are bound to annoy, tease and fight with each other, especially during the summer, when they’re spending more time together. It’s normal childhood behavior. But at what point should parents intervene?
Joni Medenwald, clinical supervisor at The Village Family Service Center in Moorhead, says in most cases, as long as they aren’t being especially aggressive or physically harming each other, parents should give their kids a chance to work out disagreements themselves.
“I think that can really promote their self-esteem and improve their communication and their ability to problem-solve, which are all life skills that they’re going to need in their relationships as they grow and develop further,” she says.
Working it out
The Torreson twins, along with older brother Alex, 12, usually get along, but they have an added incentive to work out their problems themselves – they don’t want Mom to get mad.
“They know that if they don’t resolve it quickly, I’m getting involved, and if Mom gets involved, everybody loses,” Rhonda Torreson says, adding that her oldest son has told her he’s overheard Christopher and Matthew saying, “Don’t tell Mom, or she’ll take away our video games!”
Medenwald recommends setting rules (“Use kind words,” “It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to hurt someone,” “No hitting”), threatening negative consequences for bad behavior and following through with those consequences.
Kids are more likely to fight if they know they can get away with it, or if they know there’s at least a chance they’ll get away with it. That’s why consistency is key.
Torreson, who calls herself “hardcore,” says she established those patterns from the beginning so her kids would quickly learn what to expect from her.
“I’m the kind of mom who will leave the cart of groceries at the store if they won’t stop. I’ll say, ‘If you don’t behave, we’re leaving,’ ” she says.
Another strategy that’s worked for her is putting it in writing.
When the boys’ father, Jeff, got sick and later died, she encouraged her oldest to keep a journal to help him work through his grief. The journal became a method of communication between mother and son.
Alex will use it to express his feelings after an argument, penning phrases like, “I didn’t like it when you got mad at me when it wasn’t my fault,” or, “I felt like you took their (his brothers’) side.” Torreson will write back, and sometimes it leads to face-to-face conversations.
“It’s worked, for both of us. It’s nice to know that he knows that he has a chance to be heard even if it’s not right in the moment,” she says.
She hopes her twins will use journals, too, when they get older.
Though Torreson’s kids still bicker occasionally, her methods appear to have worked. She gets compliments on Alex’s responsibility and trustworthiness and Christopher and Matthew’s ability to get along and look out for each other.
“It’s like growing up your whole life having to split a cupcake,” she says of her twins. “You don’t know that you’re going to get a whole one; you never expect to eat the whole cupcake. Sharing isn’t something you have to learn – there is no other way.”
Tips for sibling fighting
- Separate your children and give them a chance to calm down first.
- Listen to each child’s side of the story, but don’t feel like you have to act as the family referee.
- Acknowledge each child’s feelings, and help them correctly identify their emotions.
- Use role-playing to teach your kids how to work through problems and compromise with each other.
- Give your children time apart, whether it’s at the dinner table, in the car, or with other family members and caregivers.
- Allow them to have some independence and form friendships with other kids.
Source: Joni Medenwald, The Village Family Service Center, Moorhead