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Excellent advice on how to deal with sibling strife
on 8 September 2001
It is a truly nerve-jangling experience to see brother and sister constantly at each other. As a parent, one sometimes wishes that they could show just a little less creativity in looking for things to fight about. There's the charge of "It's not fair, he's had more than me" that occasionally makes you feel like getting out rulers, measuring jugs and scales to settle the issue once and for all. However, rarely is anything solved once and for all as they amaze you by finding still more ways of fuelling the strife. Keeping the peace can be tiring, stressful and, worst of all, futile. For you know that no sooner have you settled one dispute, than another one starts five minutes later. Faced with such repetitive scenes, you ask yourself, "Why do they behave like this?" "Why can't they get on?" "Why are they at each other all the time" "Why do I need to spend so much of my time keeping them apart and putting a stop to their squabbles".
Siblings without Rivalry addresses these concerns and offers some practical advice on how to manage and improve things. To start with, the book encourages parents to acknowledge the intense feelings which a child may express even when these feelings sound cruel, harsh, and unloving. On hearing, "I wish Tom had never been born, I hate him", a well-intentioned parent may be tempted to deny ('Oh come on, you don't really mean that!'), preach ('You'll get on better with people if you concentrate on the positive') or ignore ('Let's talk about the nice things you did today'). According to Faber & Mazlish, the most helpful response a parent can give is to avoid such responses and instead simply acknowledge the feelings as the child reports them. For example, a parent can help a child to fully express their feelings by putting them into words ("You don't want your sister here. Sometimes you wish she'd just go away").
For some parents the benefits of such an approach may not seem at all obvious. Some may feel convinced that giving more attention to negative feelings can only prolong the misery by leaving them stuck in an emotional rut. Surely the parent has to lead, instruct, cajole, jolly them up as the occasion demands. However, Faber & Mazlish tackle these misgivings and argue that the most helpful response is one that avoids rushing to offer solutions and lets the child know that she has been heard.
In a chapter entitled 'The Perils of Comparisons', the authors deal with a tactic instinctively employed by many. ("Look at how nicely Hannah is eating") Pointing out that this is more likely to awaken ill feeling rather than cooperation, the authors urge parents always to avoid both favourable and unfavourable comparisons and instead simply describe the "problem" ("I see milk dripping down the front of your shirt") and leave it at that. Put like this, the child is allowed time and opportunity to show initiative and think of a solution herself.
The book offers some excellent advice on how best to respond when kids are fighting or bickering. Instead of taking sides and/or imposing their solution, parents should encourage children to sort out their own conflicts and disagreements. Their recommended procedure deserves extended quotation as follows:
1. Start by acknowledging the children's anger towards each other. ("Gosh, you two sound really cross with each other"). That alone should help calm them down. 2. Listen to each child's side with respect. ("So,Tom, you wanted to build a zoo by yourself ; and Michael, you wanted to join in") 3. Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem. ("Hmm, this is a difficult one.") 4. Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution. ("I am pretty sure that if you two talk about this together, you'll work out some arrangement that feels fair to each of you.") 5. Leave the room. ("While you're working on it, I'll be reading the paper in the other room").
Stock parental responses to such advice include "That would never work with my children" , "My two would just dig their heels in and start fighting again after two minutes" "Eric is so strong-willed that he would just not be prepared to compromise and the little one would lose out". Clearly, it is not something that will necessarily work faultlessly first time especially if the parent has previously been consistently willing to play judge or honest broker. However, if one is prepared to persist, it produces children who learn how to manage their own conflicts and as a result get on better.