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Staying Home

Keeping the Peace between Siblings

From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 6, 2008-09, pp. 38-40

"Staying Home" is a regular feature of the magazine New Beginnings, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of New Beginnings to help parents who choose to stay at home with their children. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

I am so grateful to be home full-time with my children, but lately my two oldest children have been in a pattern of constant bickering. The oldest one really knows how to push the younger one's buttons, and "picks" at him all the time! We want our home to be peaceful for all of us and try to model that for our children, so this behavior is frustrating and stressful. Any suggestions?

Mother's Response

It can be really frustrating when your children fall into this common pattern. Some of the things I have noticed with my children are that they tend to fight and bicker more when they are bored, tired, hungry or want more of my attention.

I have often seen older ones picking on their younger siblings when what he/she really wants is Mom or Dad's attention. I have found that it can perpetuate the bickering cycle when I watch from the outside and punish instead of engaging more in their play and helping demonstrate the interaction I want to see. Engaging in their play can help break the cycle of fighting by giving positive, playful attention to my kids and by showing them how to react or treat each other.

If a fight starts, I can act as a mediator and help them express their feelings with appropriate words instead of fighting. When they were little, I found I needed to tell them what to say to each other. Also, when I am seeing lots of behavior like this I try to find time to pay attention to each child individually -- maybe read with one while others are playing alone or napping, talk about the oldest one's day while nursing the baby, have each child help with a chore with just you or, if all else fails, just try to give more hugs and cuddles.

As busy moms, it is often hard to stop cooking or have the laundry wait while we give immediate attention to negotiating our older children's interactions. At these times, I try to remind myself that just as our babies are working hard to learn to crawl, talk, and walk, our older children are working hard to figure out how to interact with each other and their environment. It takes them time to master their emotions and be able to verbalize their feelings. In the meantime, most often I know that if my children are fighting, something is bothering one of them.

Sarah Ullmann
Andover, KS, USA

Mother's Response

When we are going through a phase in our house where some or all seem to be bickering, I look at how I am acting and feeling. It seems as though their behavior is a reflection on my attitude. When the children are acting like this, often I am stressed or rushing around a lot or overtired, and the house seems to get a cloud over it. Also, the first reaction of the parents may be yelling at the bickering children. We have found that it works much better if I don't yell at all about it. Instead, I try to play happily with everyone and keep an upbeat, positive attitude. This seems to rub off on everyone and everyone is more caring, loving, and fun to be around! Also, show your children how to be kind and respectful of each other. You can also teach them fun ways to play and interact. The problem may also be that, because of their age difference, they want to play different ways. Show them things they can enjoy together.

Heather Vargas
Culver City, CA, USA

Mother's Response

This is a situation that comes up a lot in our house, with five children ranging from three to 14 years. It is interesting to me to see how, over the years, different pairs of children bug each other at different times.

With my older children, I put a rule of silence on the offending parties (for an hour, all day, whatever). They are not allowed to speak to each other at all, unless they have something kind or encouraging to say to the other. They are not even permitted politely to ask the other to stop any irritating behavior -- only to say kind or encouraging things. I want them to learn to be patient with other people's faults, not just learn to be kinder to one another. This works very well for the older ones (who tend to be the most annoying as far as button-pushing in our family goes).

For my younger ones, I enforce a five-minute rule of silence (I set a timer and the involved children have to sit apart from one another silently until the timer goes off). When the five minutes are up, the children can only speak if they can first come up with a few specific things they love about the other. I help them as much as they need. (i.e., "I love that he plays with trains with me sometimes," "I love that she shared her dolls with me yesterday," "I love reading with him," "I love the silly faces she can make," "I love how his crazy dances make me laugh.) This final exercise helps the little ones change focus from bothering each other to remembering the fun things about each other.

It usually only takes a few days of me being really vigilant to enforce these consequences before things change substantially. I find that the key is to determine a consequence that changes the focus for the children involved. They need to be taken out of the button-pushing rut and placed into a new, kinder pattern.

Barbara Berg
Los Angeles, CA, USA

Mother's Response

I know how you feel. My girls are six and four and that is exactly what is going on at our house. Here are a few ideas from my house to yours.

My older daughter loves teasing my youngest. Most of the time she says very silly things that don't make sense such as, "You have gummy fingers!" but it ticks off the little one and in the past she has just sputtered, shrieked, and cried in response, which leads to a bigger argument.

My husband and I have talked to our youngest about the situation. We believe in the old adage, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." We asked her if any of the things her sister says is true. "No," she replied. Her daddy said, "If it's not true then why let it bother you?"

This made sense to her, but she needed a little help in practicing how to diffuse these comments. We actually found help watching a television show where a character was going through a similar situation. After watching the show, Vivian and I practiced together. I sat with her and said, "Hey, you have hotdog toes!" or some such nonsense. Vivian then replied, "So?" and walked away.

The first few times she reacted this way after being teased, it left my oldest sputtering in disbelief. I can't say that it completely stopped the teasing, but it did help lessen it. It was good for my little one to see that she has power in these situations.

Amy Finnerty

Mother's Response

You don't tell the age of your two oldest children, so you might have to adjust what worked for my children to what is appropriate for your children.

When my oldest two were bickering and I was at my wits end, I used a technique that I learned from Barbara Coloroso, the author of Kids Are Worth It! I sat the two of them and told them they could not get up until they gave each other permission to get up. Then to take it step beyond what Barbara Coloroso suggests, I had them tell each other five things that they loved about the other one. I felt that my oldest boy didn't realize just how much his younger brother loved him and was influenced by him. The oldest brother didn't want to go first, so the younger one did. Now I can't remember what exactly he said, but the older one had tears in his eyes. I never had to do it again. They are now 24 and 20 years old, share an apartment, and are very good friends.

Belinda Bohnert
Mission, KS, USA

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