When I was little, my favorite baby doll was one that came with her very own, almost real, peach fuzz skin. At least it was my favorite until my sister, 18 months younger and old enough to know better, drew on the doll’s face with Magic Marker.
While my mother was able to scrub away the rainbow scribbles, the peach-fuzz was rubbed away in the process. That moment revealed the truth of the years to follow: The same little sister who followed me around in adoration would also always know just how to get under my skin (along with that of my most beloved plaything).
Fast-forward to today. As a parent and adult, I have picked up a new bit of knowledge: While siblings can drive each other crazy when they are growing up, they drive their parents just as crazy with their chronic squabbling—especially parents who want the children they love so much to grow up loving one another.
I muse about this while my three children, ages 9, 6 and 3, bicker on a daily basis about who owns the paper scraps that litter the craft table, who is annoying whom by making faces during breakfast and who refuses to share a coveted group item. How much is too much? What sibling conflict is natural and what is over the top, destined to split brother and sister apart long after they leave home?
Conflict today, pay off tomorrow According to Laurie Kramer, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who studies sibling relationships, there is a line that separates the usual from the ugly and there are steps parents can take to assure more peace and less mayhem in day-to-day sibling interaction. But first, she says, parents need to realize that they will not be able to eliminate friction between their children—and they shouldn’t want to.
“It is futile for parents to expect to completely eliminate that conflict,” says Kramer. “There is going to be some, and in the end, it may not be so terrible.”
In fact, some bickering may actually be beneficial. Kramer says her studies show that working through sibling conflicts can help children learn how to deal positively with situations they encounter outside of the family.
“Because siblings cannot leave or abandon one another, children are at liberty to get into more intense conflicts with each other than they would with a friend,” Kramer says. “As a result, if all goes well, they learn how to fight, how to resolve fights and how to manage negative emotions.”
This should not include physical aggression or more emotional kinds of abuse (see “Warning signs,” page 51), but rather the run-of-the-mill disagreements that turn parents’ hair gray. “While some squabbling is obnoxious, kids can learn from it the delicate skill of how to settle a fight,” says Kramer. “If you never learn that with siblings, or close peers, you are going to be in trouble when you run into a tough boss someday and don’t know how to deal with that conflict.”
Kathy Kulisek, North Aurora mother of six, agrees. She homeschools her four older children and says she often is asked whether her children get enough socialization.
“There is nothing more social than a family dynamic,” says Kulisek. “My kids are together much of the day, every day. They have to learn to get along with each other and work out differences because there is no choice—and that is not necessarily a bad thing.”
As a result, while the six do squabble over issues such as property and space, Kulisek says they are also a supportive family unit that likes to be together.
So if our children can learn from each other while they are fighting, what is a parent’s role? When the squabbling begins should we hide in the pantry and hope for the best? Some parenting experts advise just that, but Kramer disagrees.
“Parenting books. . . tell parents to stay out of their children’s arguments and let them work it out themselves,” she says. “The question I ask is: How are they supposed to learn how to work it out? Most children under the age of 9 can’t do this alone, and some even older than that can have difficulty. If they do nothing at all, parents are sending the message that [fighting] is OK.”
There’s help for parents Besides, Kramer says, parents need help. While they know what they should be doing, they don’t necessarily know how to do it. In a study she conducted, Kramer asked parents how they handle children’s arguments. Most said they thought it best to step in and help their children collaborate to solve conflicts. But when Kramer observed the families to see how they actually reacted to sibling conflict, most parents either ignored the arguments or charged into the situation ready to add a little more emotional fuel to the fire.
Kramer thinks she knows why. “Most adults themselves are not good at dealing with conflict in their own lives,” she says. “They react by shutting down, removing themselves and not talking it through. How can those same people be expected to teach their children life skills that they have not learned?”
Kramer teaches a three-step approach to self-control in a series of sibling classes held on the University of Illinois Champaign campus:
1. When an argument begins, siblings need to be taught to stop and focus their attention on the problem.
2. They need to think about their goal for the situation—do they want to continue to do what they’re doing, or is the conflict so trivial that they could simply walk away?
3. They should learn to talk rather than act out their frustration.
“It may seem complicated, but we find that even preschoolers can put some of this into practice, and adolescents are old enough to master it well,” says Kramer. “The process helps them think about the situation from their sibling’s point of view.”
In the classes, Kramer and her colleagues give children examples of how to execute the steps. Sometimes stopping to focus on the problem and thinking it through may mean counting to 10, taking deep breaths or exercising to blow off steam. The experts also suggest that kids use their talents, such as drawing a picture or telling a story, to brainstorm solutions to the problem. Through it all, the children are encouraged to imagine what their sibling might be feeling and why.
Kramer says that the program works because it gives parents clear-cut lessons to teach about managing conflict. “My advice is to try and guide your children through these steps when a disagreement starts,” she says. “It may not be reasonable to expect that you will have the opportunity to do this every day and every time that there is a fight, but the more you encourage them to think about each others’ needs and work through conflict, the more positive, warm and caring their relationships will be overall.”
Why they fight Even with the right scripts, experts say sibling rivalry—the primal scramble to be top dog, and secure parental attention and favor—is at the root of much sibling conflict. Experts say the spacing between siblings can affect how much or how little rivalry occurs—bigger age gaps generally reduce sibling competition—but nothing eliminates it altogether.
Batavia mother Kelly Carlson is several years older than her younger sister, so there was little sibling conflict in her life. “I really didn’t know that siblings fought until I had my own kids,” she says.
St. Charles-based psychologist David NieKamp says sibling spacing is just one factor in determining sibling conflict. The other, more important one, is family chaos brought on by overwhelmed parents who have lost control of their brood.
Some parents would argue that the sibling conflict causes the family chaos, not the other way around. NieKamp begs to differ. “I see it often in my practice. . . . The grades are fine, school is fine, but at-home behavior is chaotic and there is a lot of fighting and arguing among siblings,” he says. “That happens because at home there is no structure, limited structure or structure that is easily overwhelmed by day-to -day stresses. When structure goes, the bickering begins.”
To regain control, NieKamp recommends families establish what he calls a token economy. “We do work and get paid for it, so this is a way to introduce that kind of economy to our children, where Mom and Dad are the bank and control the economics,” he says. The idea is not to withhold allowance to punish poor behavior, but to find ways to reward good behavior.
“Personally you need to find out what the child values—some value items and others events or special privileges,” says NieKamp. “Once you know what that is, go and purchase poker chips in a variety of colors. Parents assign their own values to the chips, leaving one color as the ‘in the hole’ chip.”
In the beginning, NieKamp suggests parents explain to children that they can “earn” chips by demonstrating positive behavior, but lose double that if they aren’t cordial to one another or fail to follow family rules. “This takes parents out of the loop as far as yelling and coercing goes, and reestablishes them as the authority.”
At first, families might dole out one token for an hour of polite behavior. But, NieKamp says, kids catch on quickly and are soon ready to work together over the long haul for the inevitable reward. “I have had children as young as 3 improve their behavior significantly with this, and end up responding more to the number of tokens they earn than what they can ‘purchase’ with them.”
And when they lose all the tokens they have? Then is time for the ‘black hole’ chip that requires them to dig themselves out of the negative before they can earn chips again. But, NieKamp warns, even if things become this dire, it is important the child gives up the tokens rather than the parent taking them away. “You ask them to go and get it and hand it to you,” he says. “Reaching into what they have earned and taking it away from them can build up resentment.”
The Kuliseks play a different game with the same premise. On a game board that Kathy made up to encourage positive behavior and decrease conflict, each kid has the opportunity to jump forward spaces if they demonstrate kindness and cooperation, but fall back if the opposite occurs.
“When they get to certain spots they can pick a prize out of our prize jar,” she says. “You would be amazed at how well this works.
Eliezer Krumbein, a psychologist with practices in Highland Park and Chicago, says it is the honey-versus- the-lemon effect.
“Whether you use gold stars or a special chart, it focuses on the positive rather than the negative. When the reward system is a family activity that draws everyone together, it also makes it an opportunity for siblings to work together.”
Overall, NieKamp says, any efforts to establish parental authority and maintain consistent expectations for sibling behavior, will quell fighting. “Parents need to be in charge, not in control,” he says. “Be direct about asking for politeness and respectfulness among siblings of any age.”
Relationships As they age, your children will discover how lucky they are to have siblings. Explaining this to them now might not lessen arguing in the short term, but it will over the long haul. Research shows that people with siblings report higher life satisfaction and lower rates of depression in old age, and routinely provide emotional and psychological support to each other in adulthood. “I explained it to my teenage daughters this way,” says Batavia mother Robin Zell. “No one is going to be with them for as long as their sisters and brother will. Hopefully they will outlive me, and will already have years of memories with their siblings before they marry and have families of their own. Siblings are forever.”
And while some sibling conflict is natural and rivalry is expected, it generally subsides over the years.
Experts say that in middle-age siblings often reconnect and establish close ties after years of focusing on their own families, and may do so earlier if significant life events such as death, divorce, illness or relocation cause them to renew their contact. In time, past sibling conflicts may not seem as big a deal.
“There is one household that I have worked with that has three sisters with an eight-year span between them,” says Krumbein. “They used to conspire against each other, but now that they are in college and graduate school I have seen them reaching out to each other in so many different ways. They tell me that the competitiveness that they once had was just part of their immaturity back then.”
To lay the groundwork for future cooperation, experts suggest that families focus on team-building activities and projects that everyone can do together.
Not only are these opportunities to practice cooperation, but they can help weave together the memories that siblings will share in the years down the road. “Set up family traditions that anchor the week and encourage family stability, like going to church on Sunday morning or taking part in a Sabbath evening,” says Krumbein.
Whatever you do together may give your children another opportunity to fight. But it’s also another opportunity to see that family togetherness—and sibling unity—is not such a hard thing after all.
Heather Cunningham is a writer living in Batavia with her husband and their three children, Alec, 9, Isabel, 6, and Beau, 3.
While some sibling conflict is normal, experts agree violence between siblings should never be tolerated and signals the need for professional help from a trained family counselor or therapist. The disagreements have crossed a line if:
• They become physical. While children who cannot communicate with words may try to get their point across with fists, this should not happen when they are old enough to talk it out. Research shows that those who throw punches, shove or exhibit other physical aggression against their siblings in childhood, may be more likely to physical abuse their partners in adulthood.
• Words become weapons. If your child is verbally demeaning, insulting or degrading to siblings, take steps to stop the behavior immediately. Experts say parents should go with their gut: Any interchange that bothers you when you hear it should warn you something is not right.
• They impact the whole family. “Any sibling behavior that affects the whole tone of the family, that makes holidays or vacations uncomfortable, or that is driving children to want to escape the home on a regular basis, should be addressed,” says Jill Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and a family therapist in Evanston. “I would be concerned not just about the sibling being picked on, but everyone involved. It feels really bad to be a bully, too.”