Overcoming Sibling Rivalry in Action

I have two boys. They are currently 5 and 6 and a half. Thomas is 5, and Ryan is halfway to 7. For so many years, they have been best friends. I could rely upon them to disappear together into the depths of the house and play together. They might get into trouble, but usually their play and goals were aligned.

In the last six months or so, this has changed drastically. I don’t know whether to blame their development, or the outside influences of being in preschool/kindergarten. There is a lot of conflict now, and I desperately miss the peaceful days of independent play.

How this often plays out is Thomas terrorizes Ryan. (Younger boy starts it). Thomas calls Ryan names and Ryan gets upset and starts screaming and crying at him to stop. Horrible names, like “Poo-poo head” or “baby-head” or other silliness that I wouldn’t have thought would affect Ryan so much. But you would think that Ryan had been punched in the face when it happens.

In the past, the boys have gotten into physical altercations as well. I really struggled to manage their physical fights, especially when the fighting started to occur in the car while we were on the freeway.

Several years ago, a set of parents I knew told me that they had given up refereeing their sons’ physical fights. If the boys chose to physically fight (kick, slap, punch, etc), they made the decision to let them boys have at it, so that they could learn why it was important to NOT get into fights. (While children are small, it is pretty hard to do any real damage).

I never intended to employ this strategy. It sort of just happened. The boys got into a physical fight while we were going 60 miles an hour in heavy traffic. I had to focus on the road, I couldn’t even really do anything with my voice to distract them. If anything, my voice just made the melee worse. I kept an eye on them but focused on the road. By the time I was able to find a safe place to pull over, the fight was over and both kids were sobbing.

For the first time, the boys had been able to see a fight all the way through to the end. I realized that this had probably never happened before. We adults are always stepping in to govern how children interact together, desperately trying to teach them how to act the right way.

But in allowing my boys to have a fight and fight it to the end, the boys actually discovered that it really sucked to get punched in the face. They learned that it wasn’t a good idea to taunt someone else until a fight started. My boys learned that their mom couldn’t always step in and tell them what to do and how to do.

And you know what happened? The physical fighting completely stopped. Don’t get me wrong, the kids still poke at each other and do little things, but the big fights no longer occur.

With this experience in mind, I took the same tactic with the squabbling today. I have been trying to help them navigate their battles for months. Instead of helping them, today I just put them on separate couches, and asked them to “work it out.”

When they got off the couches, I put them back calmly. I told them they could get up when their fight had resolved.

Then they started arguing, from the safety of their own space of course. There was more name calling, and a lot more yelling. There was no physical issues, as the boys had clearly learned their lessons. Both boys cried at different times.

Thomas called Ryan names, and Ryan cried. But Ryan realized that Thomas was just trying to get a rise out of him, and when Thomas tried to call him silly names again, Ryan just said, “Sorry, can’t hear you” over and over. Definitely juvenile, but it was progress. Rather than just melting into tears of frustration and anger, he began to find a coping strategy that worked for him.

Once Thomas realized that Ryan wasn’t going to just sit there and take the silly insults and cry about it, Thomas got frustrated and began to cry.

This went on for a long time. But eventually, the boys established a rough set of limits for how they could interact with each other, and together they announced that they were ready to be released from the couch.

And I kid you not, they played almost the rest of the day happily, and independently, without the blow ups and squabbling.

Did they both just have a ton of pent up emotion to release? Was it the tears, or was it the time spent testing and finding the limits?

I don’t know for sure, but I am 100% confident that if I had not given them the chance to have their fight (verbally), that the squabbling would have continued the rest of the day.

What I see more and more in my own parenting, and in my interactions with other parents and children of all ages, is heavily supervised children. Parents direct everything. How the child plays. Where she plays. Who she plays with and how she plays with them. Kids these days have very little autonomy. Parents are doing their best, I think. But what if a parent’s best isn’t good for the child? What if having the best of everything, along with a parent who is 100% available at all times to parent and guide the child isn’t actually that good for them?

If the parent guides everything, when will the child have the chance to learn how to do anything on his own? When will he fail? How will he learn to fight for himself? What opportunities will he have to face adversity, and then overcome it? All of these experiences are critical to building confidence and independence.

More and more, parents, I think we need to stop comparing ourselves to other parents, to stop worrying about what other people think about the way we parent our kids, and let the kids be kids.

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