War & Peace: Sibling Conflict

War & Peace: Sibling Conflict

I want to say from the start that my boys are lovely. They are kind, friendly, helpful and charming much of the time. They adore each other. 3-year-old Thomas will put his arms around his big brother and say, “You’re my best friend Dake (Jake)” and Jake will return the affection with a tender hug. My heart swells when I watch them play together, happy in their own world for two.

But, next minute…there’s shouting – no, roaring. Jake has evicted Thomas from his bedroom and Thomas is banging on the door, crying that he wants to be let back in.

Or…Thomas has decided he wants the toy car that Jake has (even though his fists are already full with 3 others) and the snatching & squealing begins.

Or…Jake slowly winds Thomas up, taking advantage of his 3 years senior. He argues, manipulates and competes with Thomas, who just can’t keep up and ends up hitting Jake in frustration. And, of course, Jake comes running to report to me, very indignantly, that his brother hit him.

Or…(and this one takes the cake)…we’re in the car and Thomas starts wailing, “I don’t want Jake to look at me!”

Jake knows how to use his power over Thomas and Thomas can be just plain difficult sometimes.
Most of this squabbling occurs when I’m unable to resolve things – usually when I’m driving or I’ve been out of ear shot and don’t know how it all got started. And trying to get a straight story from either of them is pointless. Sometimes, I don’t even try.
Often, typically when I’ve just sat down for a 5-minute coffee, I hear them both declare, “I’m telling on you!” followed by two sets of feet racing to get to me first in order to lodge a complaint against the other. I already know the situation is going to be impossible to resolve before they get to me.

The bickering, fussing, shouting and tears challenge my sanity some days. I’m tired of having to stop what I’m doing to try and sort things out. I don’t have energy left for navigating these arguments. For all my efforts, I rarely feel that I’ve sorted a disagreement out properly and it all starts up again 5 minutes later anyway. It’s like trying to referee a sports game without knowing the rules. Some days, I end up bickering, fussing, shouting and nearly in tears myself.

If you have more than one child, you may be familiar with the scenario above. When I wrote it, 3 years ago, my boys had been fighting for pretty much the duration of the school holidays. I was exhausted and exasperated, desperate to find a way of putting an end to it all. I didn’t know how to shift the dynamic between them and I worried for their future together as brothers. 

I’m happy to report that, now, 3 years on, my boys’ relationship is a lot less inflammatory. They can play happily together for long stretches of time and, if a disagreement arises, they are usually able to sort it out themselves. I no longer dread the school holidays which, honestly, I once used to. Now, I can finish that coffee and maybe even catch up on a few emails without them bursting into the room, wanting me to take a side. There is (relative) peace in the house.

 

FROM WAR TO PEACE (relatively speaking)

After re-reading that desperate piece of writing recently, I wondered what I might have done that helped turn the situation around. How did we get from seemingly constant drama to comparative harmony? If I know how I contributed, I can make a point of continuing to do those things, adjusting them to suit as my boys get older. Here’s what I’ve come up with –

I Didn’t Punish Them – I’m not a carrot-and-stick kind of a parent so I didn’t resort to such strategies to nip the behaviour in the bud (although often tempted!). I recognised that, as stressful as it was, even my boys’ arguing played some part in deepening and defining their relationship. To some extent, it was a process that they needed to go through and it wasn’t for me to interfere or to punish them for what was, essentially, necessary work.

I Upskilled Them – what I could do, though, was help them to develop the skills for navigating their disagreements more effectively and respectfully. I did this largely by mediating their conversations (making sure that each had a chance to both listen and to be heard) and developing their problem solving skills (prompting them to consider solutions that would satisfy them both or, at least, reach a compromise).

I Reminded Them of our Values – respect and kindness are central values in our family. But so is honesty. I didn’t want to teach my boys to tolerate poor treatment from each other or to pretend everything was ok in the name of kindness. One of my signature lines is, “There’s a kind way to say everything” and, when they argued, I’d help them find the words to express themselves.

I Accepted Their Fighting – on speaking with other mums, I realised that the stage my boys were going through was actually very normal and that the scenes in our living room were being played out in many others across the suburbs. I reminded myself, too, that my boys were young and didn’t yet have the cognitive & emotional maturity to avoid flare-ups or solve disagreements, which gave me more understanding & compassion. Slowly, I was able to accept that a degree of fighting was inevitable. Dissolving my resistance took a lot of the heat out of the situation for me and removed the pressure to “fix” something that didn’t really need fixing.

 

I continue to do these things, they have become part of the way I naturally engage with my boys. You’ll see that there are no formulas or strategies here, but, instead, a shift within myself and a clarification of my own role in their fights. I wanted to share this with you to give you hope that it will get better if you’re in a place similar to where I was 3 years ago. Hang in there.

This, too, shall pass.