Question: I love my daughters, but they seem to be engaged in a constant battle. My mother says I should intervene, but my husband thinks sibling rivalry is normal for children their age. Should I be worried about this?
Answer: Sibling rivalry is normal and extremely common, but that doesn't mean that it has to be tolerated. If carried to extremes, it can be potentially harmful, especially if the constant bickering is characterized by anger, bitterness and mutual disrespect. Intervention may be necessary, but it's unlikely that you'll achieve anything simply by talking to your children. What's needed in a case like this is decisive action.
Look for a good opportunity to hold a family conference – a quiet evening when there's been a lull in the fighting and everyone is in a good mood. You and your husband should sit down with the children and tell them that you're concerned about the disrespectful way they treat each other. Let them know that you've had enough of this kind of behavior and that you're determined to see some changes made. As part of this new program, make it clear that you're going to be implementing some new household rules. Explain that there will be consequences when they bicker or snipe at one another.
These consequences should be immediate, consistent and powerful. For example, if your children receive an allowance, tell them that you will be deducting one ringgit a week for every violation of the new "respect policy." You could also take away favorite toys, activities or privileges for a period of time. Be sure to choose activities or privileges that really matter to your girls – phone or computer access for a pre-teen or adolescent, biking or dolls or time with friends for a younger child.
Write out your new rules and consequences in the form of a contract. Have your children sign it and post it on the refrigerator. Since it's important to emphasize positive as well as negative consequences, you might want to include an "earn it back" clause, whereby the children can regain privileges by treating each other appropriately for a predetermined period of time. Once the plan is in place, stick to your guns and be diligent to implement the agreed-upon consequences consistently. When arguments arise, make a determined effort to avoid long discussions about "who started it." Model patience, kindness and respect in your own behavior toward your children and in your relationship with your husband.
As a footnote, it's worth bearing in mind that sibling rivalry can sometimes be a cry for attention. If that's the case, then your system of rules and consequences are unlikely to yield the desired results until you've taken steps to deal with the root cause of the fighting. Ask yourself if you and your husband are scheduling sufficient one-on-one time with each of your children. It's important to "date" your children at least once a week. This could involve something as simple as a trip to the store, going out for hot milo and a roti canai on a Saturday morning, or a walk around the neighborhood in the evening. As you begin to spend more individual time with your girls, you may begin to see significant changes in the way they relate to one another.
If none of these approaches work, it might be advisable to seek the help and guidance of a qualified family counselor.
This article was published with permission from Focus on the Family Malaysia.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources at family.org.my.
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