Calming the Combat Zone

Q: As I look back upon Yom Tov, I feel like I spent far too much time refereeing fights among my children. This began before Yom Tov, when it came to assigning jobs. My 14-year-old son complained that he always gets the same job that he hates and that his brother never completes the job that is given to him. The younger son defended himself, and they soon got into a screaming match.

My husband and I spend too much time mediating arguments. More importantly, the fact that everything becomes an argument lately is getting out of hand.

I have friends who say that I should allow my children to work these arguments out by themselves, but I have a seven-year-old daughter who would never get her fair share of anything if I were to let this happen. Her older siblings convinced her to agree to Chol Hamoed trips that didn’t really interest her at all. One of her older siblings was trying to convince her of the importance of compromising — though the older ones themselves somehow manage to barely compromise in our house at all!

Having a strong will can be looked at as a positive thing, but our home feels like a combat zone lately. I don’t want this bickering to affect their relationships when they get older. I often hear friends complain about their siblings and about fighting that began at an early age. It seems they never learned how to resolve these issues. I understand that some siblings are more competitive and driven, but I don’t know what is within normal limits. What role should a parent play in dealing with sibling fighting, and what is the best way to do this ?

A: There is no one answer to sibling conflict. The sources of such conflicts are many; sibling rivalry, indeed, dates back all the way to Kayin and Hevel. The struggle of comparing yourself to your siblings is a challenge that many of us deal with — and unfortunately this often continues into adulthood. (The proof is reflected in the choices parents make when deciding which set of siblings should be invited together for Yom Tov!) So, indeed, sibling conflicts can continue into the future.

As you accurately state, letting siblings work it out themselves often leads to certain children continually giving in to pressure from others.

Teaching mediation skills to children as a preventative measure is a helpful way of dealing with this issue. When teaching mediation skills, a parent needs to stress the idea that siblings are part of a family unit, with common goals. Issues need to be “detoxified” by mitigating the oppositional feelings that come with sibling arguments.

The parent needs to explain the idea that the “opposing” sides need to be heard and understood when two people want to express their opinions. The initial attempt to deal with the conflict works with the idea of being verbally non-confrontative.

When dealing with conflicts in marriage therapy, therapists use words such as “I’m confused; can you help me understand?” Or, “I’m curious; can you help me better understand this?” When dealing with marital conflict, the goal is to not seem judgmental or condescending.

After hearing one side, a parent can summarize this opinion and attempt to neutralize the idea by taking out the intense drama behind it. Possible solutions can then be presented by both sides. If this is not forthcoming (due to their anger or lack of ability), a parent can then suggest solutions.

Clearly, this is a preventative measure, to be discussed in a neutral time period. In this time period, possible triggers that cause continual arguments can be discussed.

Alternative responses elicit changes in outcomes. Learned negative patterns can become learned positive patterns if there is thought and joint participation among siblings.

With marital therapy, we see how changing our responses to our spouses’ continual “annoying behavior patterns” can cause a major shift in our relationship. The element of change — simple as this may sound — has proven to be of tremendous benefit to all relationships.

Clearly, this is not an answer of how to respond to actual altercations as they occur. Each case differs. My answer is in response to your question of what the optimal way to help our children work in resolving conflicts with siblings is. Prevention is always the most helpful way to deal with issues, because at that point, our intellect can still have some control over our emotions.