Defusing Fighting Between Siblings

In our previous column (June 3), we focused on the problem of a child having an overbearing nature and how to work with this type of child. The issue of siblings taking nekamah (revenge) on each other was touched upon in the question, and ways to approach this maladaptive response to conflict will now be discussed.

Most fighting among siblings is cyclical. To actually pinpoint who began any given argument is quite difficult to discern. Did it actually begin when Moishe stuck out his tongue this afternoon, or was it when Sarale told him the night before that his Lego project looked like it was made by a 5-year-old? These types of fights often have no definable beginning and are rather a continuation of animosity that certain children feel towards one another.

It is a talented parent who can work on building relationships between siblings so as to prevent or minimize such escalating conflicts. Another more complicated task is that of de-escalating the fight. (A similar concept is relevant in marital therapy, where a positive marital prognosis is reflected in a couple’s ability to quickly de-escalate a conflict. It is often said that it’s better to be happy than right.) This idea can be given over to children in conflict: “It’s not important who started the fight; what’s important is who’s going to stop it.”

The idea that revenge is sweet is clearly a mechanism of the yetzer hara. It is a form of immediate gratification, and any immediate gratification does bring with it a temporary satisfaction (ask anyone who partook of a Viennese table). A child (and adults, as well) delude themselves into thinking that justice is being meted out. An even more self-deceiving version of this is that of a person’s believing that he is doing what is only “right”; the nekamah becomes his mitzvah, as the injured party will “learn their lesson.” In reality, nekamah usually begins with feelings of self-pity, which is a gateway to negative attitudes and consequences.

Parents need to speak to the “warring” siblings, individually and collectively. At a time that is relatively quiet (not during the conflict!), the parent needs to speak to both siblings and attempt to problem-solve the actual issues between them. Whatever the issues may be, attempts to work out their differences and misperceptions are essential, as it becomes a building block for future situations where conflict resolution skills are needed.

Though certain attempts to change negative sibling communication patterns may appear unsuccessful initially, implementing the concept of trial and error, and learning from our mistakes, is a universal learning tool.

Children might complain, “But that didn’t work,” and return to negative communication patterns. However, a parent needs to be creative in seeking additional solutions, and to try them on a continual basis. If both parties are motivated to change, it makes the process that much easier.

Having a shared “reward” for improved sibling behavior is a strategy that is often successful. Whether it be the two siblings going out for Chinese food together or to an amusement park, the reminder that each gives to the other about their projected reward, in order to “shape up” and stop their fighting, is powerful. Mentioning the reward can override the present power struggle, as no one is presently being blamed for the fight, and only the shared positive outcome is being stressed.

Understandably, decreasing bitterness and anger among family members decreases the possibility of revenge occurring. Focusing on being dan l’chaf zechus decreases conflict. Seeing that the problematic behavior of a sibling is not necessarily a personal vendetta against them, but rather a general response that this sibling seems to express towards others, too, can take an edge off resentment.

Realizing that an “ignoring” sibling may just be a day-dreaming type is helpful. That the sibling might be going through a hard time herself — perhaps a best friend has been disloyal or she failed a major school exam — can help alleviate feelings of resentment. And reminding oneself of the sibling’s positive character traits helps put negative behavior in context.

B’hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!