Fighting Among Siblings

Q: Baruch Hashem, we have been blessed with a house with many-aged children, and sometimes, the “many opinions” of my children can be overwhelming. If your office was closer, I would come for a consultation — I think that you’d get a better picture — the way that my two youngest children fight is not to be believed. Basically, we have a number of married children living locally, and a few of them feel that I am not “hard enough” on my two youngest sons. My thirteen-year-old son (let’s call him Shlomo) is now in a more non-mainstream school, as he was showing signs of rebelliousness (he dresses differently than most of his siblings) during his sixth-grade year of school. His ten-year-old brother (let’s call him Avrumi) is continually getting on his older brother’s nerves by asking him to play with him, asking him to get him things for him and being critical of things that Shlomo does. Shlomo has tried to “reason” with Avrumi when he acts in this annoying way. I’ve seen him try to be civil towards his younger brother, but Avrumi continues to be persistently annoying. I have little leverage with Avrumi when he acts this way, as he just becomes stubborn, and threatens to not go to school if I put too many demands on him. And then his married siblings only agree with Avrumi, saying that we’re not the most competent parents. Shlomo then feels that nothing helps, that he has to take matters “in his own hands,” (since talking to him doesn’t do anything). Shlomo then gets very physical with Avrumi.

Avrumi refuses to see his part in the problem, and always wants to stay in the world of self-pity. He just gets stubbornly angry, and leaves the house, to visit a sibling. Avrumi himself is in a special school, due more to his academic issues, and lack of socialization with classmates. He is embarrassed that our house is not fancy enough, and is very self-conscious of how things appear.

My husband and I try to stop the fighting, but it can rekindle in five minutes. Each one blames the other, and wants to be “right!” Any suggestions ?

A: It is difficult for me to know the causes of your sons’ fighting; I can make a hypothesis of why each behaves as he does. Shlomo might feel that you and your husband are lacking in some way in your parenting abilities (as his older siblings have verbalized to you). He may blame you for his inability to fit into the system,” or not being an adequate role model. His hitting Avrumi may reflect his particular frustrations (which he lets out on his brother), and general challenges of being a teenager. If Avrumi is very self-conscious, he may well be embarrassed that he is attending a special school, and lacks the social tools to deal with peers teasing him about this. His brother’s dressing differently may greatly embarrass him. The possibility of his resentment towards his brother (and his general lot in life), are endless.

And yet the causes of their behavior are due to factors that cannot easily be changed.

The many causes of sibling fighting are often difficult to extricate and then modify, due to human character traits of jealousy, and not forgetting the past.

That being said, stress needs to instead be put on initiating appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with each of their responses. What is quite clear is that each of your sons feels justified in his behavior. The inability of each to compromise needs to be worked on, in a methodical, thought-out manner, when they are in a non-fighting mode. The mechanism of “peace-keeping” needs to be stressed, rather than who is right or wrong. In reality, all fights are cyclical — each getting back at what each perceives to be an “injustice” done to him.

You can discuss if Avrumi’s expectations of Shlomo are realistic and appropriate, as a starting point. What does he actually desire from his older brother? You can ask Shlomo how he would like to be asked, and spoken to. Possible options to improve communication can be suggested. Your sons can be rewarded weekly when attempts to improve their relationship are clearly visible. If one week proves to be unsuccessful, other methods can be attempted for the following week. If this task is too daunting for you, family therapy is an excellent avenue to explore, to improve this sibling conflict.

Hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!