I have two boys 16 and 12. One is very introverted and the other is VERY extroverted and exuberant. They really push each other's buttons. The older one is very condescending and the younger one is really silly and obnoxious. They FIGHT ALL THE TIME and it is really getting to a crescendo in that my husband and I are starting to have a lot of conflict over this matter. What do you suggest? Thank you.
Just last week my (now grown) kids and I were looking through old photo albums. Brian and Erin couldn't believe how chummy the two of them looked as little kids. There was hardly a picture where they didn't have their arms around each other or their chubby little hands weren't tightly clasped. Their sweet little friendship couldn't have appeared more endearing.
"Wow! So there WERE times growing up when we could stand each other!" Erin remarked.
Brian chortled, obviously recalling the majority of their childhood memories characterized by the two arguing, torturing, and eventually, completely ignoring each other. From early adolescence on the way through high school, both knew EXACTLY how to push the other's buttons. It seemed to me like they relished the opportunity to do so - for years.
"Man, I was SO mean to you!" Brian said apologetically. Erin simply laughed.
Wired to bicker
I've enjoyed these pleasant interactions between my youngest kids for nearly a decade now. Brian and Erin, now in their thirties with kids of their own, are fiercely proud to call each other not just family, but closest of friends. Their epic arguments are a distant memory. For much of their young years I couldn't imagine that it would turn out this way.
Parents everywhere are raising kids who just can't seem to get along. These kids usually end up laughing about it as adults but this doesn't make it any easier on the parents. A certain amount of bickering, fighting, and arguments are just a normal part of growing up. Siblings seem wired to annoy one another, something that can escalate as they get older. I haven't met a parent yet who has found a way to eliminate all sibling rivalry and arguments from family life.
Sibling squabbles are training grounds for life
The good news is that you wouldn't want to live without any sibling conflict! Not only is it unrealistic, but as your kids negotiate getting along they are gaining skills they will use for the rest of their lives. Alison Pike, author of Siblings - Friends or Foes, argues that we shouldn't try to stifle all sibling conflicts. Research has shown that when siblings upset each other they are also learning how to regulate their emotions and respond to the emotions of others.
That's not to say the more your kids rail on each other the better, but you can find comfort knowing that at least they are gaining important social skills! Think of your house as a "safe training ground" for working through conflict, gaining skills that will serve them well outside the home. Do your best to stay out of minor conflicts. Letting your kids work things out on their own can be the best thing for them.
The art of intervening
This does not mean that you should let your kids have no holds barred fights or that you should tolerate constant bickering. You can and should play a role in helping your kids work through conflict productively. Step in if your kids can't seem to resolve a conflict on their own, the conflict is escalating, or there is constant conflict over the same issue. Your kids rely on you to help them practice good conflict resolution.
The moment you decide to intervene is often the same moment that you are at your wits' end. Take a couple of deep breaths and consider some of these tips before you intervene when siblings fight.
Why are your kids fighting?
Sometimes you spend so much time putting out fires that you forget to look at the bigger picture. Why are your kids fighting? Sometimes it is just because they are in the same room and anything will spark a fight. Often, kids fight just to get your attention. Show them that there are better ways to get attention than annoying their siblings. Be sure to give special attention to your kids when they are getting along!
If a specific issue comes up over and over again, this is a great opportunity to talk with your kids when everyone is calm to come up with a plan. How might they avoid this type of argument? What are the triggers? What words could they use? Your kids might not follow through in the heat of the moment, but this practice is critical. Remember, your house is training grounds for life!
Best of luck,
Dr. Dave Walsh