A common reason for siblings fighting: One sibling is frequently mean to another.
By Michelle Icard
Is it normal for one sibling to adore the other in a way that is completely unreciprocated?
Based on the number of times I’ve been asked this recently, the answer is a resounding yes. Parents often come to me in crisis over one child who repeatedly rebukes the other’s attempts at affection and connection. This must be a normal part of growing up—and it is painful for all involved, especially the parents who feel helpless watching one child be hurt by the other (not to mention, what seems like endless rounds of siblings fighting).
This begs the question: Can you make a child like a sibling? It’s hard to imagine that scenario being successful. Forcing someone to feel affection goes against the natural order, and if you’re attempting to force a tween or teen, several things are working against you: the desire to assert an independent identity (Hey, I’m nothing like my sister!), impulsive instincts (I tend to react emotionally without thinking rationally first), and testing of boundaries (I can’t mouth off at school but my brother is a good place to practice).
This kind of sibling torment may be normal, and it may be hard to force genuine kindness, but that doesn’t mean you’re at a total loss.
Siblings Fighting: Ideas to Help
Here are some tactics that can make a big difference in fostering a happier home for siblings and parents:
1. Show empathy.
It can be hard when one sibling wants more than the other can give. Some kids are less affectionate than others. Some like more time alone. Realize that every child has different preferences and that’s okay. Show your children that you respect their choices by empathizing with their positions. Ask questions without judgment to gauge why your child dislikes showing affection to a sibling.
2. Communicate to your kids separately.
Don’t sit your kids down together to demand changes. No matter what you say, one or both of them will feel like you’re taking sides. Once they perceive that you’re emotionally involved, you become a pawn in any manipulation games they want to play on each other.
3. Talk to the offender when things are going well.
If you wait until the next big incident, you’ll be talking over your kid’s anger and resentment, both of which are great distractions from actually hearing what you have to say. Instead, pick a time when you’ve had a nice evening. Then, pulling one child aside, you might say something like, “I noticed the other day your sister looked hurt when you yelled at her. It looked to me like she was trying to show you her artwork and you snapped at her. This seems to be becoming a habit. I can’t allow people in our family to treat each other so disrespectfully, so if I see that again, there will be a consequence.”
P.S.: Make sure you speak respectfully to both kids so you can honestly stand by your line about how you communicate respectfully within your family.
4. Figure out and communicate ahead of time what the consequence will be.
You might ignore little things like heavy sighs or eye rolls, but not mean comments or physical taunts. Let your kid know that anti-social behavior toward a sibling will result in whatever punishment you think as appropriate. I like giving extra chores. Taking things away (time with friends, electronics, etc.) doesn’t help me in any way or teach my child new skills. You might say, “When you are mean to your sister, it hurts the family. The consequence is that you need to give back to the family. You can do this by doing a list of extra yard work, kitchen chores, etc. that I will provide.”
Remember that you can’t force kids to like each other or want to spend time together, but you can enforce basic levels of respect and thoughtful communication.
Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Learn more about her work with middle schoolers and their parents at MichelleintheMiddle.com.
MIDDLE SCHOOL MAKEOVER: Improving the Way You & Your Child Experience the Middle School Years
Download a copy of 2 FREE chapters of Middle School Makeover.
RELIEF IS HERE. Middle School Makeover is a guide for parents and educators to help the tweens in their lives navigate the socially fraught hallways, gyms, and cafeterias of middle school.
This book helps parents, teachers, and other adults in middle school settings to understand the social dilemmas and other issues that kids today face.