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Sibling rivalry

india Updated: Dec 12, 2006 13:29 IST

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“Papa, he has taken my color pens again!” Screams my daughter Avani. “Papa, she won’t stop annoying me!” Shouts Anaadi, my son.

“Me first! Me first! Me first!”, and I can’t make out who is shouting louder. Sound familiar? If you, like me, have more than one child, the answer is probably “yes”, because these are the common sounds of squabbling sibling. In reality it’s very common for brothers and sisters to fight. This is more common when they are kids. However, if healthy squabbles go unchecked it may set the foundation for a difficult relationship for siblings when they become adults.

WHY DO KIDS FIGHT?
n SPECIFIC NEEDS - Toddlers are naturally protective of their toys and belongings, and are learning to assert their will. So if a baby brother or sister picks up the toddler’s toy, the older child may react aggressively. School-age kids often have a strong concept of fairness and equality, so they might not understand why siblings of other ages are treated differently or feel like one child gets preferential treatment. Teenagers, on the other hand, are developing a sense of individuality and independence, and might resent helping with household responsibilities, taking care of younger siblings, or even having to spend time together.

1 INDIVIDUAL TEMPRAMENT - Your kids’ individual temperaments — including mood, disposition, and adaptability — and their unique personalities play a large role in how well they get along.

2  THE ROLE OF PARENTS - The way parents resolve problems and disagreements sets a strong example for kids. So if you and your spouse work through conflicts in a way that’s respectful, productive, and not aggressive, you increase the chances that your children will adopt those tactics when they run into problems with one another. If your kids see you routinely shout, slam doors, and loudly argue when you have problems, they’re likely to pick up those habits themselves.

WHAT TO DO WHEN A FIGHT STARTS
While it may be common for brothers and sisters to fight, it’s certainly not pleasant for anyone in the house. And a family can only tolerate a certain amount of conflict. So what should you do when the fighting starts?

1. Whenever possible, don’t get involved. Step in only if there’s a danger of physical harm. If you always intervene, you risk creating other problems. The kids may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue rather than learning to work out the problems on their own.

2. If you’re concerned by the language used or name-calling, it’s appropriate to “coach” kids through what they’re feeling by using appropriate words. This is different from intervening or stepping in and separating the kids.

3. Separate kids until they’re calm. Sometimes it’s best just to give them space for a little while and not immediately rehash the conflict. Otherwise, the fight can escalate again. If you want to make this a learning experience, wait until the emotions have died down.

4. Don’t put too much focus on figuring out which child is to blame. It takes two to fight — anyone who is involved is partly responsible.

5. Try to set up a “win-win” situation so that each child gains something. When they both want the same toy, perhaps there’s a game they could play together instead.

6. Set ground rules for acceptable behavior. Tell the kids that there’s no cursing, no name-calling, no yelling, no door-slamming. Solicit their input on the rules — as well as the consequences when they break them. This teaches kids that they’re responsible for their own actions, regardless of the situation or how provoked they felt, and discourages any attempts to negotiate regarding who was “right” or “wrong.”

7. Don’t let kids make you think that everything always has to be “fair” and “equal” — sometimes one kid needs more than the other.

8. Make sure kids have their own space and time to do their own thing — to play with toys by themselves, to play with friends without a sibling tagging along, or to enjoy activities without having to share 50-50.

9. Have fun together as a family. Whether you’re watching a movie, playing a game, or doing household work, you’re establishing a peaceful way for your kids to spend time together and relate to each other. This can help ease tensions between them and also keeps you involved. Since parental attention is something many kids fight over, fun family activities can help reduce conflict.

10. If your children frequently squabble over the same things (such as video games or dibs on the TV remote), post a schedule showing which child “owns” that item at what times during the week. (But if they keep fighting about it, take the “prize” away altogether.)

Keep in mind that sometimes kids fight to get a parent’s attention. In that case, consider taking a time-out of your own. When you leave, the incentive for fighting is gone. Also, when your own fuse is getting short, consider handing the reins over to the other parent, whose patience may be greater at that moment.

(The author is a psychologist and a professor of psychology at BSSS. He can be contacted at drvinaymishra@rediffmail.com)

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