This post will be shortish and sweet to make up for the tome that was my last post. Dealing with a lying teenager is complicated; dealing with squabbling siblings typically is not. This post is inspired by the comment of yet another devilish but adorable young client:
Sure, I do stuff to him, but he’s always looking at me. Jake, age 8
Jake and his 7-year-old brother were brought to therapy because of “incessant, crazy-making bickering.” Dad, who has two brothers, considered this “typical brother behavior.” Mom, an only child, was convinced something was seriously wrong with the family dynamics. Both were right. Fact: siblings bicker. Fact: family dynamics can reinforce bickering.
Nothing was wrong with this family. The boys were bright, independent kids who did well behaviorally and academically in school and were well-liked by peers and teachers. Jake and little brother Henry played beautifully together much of the time and enjoyed many shared interests: video games, outdoor play, and construction toys. The after-school sitter rarely saw the boys bicker.
Likewise, Mom and Dad were lovely, well-adjusted individuals who worked nicely together as a couple, enjoyed an active social life, and were successful in their careers.
Step One in working with this family was helping Mom and Dad understand the function of the sibling squabbles. Do you know what siblings are fighting for most of the time? Not the remote control. Not the action figure or Barbie doll. Not the one sky blue crayon. Not the bragging rights over who is fastest/strongest/coolest. Most of the time, siblings are fighting for their parents’ attention. After all, what works better to pull Mom’s attention away from her laptop or Dad’s attention away from the boiling pasta than a fight between the kids? This is especially true if the squabble is accompanied by cries of “MOM, HE’S HURTING ME!” or “DAD, SHE DESTROYED MY LEGO MASTERPIECE!” Think about it. How much more common is it for your children to bicker when your attention is on something other than them? How much less likely is it for kids to bicker when you are fully engaged with them?
Step Two was giving Mom and Dad an alternative way to respond that decreased the amount of attention the boys received for squabbling. I recommend a One Command-One Warning approach. The first time a parent feels he must intervene, he says “If you want to play together, find a way to get along.” That’s the command. The second time the parent intervenes, she says “This is the last time I am going to remind you to find a way to get along. If you can’t play nicely, then you can’t play together.” This is the warning. If there is a third time, then the intervention is to separate the children immediately for a specified period of time. This is not a Time Out. The children are free to play and have fun, but they must be in separate rooms of the house, ideally not interacting with a parent. For children as young as Jake and Henry, 8-10 minutes is usually enough to send a clear message. For older children, 15-20 should do it. A timer is set, and once the time is up, a parent issues a reminder such as “If you want to continue to play together, find a way to get along.” Each time thereafter, for the rest of the day, that a parent intervenes, the siblings are separated. It will take many trials of this approach for the children to understand the connection between squabbling and being separated and for them to believe that their parent(s) will consistently follow through. This approach won’t work if parents do not follow through.
Generally, the One Command-One Warning approach works because most siblings really do want to play together. In fact, children themselves are not typically bothered by the bickering. It’s what siblings do – they jockey for attention, they jockey for power, they jockey for bragging rights, they jockey for toys. However, Mom and Dad are entitled to some squabble-free time, and parents can use the withdrawal of attention to decrease the squabbling. Similarly, parents can use attention and praise to reinforce positive sibling behaviors such as sharing and working together. When kids are getting enough positive attention, they are far less likely to resort to negative attention-seeking behaviors such as bickering.
Sometimes parents are unsure whether to intervene. Here’s a good rule of thumb: intervene when one child is violating the rights of another such as in the case of verbal or physical aggression. Otherwise, parents should consider intervening less frequently since their very intervention means attention which is what the kids were fighting for in the first place.
If children are feeling really hungry for parental attention, this approach is less likely to be effective. In this case, Mom and/or Dad (or other parenting adult) may have to make some changes in order to be more available for daily kid-focused time. If the parents are super busy, it can help to get the kids involved in chores such as making dinner or raking leaves. Even very young kids can “help.”
Kids need attention from their parents, and they will do whatever it takes to get it. Negative attention is not as good as positive attention but it’s a heck of a lot better than no attention at all. Remember this very basic fact of parenting when dealing with sibling squabbles.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]