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SIBLING DISPUTES: Tieing the score in the "Love and Attention" Game

Parents who have more than one child swing on a pendulum of feelings. Seeing siblings relate well to one another, spontaneously help each other, or share in a loving fashion brings exceptional joy to any parents' heart. On the other hand, when chaos erupts, and one sibling shouts "Mom, he's breathing my air!" followed by a screaming match, even the most warm hearted parent may pause to wonder why they thought having even one child would be a good idea in the first place.

Yet conflict between siblings can be reduced fairly easily, as long as parents keep in mind a few simple guidelines and exhibit self-restraint.

Sibling conflict is primarily about parental attention. Beginning when a new sibling enters the household and continuing throughout the sibling relationship, your children are trying to determine, based upon your responses and actions, whom you love the best. They take many factors into account to figure this out, from the familiar "How come you bought him a packet of pencils and not me," to the more subtle interactions in which parents engage when siblings are conflicting. In truth, it's the more subtle communication that resonates the deepest for our children. Take into consideration the following dialogue:

Johnny and Susan are yelling at one another. Mom enters, and sees Johnny grabbing a notebook out of Susan's hand. Mom says "Johnny! Let go of that notebook ... give it back to Susan right now!" "It's my notebook," yells Johnny, "I don't want her touching it." "I don't care whose notebook it is, this fighting has to stop," replies Mother, "now put the notebook down immediately." Susan lets go of the notebook, and Johnny flings it to the floor, furious. Still trying to make his case he says "It's mine, Mom, and she shouldn't have had it in the first place." Mom, weary of the chaos, remarks "Well Susan, then don't take his notebook. But Johnny, you know better than to grab. Now I don't want to hear another peep from either of you."

In this typical scenario, as in all sibling conflict, once Mother or Father enters the room, Johnny and Susan become far less interested in the conflict itself, and more interested in whose side Mom or Dad is going to take. Their radar for love and attention is turned on. With this in mind, put yourself in the children's shoes for a moment. What would you think about Mom's love? Who does Mom seem to favor here? As you consider these questions, put aside the facts -- that Johnny shouldn't grab and to whom the notebook belongs. When Mom came in, she reacted based on those facts, but in doing so she appeared (at least to Johnny and Susan) to favor Susan. Even her admonition to Susan at the end not to take the notebook was mild compared to the fact that she initially singled out Johnny. At the end of this conflict, the love and attention score is "Susan - One / Johnny - Zero." Next time Johnny will make sure that he gets even with Susan, not necessarily by getting Mom's love and attention, but through retaliation of some kind that will anger or hurt Susan in some way. Thus, the cycle of sibling disputes is perpetuated.

So, knowing that the scoreboard is constantly on, how can parents prevent the inadvertent continuation of the cycle?

The first step lies in knowing when to intervene and when to stay out of a conflict all together. Clearly, if you witness one of your children engaging in an unprovoked attack on your other child, intervention and ultimately discipline is called for. But most sibling disputes begin out of earshot and few are unprovoked. In the cases where you weren't an eyewitness, try this:

1) State the obvious and only the obvious: "Seems like you two are having a problem." This establishes neutrality in that there is no blame assigned to either party. Your children's "love and attention radar" will remain off.

2) Acknowledge the feelings of both children: "Johnny, seems like you're pretty angry at Susan. Susan, looks like you're feeling possessive about that notebook." When you acknowledge both party's feelings empathy becomes the focus. Ultimately, in order for your children to behave kindly with one another they must be able to empathize with each other. Think of how differently the scenario would have turned out had Susan truly empathized with Johnny's need for privacy. The dispute would never have arisen in the first place. But in order for your children to empathize with each other, they must first become aware of their own feelings. When you acknowledge feelings, you essentially role model for your children what you'd like for them to eventually do for themselves.

3) Ask if they can think of a solution to the dispute. Children are actually remarkable problem solvers, but soon learn to depend upon the solutions of the adults who always seems so ready to jump in. Asking them if they have a solution may result in an answer of "no!" but it establishes your confidence in their problem solving abilities as well as sending the underlying message that they're responsible for the solution, not you.

4) Be patient. Sometimes you have to stick with this process for a while before things become calmer. Rest assured that this investment is worth it in the long run because once children realize that you're not going to "fix it" or play "judge and jury" or show more love or attention to one of them, they'll begin to solve their own problems in a calmer, more rational way.

5) Ask questions: "Have you thought of trying it this way?", "What would happen if you ...", "Did you try ...?" Open ended questions often spark resolution, yet still maintain equality

6) Do not hesitate to walk away. Often children won't immediately come up with a "solution". When you feel confident in saying "I'm sure you'll think of something" and walking away instead of remaining engaged, it sends a clear message to your children that no matter how hard they try to persuade you to show favoritism, you will continue to love them both equally.