When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I daydreamed of the sweet relationship she’d have with her older sister. I fantasized about them playing contentedly on the floor, passing Legos or trains or baby doll clothes to one another, smiling angelically.
I imagined them taking turns wearing the extra sparkly princess crown or the red superhero cape. Maybe they’d collapse into fits of giggles when one of them did or said something silly, and neither of them would ever consider intentionally hurting the other to get what she wanted because she was angry or — gasp! — for no reason at all.
Like I said, it was a dream. The reality is that sibling fighting occurs — often daily. My three girls love each other fiercely, but they also compete, snipe, and swipe at each other. I know fighting is a natural part of any relationship, but it’s always been hard for me to witness or even be within earshot of my girls’ fighting, whether it’s a gentle disagreement or a more heated clash.
When my two oldest were toddlers and elementary-school age, I was often on the scene of a skirmish as it unfolded. My job then was to break up the fracas and teach my girls how to manage and express their emotions as well as how to listen to what the other one had to say.
I also acted as referee, explaining why unkind and hurtful behavior wasn’t a good choice, encouraging apologies, and meting out consequences like a time out or no bubbles at bath time. I was the ultimate arbiter of who started it, who was to blame, and whose turn it was to play with the coveted blue and white beeping, bopping electronic guitar. It was exhausting, from both a parenting and emotional standpoint.
Now that my two older girls are in middle school and high school, they know what I expect from them in terms of how they treat each other. I’m raising my girls to be outspoken, opinionated, and to stand their ground, but it’s just as important that they temper their strong wills with kindness and learn when it’s better to let an issue slide than fight over it. More and more, I’m letting them resolve their own conflicts with the help of our family’s “Ground Rules for Household Disagreements.” Here are five rules to tame sibling fighting:
1. Don’t come running to mama (or dad either).
This one is as much for my benefit as it is for theirs. Getting involved in my girls’ disputes is stressful, and now their disagreements are more nuanced than they were when they were little. Often they both have a hand in the reason for the fight and have retaliated tit-for-tat. It’s no longer my job to break it up — they need to manage these events on their own, even if the outcome isn’t what they wanted, or even fair. The fight might last longer, but they almost always figure it out and apologize or blow it off and move on.
2. No name-calling.
At 14 and 11 ½, my big girls have heard plenty of nasty epithets and their adjoining swear words. It’s tempting to hurl insults at each other when you’re pissed. The rule in our house is no name-calling or personal, cutting criticisms. Instead, we try to focus on the behavior or action. That said, I’m sure there’s ample under-the-breath mumbling that goes on. As long as no one hears it and is hurt by it, it didn’t happen.
3. Put yourself in a time-out.
If you’re losing your cool, it’s perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from the situation. The trick here is getting the other person to leave you alone for a few minutes so you can get your head on straight. We’re a family that can’t stand unresolved disputes, not even for a few minutes, so my girls are always working on this one.
4. Let’s NOT get physical.
You might not think it’s necessary to tell your tween and teen to keep their hands to themselves, but you’d be wrong. My girls don’t throw punches, but occasionally they do get in each other’s faces. They know I won’t tolerate any hitting, pinching, scratching, kicking or hair-pulling. Tickling, tumbling, and bum-rushing is okay, as long as it’s all in fun.
5. Pick your battles.
If you can, let it go. Simple as that. Not every slight, comment, or stolen T-shirt is worth fighting over.
It’s not always easy for my girls — or for me — to follow these rules all of the time. I still find myself refereeing every once in a while when I just can’t stand the ruckus of sibling fighting for a moment longer. Learning how to disagree fairly and resolve conflict takes practice.
Luckily, I think it’s sinking in. The other morning, I overheard my oldest explaining to her 5-year-old sister why it’s not nice to call someone a “stupid-head.” I’m not sure what the upshot was, but when I walked into the kitchen they were eating a contraband chocolate bar together — for breakfast.