By Ololade Hector-Majekodunmi
While in my third year in secondary school 29 years ago, I was walking home with my best friend Lara, when we met her cousin Tise who stopped to say hello. As we chatted, Tise’s elder sister, Sade passed by, said hello to my friend and I, ignored her sister, who also didn’t bother to look her way, and walked on. After Tise left us, I asked my Lara, “Why don’t these sisters ever talk to each other? I have never seen them smile at each other, not to talk of talking.” Lara sighed and her response shocked me to my bone marrow.” It’s so bad that even though they share the same bedroom, they relate like strangers. In fact, they partitioned the room into two with a fabric and ignore each other. Not sure who offended who, but I know they can’t stand each other.” Then I asked, “what is their mum doing about it?” Lara shrugged and replied, “Seems she doesn’t know what to do. She keeps complaining but they only get worse.”
For most parents, fostering close relationships between our kids is one of our greatest concerns. We want our children to get along well and show love to one another! We definitely should be concerned when their disagreements fester. As much as disagreements are inevitable, they must not be too constant and we must prevent strife and malice at all cost like in Tise and Sade’s extreme case; their parents obviously handled their issue carelessly till it got out of hand.
1. Have Good Structure and Rules in Your Home
If your children know your values and the way you are all to conduct yourselves in the home, adults included, there will be less ‘refereeing’ for you to do. Make fewer, more important rules than a long list of dos and don’ts. For instance, it’s very normal for children, from a toddler to a teenager, to hit each other sometimes. If you have a ‘no hitting’ rule in your home, then you must enforce it. This will restrain them from physical combats.
2. During your weekly family chat, teach about offense and conflict resolution
Don’t wait until there are issues before you teach them. Simply tell them, “Offence will come, but all you need to do is to tell the other party how you feel. If you get an apology, forgive and let it go. If the offending party refuses to apologise, then report to your parents, teacher or guardian as appropriate depending on location. Emphasize also that they must never hit anyone for any reason. I told my preteens, only savages fight physically while civilized people talk and iron out their differences verbally. I don’t think there has been a physical fight in my home for years now. Also, we don’t use any foul/negative language in my home; it’s a rule. So, even when they have grievances, you may hear angry loud voices; but there must be no name calling. In addition, they’ve been taught not to hate people generally but to address issues. For instance they would say, “I don’t like what Bose did” instead of “I don’t like Bose.” These conflict resolution strategies are valuable life skills for all personality types. Don’t ignore them!
3. During your weekly family chat include an ‘encouragement feast’
This is an idea from Redirecting Children’s Behaviour course which works. It helps children remember the good in others and not focus on their negatives. The family sits in a circle with one person in the middle. Each family member says one positive thing about the person in the middle. For example, “One of the things I love and appreciate about you Seyi is your great sense of humour.” After everyone has encouraged him, he then says one thing he loves about the others. Afterwards, another family member takes his place in the middle. The exercise continues until everyone has an opportunity to be in the middle and be encouraged. Children love this exercise and it teaches them to receive encouragement as well as give it.
4. To avoid breeding hostility, treat all your children equally
Never compare them to one another and ensure you don’t show favouritism towards any child. Many parents are guilty of this and it’s a sure-fire way to spark or fuel sibling rivalry. Also, it’s easy to allow the hot-headed one to have his way when wrong. We must guard against this else the calmer child will feel cheated and may begin to resent the other child. Please note that the hot-headed child needs our help to conduct himself in a socially acceptable manner. Constant criticism, endless punishment or generally being harsh does not help.
5. Encourage positive behaviour when you notice it
When you see acts of kindness, comment and appreciate them. Reward exemplary behaviour from time to time.
6. What we model to them when we have issues with our spouses is equally important
If our home is a constant parental war zone, we can’t expect a different story with our children. Also, how do we model conflict resolution to our children? Spousal argument can be an opportunity to show your children how to communicate. When you argue, apologise and make-up in your children’s presence, you are putting your constructive rather than destructive skills on display. Your older children particularly will learn to do same overtime.
7. Mediate when one child reports another
The ‘just stop it’ approach teaches kids nothing rather, it makes the issue fester particularly with teenagers. Mediate without taking sides, hear both parties out, allowing them to pinpoint their grievances and making them apologise to each other with a hug and an ‘I’m sorry.’
8. Surround them with idioms, proverbs and wise sayings on unity and peace in a subtle non-hounding way
You can write it on a piece of paper weekly and paste it on the fridge where everyone will see it. For example, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” “There is power in unity.”
Time magazine ran an article titled, The New Science of Siblings on 10th July, 2006. In the article, a study stated that the two most powerful variables affecting children’s conflict resolution skills were parenting styles and the child’s temperament. We cannot change our child’s temperament, but we can teach our children ways to deal with their temperament challenges. As parents, we do have control on how we handle our children’s conflicts, as well as how we model effective ways to deal with conflict in our own lives.
If sibling rivalry somehow gets out of hand and degenerates like in Tise and Sade’s case, we should get a professional like a psychologist or counsellor involved to support our efforts. We cannot afford to be powerless with issues concerning the development of our children.