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The Informed Parent

Stop The Squabbling

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Mar. 05, 2001

I once had a friend who thought that if she spaced her children so that one was four years older than the other, her youngsters would avoid the squabbling that siblings get into. On the other hand, I thought having children very close in age created the ideal family environment. Both of us had two daughters. Mine were 17 months apart in age, and hers were four years apart. While both of us were pleased with the plan we’d chosen, neither of us avoided sibling conflict in our families.

Sibling squabbles are inevitable. In the most loving of families, they occur. In some families, however, the disharmony is relatively short-lived and is not constant. In other families, the children seem to argue and quarrel constantly. How you, as a parent, handle sibling squabbles makes a difference in the amount and degree of these altercations.

This month we will look at three effective parenting skills that will reduce the number of sibling squabbles in your family.

Why Children Quarrel

Believe it or not, most squabbling is for your benefit. Crafty children learn very early in life that parents are slow learners when it comes to handling sibling conflicts. They know that they can gain your attention when they quarrel. At the least, they know that their squabbling annoys you.

Younger children bait older siblings knowing that they are likely to get a rise out of them. They also know that their parent can be won to their side since many parents believe that the younger is the more helpless. Older children taunt or annoy younger siblings because it makes them feel powerful or because they want revenge on the parent whom they believe favors the younger child.

You may model quarreling as a way of handling problems. If you argue and fight with your spouse, friends, or children, children grow up believing that there is not a more effective way of solving differences.

What Am I To Do?

Many years ago I became familiar with the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikers. Both of these great men believed that children could learn to become responsible for their own behavior. Their concepts for raising and teaching children influenced how I taught in classrooms, counseled families, and conducted parenting workshops. Most importantly, they influenced how I raised my own daughters. What I share with you in my monthly articles is, for the most part, based on the philosophies of these two men. I share with you what I have experienced and found to be successful.

While having children close in age was a joyful experience for me there was a period when the girls became very competitive with each other. During that time, their squabbles were intense and frequent. The dynamics in our family changed dramatically when I learned to ignore the conflicts, give equal consequences when necessary, and reward cooperative behavior.

Ignoring The Conflicts

Ignoring inappropriate behavior is a powerful way to extinguish the unwanted behavior. When parents are able to discipline themselves to stay out of sibling conflicts, squabbles occur less often and with less intensity. This is not easy to do. When you hear quarreling, mean verbal exchanges, and crying, you probably want to jump right in and stop the confrontation by reprimanding the perceived culprit and consoling the victim. When an altercation doesn’t occur in your presence, it is impossible to know what preceded the squabble. You can’t always be sure when it happens right in front of you.

Becoming involved in your children’s squabbles reinforces the behavior. You are giving attention to what you don’t want. Attention increases behavior.

When you decide that you can most effectively parent by staying out of children’s squabbles, sit with the children and say, “I know that when you quarrel I cannot solve your problems for you. I have decided to let you solve them yourselves. I will be glad to teach you some problem-solving tools. I will not jump into your squabbles any more."”

In the beginning the children will escalate their quarrels, not believing that you can stay away. If you can, and you must, after an initial increase in number and intensity, the squabbles will diminish significantly.

Sometimes when you begin staying out of squabbles the amount of tattling increases in an attempt to get you involved. When one of your children tattles, say, “I hear what you’re saying. I know that you can solve your own problem.” Usually this is sufficient and the child leaves, the squabble forgotten. Sometimes a child will say that she doesn’t know what to do. When this occurs you might offer a suggestion; then drop the issue.

Giving Equal Consequences

If you simply cannot stay out of the squabbles or if the children are physically hurting each other, using equal consequences works well. This means that when the quarreling or injury begins, each child receives a time out. The child who feels like the victim will hate this and tell you that you are unfair. The perpetrator may gloat. Ignore both of these behaviors. Simply have the children go to their own time out space for a determined amount of time.

When children know that no one is a winner at the squabbling game, the squabbles diminish because they aren’t much fun. No one gets your attention, and you do not solve problems or rescue anyone. Besides, most children don’t like time out and find it even less appealing if they feel they don’t deserve it. Often the child who sees herself as the victim simply stops taking the bait of the perpetrator when she know she’ll get time out simply for becoming a participant.

Rewarding Positive Behavior

When my younger daughter was six and my older seven, the squabbles in our family had become much too frequent. While we modeled cooperation in our home, the closeness in the girls’ ages set the scene for competition and quarreling.

I felt concerned enough about the problem that I cut back on my work hours and committed to finding a way for promoting greater cooperation. We held a family meeting to discuss the problem. We decided to make a cooperation chart and hang it on the refrigerator. Initially the plan was to put a star on the chart for each hour that the girls played with each other cooperatively. As they became successful, longer periods of cooperation were required for earning a star. We set up intermediate rewards with a final reward of going to Disneyland when the girls reached a predetermined number of stars on their chart.

At the end of each hour we gathered by the chart to place the star. In the beginning the chart was novel, the girls cooperated with each other, and they earned many stars. When the novelty wore off they had some backsliding. By consistently sticking to our plan, cooperation became the norm.

Before the end of the summer we took an exciting outing to Disneyland. More importantly, the squabbling, which had become a habit with the girls, diminished to nearly nothing. They had reached a turning point in their relationship.

You may be thinking that you couldn’t possibly change your life in such a way that you could do this intensive a program with your children. The purpose of a cooperation chart is to give children a concrete way of seeing their progress. When they see that they can cooperate and that you recognize their success, they are more motivated to practice this new way of interacting. You may want to choose a small block of time each day to concentrate intensely on cooperation. The positive behavior developed during that time will generalize into the rest of the day.

Teaching The Skills

The family meeting is a fine time to teach cooperative skills. Model cooperation yourself. Acknowledge cooperation in other family members. Spend a little time teaching the skill. Practice through role-playing. For example, you might say, “Let’s pretend that two children want to play with the same toy. Alisha, you be the older child, and Romie, you be the younger. How might you handle the problem?” If the children get stuck, assist them with the skill. If an idea is unworkable, guide them toward a workable response. Alisha might say to Romie, “I’ll play with the toy today, and you can play with it tomorrow.” If Romie agrees, fine. She may need to be guided, however, into saying, :”Tomorrow is a long time away. What if you play with it for 10 minutes and then I’ll play with it for 10 minutes.”

Squabbling is a habit. When children begin to negotiate solutions, the focus of a squabble is usually forgotten. Rarely what appears to be the focus is really the issue; attention, power and control, and possible revenge is. Once children work through a plan together, they may no longer be interested in what appeared to start the conflict.

A Positive Atmosphere

Squabbling behavior in children does not change overnight. With patient and consistent parenting, with follow-through in your use of effective parenting skills, and with acknowledgment for increments toward positive behavior, the family atmosphere moves from one of conflict to cooperation.

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