Many sibling relationships are fraught with conflict and most of us have probably had direct experience in our own lives. Watching our children’s battles can be upsetting and the urge to step in and possibly becoming embroiled can sometimes be hard to resist.
Unsurprisingly, it can be more of an issue with children who are closer in age as they are often competing for the same things. I am the mother of 5 year old boy and girl twins, who got along fairly well until the toddlerhood years. Since then, they have a relationship which can, at times, rival all rivalries. They argue over: who sits behind me in the car whether I’m driving or not, who has bath-time first, story-time first, who sits beside me in the cinema, at the dinner table. It’s exhausting and I fight the urge to run away and hide in the bathroom!
Every day we have ‘whoever is last is a rotten egg and whoever comes first is the freshest egg!’ If one is unwell and kept home from school the other will feign illness and upon the realisation that their attempt was unsuccessful, will protest that life is indeed very unfair. If they return from school to find the sick one has had a treat in their absence they will protest that they too deserve a treat. When one hops into my bed for early morning cuddles, the other quickly follows, but of course I do love the early morning snuggles.
A while ago we had ongoing arguments over pink, Eva believing that she had a born right to everything pink, which naturally irked Dylan and so much so, he went to school the next day and stockpiled all the pink crayons for himself, successfully rattling Eva in the process. At the school gates, the competition has been intense and very visible. They catapult themselves towards me to see who can get to me first, while exclaiming ‘Mummeee!’ at the tops of their voices. Some might think this is a lovely demonstration of affection, but I know it is largely fuelled by competition, and I’m anticipating the best way to diffuse the situation before it escalates into a sulking session accompanied by a puckered bottom-lip.
They were born only minutes apart, yet I maintain they born at exactly the same time, lest the elder uses it as another way to exert dominance over the other.
They bicker, compete and measure themselves against the other. Who is taller, stronger, heavier, better at drawing, better at running? I find myself saying ‘please stop fighting’ more often than I like, but I must admit it’s not all bad news. They do share a bond I will never know. They can play for hours together in the garden. They appear to rile each other, almost effortlessly, but they also excel and marvel at cheering each other up, which normally involves some fast improvisation or some exuberant dancing and singing.
I’m always being asked if they are close and do they get along, and the answer is yes. Even if at times they appear to love arguing and can be very critical of one another, they are still amazing friends. If one falls in the garden, the other will rush to the door to get help. If one is unwell, the other will fetch them a blanket and cuddly toy. If one receives a treat when they are apart, they will always request an extra treat for their sibling. And on a few occasions when I’ve jumped the gun and unfairly told one off for negative behaviour, the other will rush in and stand tall to offer defence. And when they are separated, they always look forward to seeing each other again.
One area where I fall flat on my face is when they have arguments about utter nonsense. My finest example is an argument they had over an invisible hamster. They were arguing over who got to hold ‘it’… and in a last ditch attempt to settle their spat, I said the hamster had run out the door. Well they both turned to me in unison and shot me a look to say ‘don’t be so ridiculous’. On days like this, I desperately cling to our silver lining: the siblings who argue most, often grow very close in adulthood, and the tough competition will supposedly prepare them for the wider world.
As the kids have grown older, they are arguing less and less, but I’ve also made a few helpful changes to how I approach their conflicts with the help of a few great tips I’ve gleaned from parents who’ve done it all before.
When the kids were smaller, I’d always rush in when I sensed the tension building. Recently I’ve begun to hang back for increasingly longer periods to see if they can resolve their dispute alone. More and more, I’ve stood behind the door listening to them roll out a compromise, rather than dashing in to settle things, and now I’ll only intervene if the argument becomes physical, if there is name-calling, or if they are tired and groggy and a settlement is not possible.
Explaining to my kids that if they don’t learn how to compromise, then they will have no one to play with has made a real impression on them. It took time, but now they know that it’s OK to have a different opinion and that they each can’t be first all the time. They’ve begun to negotiate whose game they should play first or which cartoon to watch first, rather than insisting on their way all the time. It’s great that these new skills in negotiation and compromise will stand to them later in life, too.
DON’T PLAY THE BLAME GAME
Try not to blame one child for the argument as it takes two to argue, and on more than one occasion, whenever I have told one off, the other will rethink their stance and take the other’s side, although I think this is probably another quirk particular to twins!
Set firm house rules and make sure they are reminded of them by placing them up on the wall on a chalk board. Keep the rules simple and fewer than 10, to include all the obvious ones – no hitting, shouting, name-calling, share, and show respect. These will be more easily remembered. When the rules are kept simple, kids will know what is expected of them and they will be more likely to follow the rules which will hopefully help to avoid power struggles.
ATTENTION & ONE-ON-ONE
More often than not, children fight in order to get their parents’ attention. It not always easy, especially in the afternoons when you’ve just finished homework and you’re busy working on dinner. Whenever possible and especially if they’re going through a particularly argumentative phase, we try to drop everything and play a family game, so everyone is involved and getting attention. Since developing their own interests outside school, they appear to be more content. Making regular one-to-one time for their special interests has made a huge difference, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day where they are the focus of our attention.
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Written for and Published by Mums and Tots magazine, summer issue 2015.