August is often called “the dog days of summer” for the weather that leaves us panting. In some families, it also refers to the snapping that takes place between hot and sweaty children. School has been out for two months, is still a few, long weeks away, and the kids are turning just about anything into a reason to bicker.
If you have siblings yourself, you probably remember a few of the creative ways you tormented each other. These days, you may be witnessing new methods of madness from your own children. You can’t necessarily keep them from fighting but you may be able to keep them from doing real damage.
Theresa Marsh is a Pewaukee mother of two kids. She knows exactly what their teasing triggers are. “It’s worse when they’re around each other too much, when we don’t do anything the entire weekend, or when they’re tired, or when there’s bad weather and they have to stay in the house.”
Bickering, as painful as it can be, does have benefits, says Judy Stevens, a Milwaukee therapist at Meridian Core Services who specializes in counseling children and adolescents. “We’ve all been in situations where we have to work through adversity,” she says. “Bickering helps children —if there’s a plus side —with conflict resolution, compromise, those sorts of things.”
Stevens points out that sibling rivalry often has nothing to do with what the fight appears to be about. It’s not really important that one child gets the other’s toy, and it doesn’t really matter to anyone which movie they watch for the thousandth time. “It’s what a kid is getting out of the battle. It’s power, it’s attention,” she says.
That’s something Milwaukee mom Megan Dixon has figured out. “It begins over something meaningless, an act or a gesture,” she says. “But it usually stems from an issue of control or attention.”
Strategies that work
Help your child find effective ways to express their feelings and the best ways to handle them.
“There’s something we call ‘emotional regulation,’” says Stevens. “That can mean saying to a child: ‘It looks like you are frustrated. What can you do before you take it out on your brother? What are some ways we can handle it when we feel that way?’”
She suggests going online to search for a “feelings vocabulary chart.” Make a copy to hang on your refrigerator as a way to help everyone in the family, even the youngest, more clearly express their emotions.
Even though she recommends helping children through some sibling rivalry situations, Stevens says the helicopter parent, who steps in every time her children tussle over the last popsicle, isn’t doing her kids any favors. Instead, a child begins to think he can’t solve his own problems. Useful intervention is more like coaching.
Dixon tries to give each child tools for working through conflicts. Her son is 6 and generally more sensitive than her daughter. At 3 years old, her daughter doesn’t have the same language skills as her brother.
“I try to pick a special strategy for each of them. For Jackson, a big strategy is just to ignore Jillian because she is looking for a reaction; she’s looking for attention from him. For Jillian, because she’s not as verbal and because she acts out by hitting or yelling, it’s to give her some good verbal scripts for dealing with him.”
Both Marsh and Dixon say they don’t intervene every time their children fight. Dixon says much like her own children’s situation, she is the younger sister of an older brother and she knows some of the bickering is an important part of her kids’ efforts to carve out their place in the world.
When Marsh and her husband do step in, they give their children time-outs. They’ve even tried making the kids do some push-ups so they can cool off a little.“If they really aren’t getting along,” says Marsh, “I’ll make Sophie read to Lake or make him do something nice for her.”
Sophie, 12, questions her mother’s tactic. “It doesn’t work because he just starts singing and everything else and he goes downstairs and tells my mom, ‘she wasn’t reading to me.’”
Marsh is more confident in the team-building method and says her children are, in fact, very close. Sophie says even though most of the fighting is her brother’s fault, no one else is allowed to fight with him like she does. “They’re not related to him. They don’t go through the stuff I do with him. So if anyone hurts him, I get kind of mad.”
If bickering crosses a line
It’s good to be on the lookout for particularly aggressive behavior. Stevens says, “It’s the imbalance of power, that sense of letting kids work it out. But if things are escalating, if there’s name-calling or violence involved, then, as a parent you have to separate the two and give consequences.”
Stevens also mentions teaching older siblings, in which the age difference is more than a couple years, that they have to be especially patient.
“Catch them when they’re doing good,” is Stevens’ favorite teaching mantra. She says it’s important to correct bad behavior but it may be even more effective to celebrate good behavior. Reinforcing positive behaviors, like complimenting a smoothly executed act of sharing, can go a long way toward family harmony.
Or, you can always give Dixon’s tried-and-true tickler a try: “A funny thing that works all the time is when I say, ‘I don’t want any more laughing in this house, this is a fun-free house, a mad zone, I only want to see mean faces,’ and the attention comes off the fight and every time it ends up with them laughing.”
April Spray Newton is a wife, mother, writer and instructor at Marquette University.
FIGHT STRESS TOGETHER
Milwaukee therapist Judy Stevens says stress is on the rise, not just for adults, but for children, too. She adds that stress can sometimes be the real reason children are bickering, and there is easily accessible help out there.
If you suspect your child is feeling pressure, read The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids. Work through the exercises together so the whole family can benefit. It can also open doors to conversations that some families find hard to have spontaneously. The workbook is also available in an adult edition. Both versions can be purchased at local bookstores and through several online retailers.
Some of the bickering is an important part of her kids’ efforts to carve out their place in the world.