I’ve heard it said that when siblings fight, the parent or caregiver should first attend to the victim by giving comfort and attention. This way, bullies aren’t rewarded with attention, and theoretically, they learn to never to repeat the behavior because they actually see the pain they’ve caused.
This seems logical enough…but in the long term, deciding who’s right and who’s wrong and then attending to the “right” one first can backfire.
Let’s see how this kind of “discipline” plays out in a real-life conflict:
Imagine you walk into the living room just in time to see your daughter, Cara, hit your son, Manav, who then cries and wails while looking at you saying, “Dad, she hit me!”
You reply, “I know she did; I saw the whole thing! I’m so sorry, Manav. Are you OK? Come here and let me give you a hug.” While hugging Manav, you continue, “Cara go to your room right now! Don’t come out until you can apologize!”
Of course, violence is never OK. But we don’t really know why Cara hit Manav. What might she be thinking and feeling right now? Mostly likely she’s thinking, “This isn’t fair! Dad didn’t even hear my side of the story! Manav is such a baby; I can’t stand him.” What is she feeling? Likely it’s resentment and anger. Next time, she might be motivated to hit her brother even harder.
Meanwhile, Manav might be thinking, “Cara is a bully, and Dad agrees. He thinks I’m the best and I’ll to do all I can to make sure he always loves me most.”
If, the next day, and then again two days later, Dad rushes to Manav, “the victim” again, imagine how powerfully these thoughts and feelings become entrenched for each child.
Labeled the bully over and over again, without being heard or validated, Cara might begin to create beliefs about herself (“I am a mean person”), her family (“Everyone is against me; they don’t love or care about me”), or life (“I always need to protect myself, because life is so unfair.”) None of these beliefs will serve her well. Manav’s nascent beliefs will be different, but also unhealthy in the long term.
When parents decide who’s the bully and who’s the victim, and how the bully should pay, they take more responsibility than they need to. Playing the role of judge, jury and executioner is exhausting! And it’s not helpful, either.
When parents take responsibility in this way, they often make things worse by:
- Modeling use of force, control, or anger during tense moments
- Reinforcing the roles of “bully” and “victim” in a sibling or friend relationship
- Putting the focus on who’s right vs. how to resolve conflict
- Taking a simple conflict about property rights or sharing, and blowing it into a much more complex conflict about who gets the parent’s love or attention
- Depriving children of the opportunity to practice communicating their issues, and looking for solutions together
That’s why Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline recommends that parents and caregivers refrain from taking sides in sibling (or playmate) fights. “Put them in the same boat,” she says.
Here’s what the same scenario could sound like if Dad could put this concept into practice:
You walk into the living room just in time to see your daughter, Cara, hit your son, Manav, who then cries and wails while looking at you saying, “Dad, she hit me!”
You reply, “Oh dear! I see two kids who are not getting along! Manav is crying and Cara looks very upset, too. Hey guys, let me get in here between you and see if I can help.”
You nuzzle in between the two children and put an arm around each.
“I know this is a hard situation. I love you both and will help you figure out a solution if you need it. Let’s take some deep breaths so we can cool down.”
If Manav is seriously injured, you could invite Cara to participate in helping him feel better: “Cara, it looks like Manav might need an icepack; do you, Manav?” If Manav answers yes, invite Cara to go get one for him, so that she can help to make a repair.
Now everyone should feel a bit more calm, and more able to talk about what happened constructively.
If the children are old enough (around 5 or older), Dad could say, “Now that we’re all a bit calmer, I have faith that you can figure out a solution together. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need help.” If they are 4 and under, they’ll need help finding solutions, and you can offer some of your own for them to choose from.
What might Cara and Manav be thinking and feeling now?
- My Dad cares about me and my sibling
- We are both worthy of love and attention
- My Dad has faith that we can solve problems
- Maybe we can find a solution
What are they learning from their Dad? Perhaps something like this:
- Self and other-awareness (by narrating the situation vs. reacting to it)
- Empathy (by noticing feelings and asking questions)
- Emotional regulation (by speaking with a calm voice and body, and inviting children to breathe)
- Conflict-resolution skills (by describing the problem and asking for or suggesting solutions)
- A sense of community: the family is all in this together
Sibling fights come in many flavors and forms; this specific script won’t work for all of them. But the basic concept–“Put them in the same boat”–can be used all the time, in every situation.
Next time you catch yourself taking sides when siblings fight, take a breath and try again. Describing the situation without judgment, validating feelings, and helping everyone calm down is almost always a great place to start.
Want more support helping your children to manage emotions, resolve conflict on their own, and enjoy each other more? Join me for a 2-night mini-series: “Building Strong Sibling Relationships.” You can attend from the comfort of your own home or office, because it takes place in a Live Virtual Classroom using video conferencing. All classes will be recorded for replay. Go here for more information or to register.
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