“She started it!” When siblings fight…

June 4, 2009

Two birds

A reader says, “It can be a total calm and peace in our house and the next second my son, four, and my daughter, seven, will be going at each other, falling into their well rehearsed dynamic of teasing and yelling, neither of them willing to respect each others limits or give up.”

The reader adds that setting limits, helping with problem solving and walking away just to avoid “losing it,” at, or in front of, them have not quite done the trick.

I must say that this is one of the most vexing problems that I have faced in my own parenting, so I’m more of a fellow struggler than any sort of expert on this.  I did run the question by my fifteen-year-old who wryly suggested, “Tell them to have an only child.”

Another reader, Carole, had commented that what particularly helped with her teen daughters was to continually remember that it’s just not about her, the mom.  Her dad’s advice was to stay quiet and lead by example, and that this had worked pretty well since they were little.

Certainly less talk (at least talking at kids) is often a good plan, especially if backed up by quietly conscious love.  Still, a few things to consider on this issue include:

Cain and Abel.  It’s hard to understand why Cain’s offering is not accepted, but at least for Steinbeck, in East of Eden, the take-away is that when our offerings are rejected, we ought to not turn murderous, but rather just go and make another offering.  I reference this because while we may think our kids are Cain and/or Abel, it is we parents who end up feeling like Cain.  We make the offering of our loving and patient parenting and then two of the beings we love most in the world “reward” us with their bickering and aggression.  Every time our children are mean to each other, a part of us is hurt.  And even if we don’t take it personally, we are asked to be the bowl for a lot of messy and unpleasant feelings.  Further, if we place sibling conflict in a wider social context, when we love the world it pains us when any of its “children” (individuals, groups, countries) hurt each other; and perhaps we heal it by collectively caring, and paying loving attention, especially to our own Shadow sides.  This too may take longer than an afternoon.

Jung said that the divine was to be found in the opposites, so perhaps when our children are quarreling we might strive to see to the subtle heart of their relationship, noticing the way that they are both hurt, sacred and both, in their own way, “right.”  If we can tolerate the conflict, neither stopping it nor blocking it, maybe it will resolve (I’m banking on this all coming together when they are around twenty-seven, just twelve more years to go).

It can be useful to contemplate what drives conflicts.  Perhaps these happen when our kids are tired, fussy, hungry, etc.  Sometimes the preemptive solution (i.e. one controls the TV, or the toy, or the game for half an hour, then the other) helps a little, but very often not.

Needs for attention can figure prominently, but our kids’ needs will eventually outstrip our capacity to give attention, so at some point we are left helping kids tolerate not getting what they want.  Winnicott called this “optimal frustration,” where we do our best and the kids deal with the rest to their own benefit (the opposite would be suffocating hundred percent attentiveness where as a child would never have to develop their own coping strategies and be left helpless without us).  This furthers Carole’s counsel; and it is probably at the heart of my own missed parenting steps—we try too hard to be perfect and our kids are left with little choice but to rub our noses in the fact of our own limitations and their need for the space to figure things out for themselves.  Carole is right again in reminding us not to take this personally.  And so we parents huddle together and soothe each other.

Also, we can lose sight of the bigger picture—of the many moments when our kids are not fighting.  It serves to notice and reinforce the positive, and to keep the negative in perspective.

Kids are, hopefully, emotionally and physically safe at home, and another reason for conflict is that they suck up disturbing things at school and then spill them back out, and act them out, with their siblings.  In this way they give their unwanted feelings to their brother or sister, and when that child can’t contain it the conflict spills over for us to contain.  Be the bowl.

Just like adults, some children will seek closeness through conflict.  This is especially true for younger sibs who may be ignored by their older sister or brother unless they act up and demand attention.  Sometimes we prefer punishment to aloneness.  Hate lives right next door to love, irritatingly borrowing sugar and never bringing it back.  But indifference is the real evil in our world; conflict can be a passionate step toward love, if it’s handled right.  I’ll let you know how it works out in my house… twelve years from now.

For today, let’s dedicate our intention toward compassionate regard for conflict, in our homes and in our world.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

A. N. June 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Bruce, thank you for the beautiful blog full of wisdom and the kind and compassionate reminder that even if we do 10% “less” in our parenting some of us will still be overdoing it! (I certainly am one of them.)
It very much resonated with me to remember that like all the things done in awareness, mindful parenting is the tuneful dance between the opposites and it is when we judge the situation or take the dance too personally that we slip and loose the rhythm with the sacred.

Please, thank your son for his advice: “Tell them to have an only child.” , and let him know that the next time I will give it a serious consideration : )

I can not thank you enough for creating the space for our sacred gathering-I forgive myself for my perfect improfections, grateful to be a part of it all.
Much Love

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privilegeofparenting June 5, 2009 at 5:59 am

Thanks for taking the time to comment, when I passed thanks on to my kid we ended up having a good chat. It seems that when we are truly open to our children’s thoughts they seem to share more, even at fifteen.

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Tina Bryson June 4, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Bruce–such a beautiful perspective on sibling conflict, which is the issue I get most frustrated with in my own parenting, and that I get the most complaints about from other parents. Trying to remember that both children are trying to get their needs met really helps me with dealing with it compassionately. AND I try to remember that each time they have conflict is another OPPORTUNITY to teach them how to be in relationship–how to listen, how to compromise, express feelings, etc.

I LOVE the chapter on sibling conflict in the book _Kids are Worth it_ by Barbara Colloroso, who challenges us to think about the message we’re sending when we jump in and solve–which is–I don’t trust that you can work this out. She has all kinds of great practical suggestions about empowering them to work it out and giving them the tools to do so.

Thanks for the important work you’re doing!

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privilegeofparenting June 4, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Thanks for that, Tina—thanks for the tip on Barbara (as I, and many of us, can all use all the help we can get on this issue) and for the impressive work you and Dan Siegel have been doing around mindful parenting. Readers may like to visit Tina’s website, which is kindred in spirit and mission with Privilege of Parenting.

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