Kids getting on each other’s nerves … and yours? Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., a registered clinical psychologist, shares insights that can help restore peace.
By Laura Quaglio
Why does it seem like kids argue more often during the summer? Because it’s probably true. “The amount that kids get on each other’s nerves depends on the amount of contact they have,” says registered clinical psychologist Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., who has worked with children, adults, and families for more than 35 years. During the school year, kids are only together in late afternoon, evening, and on weekends. With after-school activities, homework, and weekend play dates, there is even less time for them to interact. “In summer, if kids are hanging around the house and they’re bored, they’ll find that torturing each other is an amazing pastime,” jokes Dr. Phelan, who is author of the best-selling book 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2 – 12, which has sold more than 1.8 million copies in 22 languages.
Knowing you’re not alone in this parenting predicament helps a little … but only a little. When you’re tired and frazzled, you don’t want to listen to your kids’ disputes. That’s why we asked Dr. Phelan for his recommendations on dealing with this age-old issue. His insights may surprise you — and make you feel better about the state of your household. The first tips will give you some reassurance about this common sibling experience, and the latter ones will help you bust up and even prevent some of those squabbles.
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Truth: Sibling Rivalry Is Normal
According to Dr. Phelan, the first step to managing sibling rivalry is to change how we think about it in the first place. Lots of parents worry that there’s something wrong with their kids because their behavior toward each other can seem idiotic, childish, and senseless. In reality, he says, it’s completely normal for siblings to quarrel. “It is basically ingrained — evolutionary,” he says. Sibling rivalry is actually a manifestation of basic competitive instincts like those that enable animals to survive in the wild. Baby birds, he says, will actually try to flip their siblings out of the nest.
“Siblings are in natural competition for resources that include food and shelter and, with humans, parental attention,” he says. “Don’t expect your kids to have a glowing, warm relationship all the time. It’s not in their makeup.”
Sibling rivalry does not mean your kids are mentally ill either, adds Dr. Phelan. “And it does not mean you did anything wrong as a parent. It’s a horrible burden on parents to think that sibling rivalry is your fault. Parents have to accept that sibling rivalry is chronic and aggravating but totally normal.”
Truth: Siblings Are Best of Friends, Best of Enemies
Most of us behave worse at home than we do outside the house, says Dr. Phelan. Home is where we’re most comfortable and, deep down, we know our family will love us even if we’re cranky sometimes. Beyond that, people show their absolute worst behavior when interacting with siblings, he says. So when siblings are at home together, it’s natural for battles to ensue at least once in a while.
The good news is that most siblings also have wonderful times together. “The way of thinking about it is ‘best of friends, best of enemies,’” says Dr. Phelan. “They will fight half the time and be wonderful playmates half the time.” Try to remember the good times when you see your kids gearing up for another showdown.
Truth: Sibling Rivalry Can Turn Abusive (But It Doesn’t Have To)
Just because tiffs are normal doesn’t mean they can’t turn ugly. If a child is being physically hurt or if there is emotional abuse occurring, it’s time to seek professional help. One of the signs that there is emotional abuse: when one child is always the aggressor and the other is always the victim. Oftentimes, says Dr. Phelan, a younger sibling will idolize an older one, but the older one despises the younger. “Some studies are indicating that this kind of abuse can take a big whack at self-esteem,” says Dr. Phelan.
What to do? Don’t tell the older child that they have to like their siblings; people have a right to their own feelings. Dr. Phelan says this demand is unrealistic, though understandable. We parents feel deep love for each child and want them to feel the same way toward each other. But you can’t dictate who someone likes or loves. What you CAN dictate is how your kids treat each other. “You can tell the older child, ‘You don’t have to like them, but you do have to treat them with respect. You cannot be verbally or physically abusive,’” he says.
Truth: Parents Don’t Have to Stop Every Squabble
Here are a few of the rules from Dr. Phelan’s book 1-2-3 Magic:
- If you can ignore the battle between two siblings, let them work it out themselves … provided that there’s no abuse going on and that you can stand to listen to it.
- If you can’t stand to listen to the argument, count both kids. In 1-2-3 Magic, when a child misbehaves, they know they will be counted. The parent says, “That’s 1,” at the first offense, then “That’s 2,” if the child continues to misbehave, and “That’s 3” if they still persist. If a child reaches “That’s 3,” they are told to go sit on the step. (You can learn more from the book or the website 1-2-3 Magic Parenting.) If you absolutely know that one child was the aggressor and started it, you can count that child by themselves. But if you’re not sure, don’t ask what Dr. Phelan calls “the world’s stupidest question,” which is “Who started it?” If you don’t know who started it, both kids should be held accountable.
- Never expect older kids to be more mature in a fight. “Even at age 50, siblings will have the emotional maturity of 3-year-olds when they are arguing,” says Dr. Phelan.
Truth: Family Fun Is Overrated
“Family fun is a constant dream of parents, especially moms,” says Dr. Phelan. But in reality, he explains, the “divide and conquer” approach works better. What this means is dividing the kids up and doing things separately with them — one parent with one child. “Kids cherish alone-time with a parent,” he says. “You can just see them blossom when they have you all to themselves. And the second thing is there is no chance for sibling rivalry when you’ve divided them up.”
How does this work in real life? Instead of going out to eat as a family, Dr. Phelan suggests having each parent take one child to dinner separately. You can go to different venues or just sit across the room from each other in the same eatery. Do the same one-child/one-parent routine when standing in line for rides at an amusement park or when going to a movie (selecting different rides and sitting in different rows).
You can also split up the family for vacations. Dr. Phelan used to take his son on vacation and his wife would take their daughter, and then vice versa. “We’d stay in a motel room and goof off,” he says. These getaways created fond memories for all involved, and there’s no sibling rivalry when siblings are miles apart!
Dr. Phelan does acknowledge that the more kids you have, the more difficult one-on-one fun becomes, but it’s worth trying to plan for it. You’ll deepen your connections with each child in addition to limiting the time that they can be bothering each other.
One more note: Dividing-and-conquering with the kids doesn’t mean that you should always be separate from your spouse. Make sure to schedule date nights, too. Dr. Phelan reminds us that dating was a time when you and your spouse got together and had fun. When you’re married, however, challenges of everyday life can take precedence, and you could stop seeing each other in the same enjoyable light. Date nights (or lunches or getaways) ensure that you retain some of that original spark, camaraderie, and fun.
Truth: You Can Limit Sibling Rivalry
Some things can aggravate sibling rivalry, while others can reduce its occurrence, says Dr. Phelan.
- If possible, allow a few years between children. “Competition is based on similarity,” says Dr. Phelan. “Anything that makes two siblings more the same can aggravate rivalry.” If you have kids who are close in age or are the same gender, for instance, that can make sibling rivalry more prevalent. He recommends spacing out when you have children (if possible) to can make things easier for you down the road.
- Help siblings have fun together. Encourage your children to associate each other’s presence with having a good time. Dr. Phelan suggests sitting down kids together to watch a movie. “It’s almost like parallel play,” he says. “There is very little interaction, but they are having fun at the same time.” They also will have that shared experience, so they can talk about the movie and the characters.
- But give them alone time too. If kids are going to be in the same house, hotel room, or vehicle for a long time, ensure that they can have a little peace and space. For instance, if your children each have a designated amount of screen time per day, let them watch different shows in different rooms. (This seems to fly in the face of the previous tip, but sometimes your kids may have a shared fondness for a movie but a strong dislike for each other’s favorite TV shows.) In the car, if kids are old enough to sit in the front (or if you have a van with extra seats), don’t seat the kids next to each other. Put a parent or grandparent with each of them, and then switch things up when you get out of the car at a rest stop.
- Get kids out of the house. Sending kids to summer camps, classes, and workshops like those listed on ActivityHero — even if they go to the same location — will help limit the opportunity for tempers to flare. If kids need a sitter, it might be better to have them go to the sitter’s house or another venue like a zoo or park. (Remember the earlier tip about kids acting their worst at home?) Bringing along a friend for each kid can also keep them from bothering each other; kids don’t want their friends to see them being a pain in the neck … or getting scolded by their parents.
- Engage in physical activity together. Swimming, biking, hiking, taking a walk in your neighborhood — these kinds of activities will keep kids busy. And the busier they are, the less bored and the less likely to aggravate each other. What’s more, you can keep kids away from each other in terms of distance simply by placing a parent in between them. (Along the same lines, when at church, movie theaters, etc., parents shouldn’t bookend their kids, as we often do. Instead, always keep an adult between the kids to reduce negative sibling interactions.)
Truth: Family Meetings Can Help Activities Go More Smoothly
“The worst thing to do is to rely on having a spontaneous discussion of what you’re going to do in the next hour,” says Dr. Phelan. If you’re planning a family vacation or activity, Dr. Phelan recommends sitting everyone down together to discuss it well in advance. Talk about what you’ll be doing and answer any questions they have. Kids should also tell you what they’d like to do (or not). This way, people won’t have different expectations, and everyone is likely to have something they look forward to.
Dr. Phelan notes that most kids will balk about taking part in a “meeting,” but once they start participating and realize they have a voice, they really become involved. If you’re not sure how to run a meeting smoothly, follow Robert’s Rules of Order. This strategy, used in parliamentary procedure, explains how to ensure that everyone is heard and that the discussion remains positive and productive. “You can even have a family meeting to talk about sibling rivalry,” adds Dr. Phelan.
Truth: Sibling Rivalry Diminishes Eventually
“If you have kids who are the best of friends sometimes and the best of enemies other times, that best-of-enemies part starts dissolving,” Dr. Phelan assures us. “That will warm your heart. But you’ll have to wait to have your heart warmed till they leave home.” As a father of two kids who have “grown and flown,” he knows this to be true.