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Sibling rivalry: How to deal with physical fighting

In part one of this feature, parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley offers some strategies to help deal with bickering siblings, but what can you do when the bickering escalates to a more physical level? Read on!

Ending the battles
Situation: My kids fight all the time. What upsets me the most is when they get physical: hitting, kicking, pinching, pushing and hair pulling. I usually end up screaming at them. Is there a way to stop the battles?

Think about it
Children are not born knowing how to negotiate or compromise. When they are frustrated, angry or annoyed they will sometimes strike out physically. If they aren’t taught the skills they need to control their emotions and if they aren’t given direction about how to negotiate and compromise, they may continue to resort to physical actions to get their way. It’s our job to teach kids how to work through their disagreements in a socially acceptable way.

Sit and Think: Have both children sit on a sofa at opposite ends, or on two adjacent chairs. Tell them they may get up when they have resolved the issue. At first you may have to mediate and guide the resolution. Over time they will learn how to negotiate and compromise on their own.

Time Out: When two children are physically fighting, immediately separate them into different rooms for a cooling off period. When they have both calmed down, sit them at the table together and arbitrate a discussion between them until the issue is resolved.

Separate: Tell the children they may not play together for one hour. Banish them to separate rooms. (Do not allow either child to watch TV or play video games.) Their first response is likely to be, “Great! I didn’t want to play with him anyway.” But after a boring hour playing alone, they will likely be better company for each other.

Payback time: Have the aggressor do a chore for the injured sibling, such as make the bed or take out the trash. An alternate idea is to fine the aggressor a pre-determined amount of money, such as 25 cents. The injured sibling gets to keep the payment. (Impose a penalty only if YOU see the aggressive action.) Contract for better behavior: With your help, have the children create a contract agreement between them. Spell out what actions are unacceptable and what the consequences will be imposed for failure to meet the contract terms. Have each child sign the agreement and post it conspicuously. Follow through with the agreed consequences when necessary.

What’s really happening? Don’t always assume that the child who is doing the hitting is the only one at fault. Sometimes the “victim” has taunted, teased, insulted and tormented the sibling to the point of wild frustration. While it is never appropriate for one child to hit another, it would behoove you to be aware of any behind the scenes torture that may be testing your child’s patience to its limit. If you discover that this is happening, begin to hold both children accountable for their behavior.

Catch them being good. Reward them for getting along with positive attention. When your children are playing together without fighting, make a comment of appreciation, such as, “I’m happy that you guys enjoy playing together.” Giving attention when things are going well will encourage them to continue the positive behavior.

Special Note: If your children have frequent intense battles, it is a symptom of a much bigger problem. It would be wise to seek the advice of a family counselor or therapist. You may be able to find an appropriate specialist through your church, school, physician or local hospital. This is a difficult issue to resolve on your own. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help is a sign that you really care about your children and their relationship with each other.

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