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The New Way to Stop Sibling Fights

It wasn't even 9 a.m., and I could already tell it was going to be one of those days. My younger two daughters, 3-year-old Meg and 5-year-old Lucy, were arguing over who'd get to drink her juice from the cracked blue cup with the handle. My older two, 7-year-old Kate and 10-year-old Jane, were bickering over whether or not Kate was chewing her cereal with her mouth closed. I was doing my best to stick with my usual first line of attack: Ignore them all for as long as possible.

But several arguments later, as we climbed into the car and the "It's my turn to sit in the window seat" quarrel began, I'm ashamed to admit I finally lost it.

Because sibling skirmishes can take place so often  -- some days almost constantly  -- it's easy to fall into a one-size-fits-all response when we hear our kids going at it again. But the surprising truth is that different fights require different tactics.

The key, experts say, is to figure out why your youngsters are battling at that particular moment. Not only will the fussing and whining stop, but your children will hone the very same get-along skills they'll need throughout their lives to have successful relationships with friends, teachers, coworkers, bosses, and spouses.

Let's take a look at some common scrapes, figure out why they happen, and find the best way to handle each one.

Fight #1: The Territory War
What happens: "The worst fights my six- and ten-year-old daughters, Amelia and Kate, have are over who gets things. They race into the kitchen every morning to be the one who sits on the first bar stool," says their mom, Joy Sutherland of Collierville, TN. "The funny thing is, the stools are identical! I think it must just be that each knows the other wants it."

The root of the problem: "Kids this age are learning about how to assert themselves and lay claim to what's theirs," explains Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of 0 The specifics go on forever: who gets the bigger piece of cake, who decides whether they're going to watch the Road Construction Ahead or Rugrats videotape, who has first dibs on the computer.... This kind of territorial conduct can be especially intense with the overlay of competitiveness the sibling relationship carries. What's especially frustrating for parents is how petty and, let's face it, downright silly these fights can seem.

How to deal: Experts agree it's important to work with your children to choose a suitable system for settling these skirmishes. For example, the Sutherlands assigned the favorite stool to one girl on odd-numbered days and the other on even-numbered ones. Other ideas: Flip a coin, take turns (timed carefully to ensure fairness), trade items, find a way to use it together. The key here is that both youngsters must agree that the system is equitable, and everyone involved has to honor the rules. Once you've helped them figure this out a few times, your children should pick up on the idea and begin to do it themselves. One way to help them grasp the basics of negotiating is to state the problem and encourage them to come up with a solution. "Saying something nonjudgmental, like, 'Hmm...two girls, one stool. What can you do so you're both happy?' can get them on the right track," says Elizabeth Crary, author of Help! The Kids Are at It Again. If necessary, write down their suggestions  -- even the ones that seem off base. Keep asking, "What else could you do?" until you've got a workable list. Then narrow it down till everyone is satisfied with the solution. Eventually, they should be able to go through the steps with less and less help from you.

If negotiations fail, however, and the kids are still at war, it's time to let them know they'll have to face some more serious consequences, notes Severe. "Explain that if they can't agree on how to be fair, you'll be forced to take the stools away and no one will sit on them," he says. "Your action should be a stronger appeal to them to make a better decision." Then follow through: Remove the object in question for a weeklong cooling-off period.

Fight #2: The Boredom Brawl
What happens: Five-year-old India Bembry had just tucked her dolls in for a nap when her 6-year-old brother, Clint, came crashing in. "He turned on the lights and made all kinds of noise purposely to 'wake them up,'" says their mother, Julie, of Shoreview, MN.

The root of the problem: It might appear that Clint is just trying to be disagreeable, but it's more likely that he's bored and feeling left out. "Young children don't always know how to express these feelings appropriately, and structuring their own time is often a challenge," explains Crary. They vent feelings of restlessness on their sibling, which earns them your attention (negative though it may be, it's adult attention nevertheless  -- and it gets them out of their "I'm bored" state).

How to deal: Instead of sending Clint to his room, where he'll continue to be bored and become even more unhappy, or blowing up at him and demanding to know why he's being so mean to his sister, it's best to keep it simple and straightforward, says Kate Kelly, coauthor of Raising Happy Children. "Calmly explain that we don't speak to people that way or treat them like that," she says. "Then help him think of something he can do, either alone or with his sister." It's a great idea to have a list of favorite activities posted somewhere to refer to in times like these. Be sure it includes active, quiet, and creative tasks, so all your bases are covered. Once you've got the initial problem sorted out, though, it's important to go back and help your child be more conscious of what it felt like to be bored and restless, so the next time it happens, he'll be able to come up with something better to do than torture his sister.

Fight #3: The Thrill of the Battle
What happens: Eight-year-old Derek and 6-year-old Ashley can't resist a good bout of name-calling. "Last night, it really started getting out of hand," admits their father, Jimmy Ladeairous of Smithtown, NY. "They were sitting and watching TV, and one of them said, 'You're stupid.' Then the other one said, 'Well, you're a stupid idiot,' and it just went on and on: stupid head, dumbo, jerk, every name they could think of. The worst part was, there was absolutely no reason for the fight in the first place."

The root of the problem: While it can make a parent's hair stand on end, these kinds of verbal battles are usually just kids flexing their muscles. "Name-calling and one-upping each other is a normal  -- though frustrating  -- part of this developmental stage. It's an aspect of how kids socialize at this age," explains Severe. "The behavior usually peaks around the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades." But just because it's normal doesn't mean you have to tolerate it, of course.

How to deal: First, let them know that speaking to each other that way isn't acceptable. Then, "try distracting them. Get them engaged in an interesting conversation," recommends Sybil Hart, author of Preventing Sibling Rivalry. Talk about the new kids' movie opening this weekend, for instance. Relate something humorous that happened to you that day; dig around in your life to find something amusing. In addition to changing the direction of the conversation, you'll be modeling ways of interacting that are much more positive than name-calling.

If the squabbling continues despite all your positive tactics, a consequence is in order: a few minutes of time-out to cool down, TV restrictions, five minutes of silence  -- whatever works in your house. The idea here is that if they can't sidestep these spats, you'll follow through to make them see that sparring is not allowed.

Fight #4: The Jealous Rage
What happens: "The other night, my ten-year-old son, Michael, wasn't feeling well and was having trouble sleeping, so I let him fall asleep in my bed," explains Diane Giammalvo of Melville, NY. "His eight-year-old sister, Gina, flipped out on him and started teasing him and calling him a baby."

The root of the problem: "Children often think we're favoring the other sibling," observes Kelly. "At times, one kid may need more attention than the other, and it's not okay to let the child who feels left out express his feelings this way."

How to deal: First, parents need to address the name-calling and teasing and make sure the offending sibling understands that it's hurtful. Hart recommends saying strongly, "That behavior is unacceptable" and doling out whatever consequence you'd usually apply. Though it may pull at your heartstrings to know that the aggressor is merely acting out of jealousy, don't coddle the child, Hart warns. Such mixed signals can be confusing to young children, so stay in disciplinarian mode. "Kids know you love them," Hart asserts. "What they're afraid of is you getting mad at them, not of losing your love." Later on, try to catch them being good, and praise them for it. "That's the moment to reassure them of your love and spend some special time together," says Hart.

A great way to try to head off this kind of problem before it happens is to anticipate that one child might be feeling left out because a sibling is sick, having a birthday, or getting other kinds of out-of-the-ordinary treatment. Explain to her why her brother needs more attention right now, and remind her of instances when she's gotten the greater share of your time. It can definitely help to pass on the comforting thought that "I'll be there for you when you need me, just like I'm here for your brother now." Build on this by having the kid who's not the center of attention help out. Reading a story to a sick sibling or helping to put up party decorations can provide a special role for a child who'd otherwise be stuck on the sidelines.

By using these strategies  -- and looking at each fight as an opportunity to teach siblings the skills they need to get along  -- you'll find that these quarrels will become a little easier to take. And, luckily for us, our kids will likely give us lots and lots of opportunities to make sure the lessons sink in.

When she isn't refereeing her four girls' squabbles, New York-based Mary Arrigo writes about parenting topics.