'Normal' sibling aggression is inappropriate

07/30/2013 2:15 PM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

During my typical clinical interview with parents, I always ask about sibling interactions and usually get an answer like this.“They argue and fight all the time but it’s just normal sibling stuff.”

I’ve never quite understood that response. How can fighting, name calling and intimidation be acceptable at home but be labeled as bullying and harmful if those same behaviors occur with non-family members? The thinking that because sibling aggression is common that it is also normal just never made sense to me.

Recent research published in the June 2013 issue of Pediatrics found that aggression among siblings is not as benign as most parents would believe. Researchers studied the impact of verbal and physical aggression among siblings and found that the negative impact on kids’ mental health was virtually identical to that of such aggression among nonfamily members.

I can understand the reluctance of parents to intervene whenever their children get into disagreements. Kids need to learn how to navigate such problems on their own, without the constant intervention of parents. However, your job as parents is to teach kids how to resolve such disagreements without name calling, bullying or fighting.

1. Make your rules very clear and specific. I suggest that parents of young children make out a list of words and behaviors that will not be tolerated in their family. Try this as a simple guideline. If you wouldn’t want your child to use such words outside your house, then don’t allow them to use the same words within your family.

2. Coach kids how to solve their own problems. This stuff doesn’t come easily or naturally, either for adults or children. This means helping youngsters understand the world from another’s viewpoint, which admittedly can be rather challenging! Most kids think in terms of winning or losing, not compromising.

Teach kids about self-control, and learning strategies to relax, get control of their emotions, and think of lots of possible different solutions to a problem. This takes some time, so don’t get discouraged if your youngster or teen gets emotional or argumentative. These can be among the most valuable life skills your child learns from you.

Explain this as a very simple four-step process – define the problem, list alternatives, discuss the pros and cons of each, and arrive at a plan. Whether dealing with a toddler or teen, keep coaching your child through the same four steps.

3. Don’t tolerate bad behavior. Aggression among siblings is one of the easiest problems to stop. It ends when parents decide that it is not acceptable in their family, and they punish that behavior every time it occurs. Within two weeks, the problem disappears.

You'll be pleasantly surprised with the impact on your family when you decide to stop tolerating bad behavior among your children.

Dr. Gregory Ramey is a child psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital. Email: Rameyg(at)childrensdayton.org. This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News.

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