Many parents struggle to cope with the incessant bickering that their children engage in. Bickering can best be described as a type of constant verbal battle that kids insist on waging. Though it may not lead to outright fights, it can nonetheless drive parents crazy and contribute to any unhealthy emotional atmosphere in the family. Listen to what one mother describes hearing come from her school-age daughter as the girl taunted her little sister at breakfast one morning:
“I’m glad I’m not sitting near you.
Daddy likes me better than he likes you.
You don’t know the alphabet.
You need Mommy to tie your shoelaces.
I’m prettier than you.”
(Faber & Mazlish, 1998, p. 15)
Some bickering is normal for siblings. Kids are bound to have running disagreements with each other, just as you and your spouse are bound to nag at each other from time to time in your marriage. Just like in marriages, siblings can be bothered by little annoyances in their brother or sister (singing around the house, saying silly things, bossiness, bad manners, etc.) that inevitably result in put-downs for this aggravating behavior.
In other cases, this type of constant bickering can be the result of unresolved anger and tension. A sort of sibling “cold war” if you will. Bickering can also be a lot like bullying – kids do it to feel better about themselves or to establish and maintain a superior position. It’s the classic one up, one down principle: If you’re worse than me, then I must be better, or so the reasoning goes. If you pay attention to what kids are bickering about, you may notice it has a lot to do with pointing out flaws or trying to establish the ways they are better than a sibling. If you read the example above, you’ll notice 5 of the statements are blatant put downs, and the other two attest to the perceived superiority of the girl doing the taunting. This girl might be angry at her sister, or she might simply be bullying her sibling to try and elevate her own status.
How to deal with sibling bickering
Bickering presents a type of catch-22 for parents. On one hand, it often makes the situation worse when we dwell on it or focus our energy on every little thing the kids say to each other. On the other hand, the type of constant, low-scale warfare that goes on in the house can keep siblings locked at each other’s throats and lead to escalated conflicts or a degradation in their relationship. So what to do?
How you handle bickering depends a lot on what purpose you think it’s serving. If children tend to bicker around you but otherwise seem to play fine together when on their own, there’s a good chance the bickering is a way of securing your attention and a heavy dose of ignoring the behavior is likely the best way to go. If the kids seem genuinely angry with one another, it may be that unresolved anger is the cause. You’ll need to get to the root of these hurt feelings to restore the peace. If it seems almost like a game, as if the child doing the taunting appears to be having fun, then there’s a good chance you’ve got a bullying or power dynamic going on. The best approach here is a combination of ignoring (all bullying benefits from an audience, even that between siblings), and rewarding children for more prosocial behavior while creating a psychological penalty for the bullying.
In every case, what you want to avoid is a situation where you find yourself refereeing the situation:
“Mom, Janice said I’m stupid.”
“Janice, don’t call your sister stupid.”
“But she started it.”
“How did she start it?”
“By being an annoying twerp.”
“I am not a twerp! Mommm!”
“What did I just say about calling your sister names?”
Sound familiar? Most parents find themselves playing referee like this. But this type of micro-managing of your children’s dispute is going to get real old, real fast. “When you struggle against bickering,” says psychologist Richard Carlson, “It’s as if you enter the ring with your kids. This makes it easy to blow the bickering out of proportion, which is another way of saying you’ll end up sweating the small stuff.” (1998, p. 23) It also sends the wrong message if you’re demanding ‘peace and quiet’ while entering the conflict that your kids are having. So as with other forms of fighting, the best approach is to start with the path of least interference and work your way up as needed. Here are some ideas that work well in every type of situation:
- Change the subject
Without even acknowledging the bickering that is going on, distract them from their dispute by changing the subject. If one child is doing the bulk of the taunting, ask that child about a subject you know they might be eager to talk about: “So what happened on (your child’s favorite TV show)? How many hits do you think you’ll get next week at little league?” This may seem like you’re rewarding a child for being bad, but you’re actually rewarding them for abandoning the bad behavior and focusing on themselves. By ignoring the bickering while changing the subject, you’re essentially saying: “I’m not interested in what you have to say about your sister. I want to hear about you.”
- Try positive motivation
Offer psychological rewards for the child who abstains and withdrawal of approval if a child is continuing the bickering. A simple statement such as “I like it better when people say positive things about each other” can work wonders. You might also tell the taunter: “You may be good at lots of things but right now your sister impresses me more with her behavior” or “You’re so much more pleasant to be around when you’re being nice as opposed to mean.”
- Make it all about you
Say something like: “I love your sister, just like I love you, and so it hurts my feelings when you put her down like that. Which makes me wonder: Why is it you’re trying so hard to hurt my feelings?” Such a statement often leaves the taunter stunned and throws them for a loop, provoking the type of self-reflection you’re after. Every time thereafter, instead of focusing on the aggressor’s taunts, simply say “lt hurts my feelings and makes me sad to hear you talk like that.”
This works well for all types of bickering, especially that which takes on a bullying-like nature. Just as bullying can be instantly halted when a popular kid takes a stand against it, bickering between siblings is also thwarted when parents (the people kids most care about impressing) establish that they don’t like such talk and that they and the target are of one unit.
- Remove yourself and/or the victim
If a child continues the taunting, grab the other child’s hand and walk away to somewhere else. If you’re having dinner and one child is bickering, take your plate and the target’s plate and go sit on the porch or another table in the living room. If the offending child tries to follow, simply say, “We came here to get away from talk like that, so you need to either speak kindly or return to the kitchen, because we don’t want to be around it.” If both kids are going at it, you and your spouse can leave the room.
Whenever possible, this type of attention-withdrawal works far better than banishing the offending party (“If you’re going to talk like that, go to your room!”) because it sends the same message in a less punitive way while leaving the door open for the bickering child to make the proper choice on their own. The more punitive you are, the more it encourages retaliation later on.
What you shouldn’t do:
- Give the younger child comebacks or putdowns to use against a sibling. This tactic may seem like a good idea during times of frustration, especially if you suspect an older child to be bullying a younger one, but it only serves to escalate the conflict, not diffuse it.
- Respond in a verbally abusive way yourself by saying something like, “And you still wet the bed.” Not only does it become extremely hurtful when parents enter the arena like this, but once again, you’re teaching them through your actions that put-downs are acceptable.