And then the police showed up...
I've had some real tear jerker, proud parent moments over the past eight or so years. The day my boys were born, the day they learned to talk, walk, first day of school ... the standard list. One afternoon that will never grace said list is the day I opened the door to two police officers. Uh huh.
The background story? A stranger was walking by at the time Sam was giving his brother an impromptu Mohawk with his bare hands. The resulting screams convinced said stranger to speed dial the police (he could hear, not see, what was going on, so for the record I'm pleased he made the call - the world needs more concerned citizens). When I told the boys in blue that my eight and six-year-old had been fighting and my eldest was missing a sizable chunk of hair, they nodded sagely, saying they get 'a bit of that' in the school holidays. A few embarrassed words later, and with two slightly awestruck children by my side, I closed the door on my most humiliating parenting moment to date.
While events at this extreme end of parenting are thankfully limited to the one overcast afternoon in July, fighting in our house is sadly not. And going by an informal poll of what I overhear squabble-wise in my neighbourhood, added to the roster of 'why won't they just get along' posts from Facebook pals; fighting between siblings is common. There are, however, things you can do to reduce the rate and intensity.
Supervision is key. Being present stops many a fight from taking full flight, because as adults, we have a better sense of when a fight is about to erupt and can get everyone to take a step back, says psychologist Jocelyn Brewer. Kids on the cusp of a fight will display cues like raising their voice, crossing their arms, and tensing their bodies. You can also quickly develop a mental register of what sparks your children's ire. For example, losing at a board game, or not being able to choose what character he gets to play, will set my six-year-old off like a match to a kero-soaked bonfire.
Brewer says when you see the signs of impending fisticuffs, gently interrupt what they are doing, say you've noticed there seems to be some upset feelings, and ask the injured party to talk about how they are feeling. Do they feel sad or embarrassed that they are not winning? Are they frustrated that they can't be the character they want to be? This helps them be mindful of their feelings, and how they can better deal with them in the future.
You can supervise without being intrusive by staying in ears rather than arms length, says Brewer. "As well as giving them a sense of autonomy, being a silent observer means you actually have the back story when things erupt - when you only catch the flare up and not the pre-fight action, it's usually the thumper that gets the blame, but often it's that they've been poked until they react from pure frustration."
Boredom is another trigger for fighting, but Brewer cautions against constantly filling their hands with stimuli to avoid it. "Rather than put an I-pad or a TV show in front of them, encourage them to build their creative muscles," she says. When I was young, we would make up elaborate games and stories in our backyard together, building both creativity and camaraderie. You can encourage them to cooperatively play by giving them a jumping off point, for example, 'hey guys, here is three pieces of paper and a pack of textas each, create a comic,' or, 'here is a pile of objects, create a mystery story together about how they came to be here'. Not only does such an activity stop boredom; it creates an opportunity to be creative, and gets them working together as a team. Not bad for an afternoons work!
Despite the best laid of plans, fights can still erupt, but if handled properly, they can be an opportunity to equip your kids with excellent problem solving skills.
"Tell the kids to pause in their tracks, and bring out the talking stick. Explain that only the person with the stick can talk, and stress that everyone will get their turn. Ask each person to explain what happened, and how it made them feel - you'll need to help them tease out what their feelings are called. Then you can ask everyone to think about how they could handle the same situation differently, in a more productive way." Separation is a great tool if things are too hot for sensible discussion, so send them to their own rooms, but rather than meaningless time out, you can ask them to come up with three different ways of handling the situation while they are there to discuss later.
And what not to do? Last years next big thing in parenting in the social media world, the 'Get along shirt', where warring parties are forced to stand together inside an oversized shirt doesn't hold much truck with Brewer. "Typically after a fight, kids need space to cool down and reflect, not forced compliance and physical closeness. It's a bit like the forced apology with no discussion - everyone in the room knows the apology is not genuine, so nothing has been achieved except the kids have learned it is not okay to disagree with each other, and that it is better to be insincere than honestly address issues and emotions. It is also humiliating, like the dunces cap, they might do as you ask, but not for the right reasons," says Brewer.
How do you deal with sibling fighting?