Siblings fight constantly

My two sons were born a year and-a-half apart. They fight constantly when they are together. There is bickering, neverending competition for attention, endless fighting over toys, pushing, hitting, pinching, kicking -- you name it. I try to let them settle their own differences, but I'm afraid someone is going to get seriously hurt. When either of the boys is at home without the other, he'll behave like an angel. What can we do?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your second child was added to the family when your oldest son was only 18 months old. This close spacing accounts for some of the difficulty in adjustment between siblings. Children have trouble sharing Mommy's and Daddy's attention with a little newcomer when they are still babies themselves. Remember the sensitivity your toddler expressed when you split your attention by talking on the phone? It is a young child's survival instinct to demand your undivided attention, usually at least until the age of three.

The early splitting of attention set up a sensitivity to competition based on survival which no doubt continues to this day. And the fact that they are both the same sex can further heighten competition between siblings because they will tend to grow more together than apart. This " sameness" can blur their establishment of a unique place in the family which is securely their own.

The task of successful sibling adjustment lies in establishing a safe secure space in the family for each child. This is more complex when a preverbal toddler is asked to make room for a new baby that requires attention that would have gone to him if baby had not arrived! It is likely that your older son feels ripped off by the addition of a sibling so early in the game.

You are doing the right thing to intervene. A laissez-faire approach will only leave your youngest vulnerable to abuse from his brother and encourages your eldest son towards violent behavior as a means of getting what he wants in other areas of his life. Your 6 year old's loss of control undermines his self-esteem and may lead to alienation in his relationships elsewhere.

Yours is not the run-of-the-mill sibling squabbling for reasons already explained and perhaps due to your children's' own individual temperaments, too. But hope is not lost! Your pertinent observation that they each do fine when alone with you indicates that they will do better if you make efforts to establish stronger boundaries and separation between them for now.

Start with toys. Rather than asking that they share toys with each other, allow them to have separate toys and reinforce that they respect one another's possessions. Establish and reinforce separate friendships as well. Your older son may resent his younger brother always "tagging along" which can happen with siblings that are very close in age. It is natural for a younger child to look up to his big brother and become overshadowed as well. Encourage independent activities for each, separate social lives to the extent possible, and separate physical space that protects your oldest son from his younger brother's disruption and safeguards your youngest from older brother's monopolizing.

But don't stop there! Observe ways in which they are each different human beings, perhaps good at different things. Once they are protected from competition for space, toys, friends and activities they may also develop a sense of who they are independent of the other. One may be good with analytical thinking while another may excel at art. Some of these differences will emerge as they get older, it's true. Yet there must be something that each can feel proud and unique about now! This kind of self-knowledge and independence will likely later make room for increased sharing (by adolescence or before) and cooperation as they each develop a secure sense of themselves in relation to each other in the family.

The good news is that you have two very boisterous and energetic little guys! You may also enjoy them more by increasing your separate time with each of them. Even taking one shopping while the other stays with Dad may relieve your stress and make for increasingly peaceful relationships in the family.

Finally, reflect with your husband on your interactions with each other. Siblings are also vulnerable to playing out conflict that is present in the couples' relationship which could exacerbate your situation. Monkey see, monkey do! If your marriage is strained or competitive, it will be natural for your children to repeat these dynamics between the two of them. Discuss cooperative role modeling with your husband. If you find cooperation lacking in your marriage, seek to increase your respect and consideration to one another as well. You are the leaders in the family and your actions with each other also help to determine the family atmosphere!

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