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How to nix sibling bickering before it drives you crazy
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I was going to lose my mind if I heard one more ridiculous fight between my children. Then, I found a system that restored the peace and my sanity. - photo by Erin Stewart
No one is allowed to use their imaginations for 20 minutes! No unicorns, no kitties, no magical fairies. Nothing.

This was the culmination of a recent argument between my children when in all my maternal glory and wisdom, I grounded my daughters from using their imaginations.

Not my finest moment. But really, I had no choice. If youve ever been in a car with two bickering children, then you know that you reach a boiling point when all you need is for them to stop fighting. RIGHT. NOW.

I had reached that point. You see, my daughters had been bickering all day about incredibly important things such as who had the book first, whose turn it was to talk, who was singing too loud and who smiled at whom in a slightly mocking fashion. Then, the bickering went to a whole new level of ridiculous. They started fighting about who was in control of each others imaginations. My 5-year-old wanted to imagine she was a kitty unicorn princess. The 8-year-old told her she was a monster who ate kitty unicorn princesses.

They were actually fighting about hypothetical creatures dueling in their minds. In their minds, people. As I listened to them whine to me and yell at each other about who was allowed to do what in their imagined fight, I had enough. So I banned them from using their imaginations for 20 minutes because, really, what other choice did I have?

This little incident made me realize that sibling bickering was getting the best of me. Banning imagination? I needed help.

So I have been brushing up on my referee skills with a few books on sibling rivalry. And so far, I am feeling much more confident about being able to squelch fights without also squelching my kids, their personalities or their imaginations.

In particular, I have been soaking up a book called Siblings Without Rivalry. If youre anything like me, you will instantly identify with the subtitle, How to help your children live together so you can live too.

I knew immediately this was the book for me because after a summer of all-day tug-of-wars between my children, I was on the verge of madness.

The book is full of insights on sibling rivalry, but the thing that has helped me the most is a simple protocol for helping kids solve their disagreements by following these steps:

  1. Acknowledge that both children are upset by saying something like, You guys really sound mad at each other.
  2. Listen to each side and help each child express what they want out of the situation. For me, it helps to restate what each child wants in a single, clear sentence such as Anne feels sad when her imagined unicorn rainbow kitty is eaten by Nicoles make-believe monster. And Nicole just wants to be able to play the game, too.
  3. Show appreciation for each childs feelings, even if it means biting my tongue that we are actually having a serious conversation about unikitties and the dieting habits of imagination monsters. Instead of rolling my eyes and saying something unhelpful such as, This is too silly to fight over, I can say, Thats a tough dilemma when you both want to imagine different things.
  4. Express faith in my childrens ability to work out a solution that helps each side get what they want. I usually say something like, Well, I know you girls love each other and I believe you can figure this out so everyone is happy.
  5. Walk away.
Walk away? Thats right! Thats the best part of this whole process. Mom gets to walk away and let her children figure out their problems.

I admit, I was skeptical at first about this whole walking away thing. But I tried it anyway during a recent battle over who was in charge of the Lego city they were building. We stated the problem together, I gave my sympathy for the tough situation they needed to solve themselves, and then I left them alone. I heard a few whines at first, but then in just a few minutes, they both came to me, beaming that they had devised a system of taking turns. They had even written down a chart to keep track. They were so proud of themselves, and they played together beautifully the rest of the time.

I was stunned. All this time, I thought I was the integral piece of helping my kids get along. But really, I was getting in the way. Without realizing it, I was butting into their relationship and robbing them of independence when I told them to stop fighting. Every time I chose sides or handed down a judgment of who was in the right, I was setting up one of my children to be angry at me and to resent her sister. I was breeding competition for my approval rather than a healthy relationship with a sibling.

By letting them solve their own problems with a little guidance from me at the outset, I allow them to build their relationship independent of me, and they learn how to sympathize and problem solve along the way.

Of course, reading one book on sibling rivalry doesnt mean our house is now fight-free. There are still plenty of times where I just tell everyone to stop fighting before I lose my mind or I take away the toy or activity that caused the fight. But with my new mediation skills, I feel like Ive taken a first step toward keeping my sanity, and also helping my children keep their relationship with each other.

And really, thats the most important thing. I want my children to be friends with each other, now and later in life when we arent all living in the same house fighting over who gets to sit where on the couch and who gets the purple bowl. Those arguments will fade away, but the relationships wont.

And the seeds of love or resentment that are sown today will determine how strong those bonds will be tomorrow.