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"Get out of my room, you idiot!" "Shut up." "Give me back my iPod right now." "I'm gonna tell Mom!" With every outburst and door slam, your blood pressure rises. Sibling spats have grown into a virtual blood sport and you don't know if you should run interference or head for safer ground.
"The old thinking was, kids fought to get a reaction from their parents. So stay out of it," says Susan McHale, professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Now the belief is that kids need more than that from us. "As siblings get older, they find more sophisticated ways of tormenting each other. It's crucial that parents pay attention to this kind of hurtful behavior because it can have a far-reaching impact on self-esteem and the relationship siblings have with others," says Laurie Kramer, PhD, professor and director of the Family Resiliency Center at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
This doesn't mean that we should start acting as referees for our kids -- determining who's out of bounds, punishing perpetrators, and squelching arguments altogether. "When parents intervene in this authoritarian way, kids end up fighting more," says McHale. "They also never learn to resolve conflict on their own -- with each other or with others in their lives."
Instead parents should aim to act as a coach, gently guiding kids through their conflicts when the kids can't work it out themselves, while also helping them hone the skills they need to communicate. "If parents change their approach to conflict, the kids will do the same," says Vikki Stark, MSW, a family therapist in Montreal and author of My Sister, Myself (McGraw-Hill Companies).
The following are common problems that adolescents clash over, along with expert advice on what you can do to help your opposing players declare a cease fire and come together as a team.
Sibling rivalry: My sons couldn't be more different: The 13-year-old is popular; the older one is a loner. This used to mean lots of fireworks. Now it's more heartbreaking because they have little to do with each other.
Sibling revelry: "Sometimes you have to lower your expectations and accept that your kids may never be best friends," says Stark. Forcing the issue may only build up friction. When kids have very different personalities, parents must develop a culture of respect in the family for each temperament.
If your older son tends to spend time in his room, help your younger son understand that his brother isn't being rude or grouchy, he's probably just recharging himself, says Lois Braverman, CEO and president of the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. Accommodating different or even conflicting personalities doesn't mean, however, that everyone should go his own way. "The strongest sibling relationships are associated with siblings who spend meaningful time together in the company of one or both parents," says McHale. "It may very well be that parents are there to help orchestrate a positive experience and to help kids find common ground." It can be as simple as sharing a daily meal or watching a TV show together.
"Whatever you try, don't do any of the things that pull them apart, like locking them into roles as the "good" one or the "smart" one or by showing favoritism," says Adele Faber, coauthor of Siblings Without Rivalry (HarperCollins). "If you clear the road, brothers and sisters will find a way to each other. It just may not be until one leaves for college or they're adults. Ultimately, though, the tie siblings have can bring them great comfort in life."
Sibling rivalry: My daughter gripes that her kid sisters get to have things -- like a cell phone and a later bedtime -- that she never did. It's partly because we're more relaxed parents. But my younger girls are more mature because their big sister blazed the way. Do we need to hold back on our younger girls on principle?
Sibling revelry: "Treating kids equally is usually not possible," says Katherine Jewsbury Conger, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at University of California, Davis. What matters is that kids perceive that they are being treated fairly. Acknowledge your older daughter's feelings, then speak candidly about why you've made the decisions you have, giving her a vote of confidence at the same time ("You handled these privileges so well, which is why we thought your sisters could handle them sooner"). Then ask if there's anything she wants. "She might request a 12 p.m. curfew and you'll need to go over why that may not be a great idea," says Faber. Regardless, the point is that you treat her as an individual.
Sibling rivalry: My children are constantly squabbling and name-calling. If they're not fighting over who sits where in the car, they're cursing each other out over control of the remote.
Sibling revelry: Parents have to lay down ground rules about how family members should be treating one another. And they must communicate what their expectations are, clearly and often, says Faber. Otherwise, kids will behave as lawlessly as we let them.
Talk with your kids about what's going on and how you expect their behavior to change. "You can say that while you can't demand that they act like they love one another, you do require civility. There is such a thing as kindness without closeness. It's a lesson that will go a long way in the outside world," says Braverman.
Emphasize that abuse of any kind won't be tolerated. Pinpoint key conflicts and ask the kids to suggest guidelines -- and the consequences for not following them. For example, you all might agree that commandeering the TV clicker from a sibling automatically loses the bully an hour of viewing time. The next time it happens -- and it will -- your job is to remind them of the agreed-upon punishment.
Sibling rivalry: My daughters had a pretty solid relationship until recently. Now the 14-year-old is always shooing the younger one away; she in turn seems to be doing everything to make her older sister crazy, like borrowing clothes without asking.
Sibling revelry: "The teen years are a high point for conflict, especially with girls," explains Stark. Big sis is trying to establish an identity outside the family. Little sis is desperate to win back her sister's attention, even if it's by driving her nuts.
Calling a family meeting when tempers are somewhat cool gives you an opportunity to help each girl understand what the other is feeling, says Faber. Sit the kids down, acknowledge there's a problem, and allow each girl the chance to air her gripes without interruption. Then they have one shot at rebuttal.
If your younger daughter's response to her big sister's complaint is along the lines of, "I take her clothes because hers are way cooler than mine, and I bug her because she's always ignoring me," run with something positive. Point out that it sounds like she is missing her sister and also really likes her taste in clothes. "We can all forgive a lot of things in someone if we know she likes things about us," says Faber.
Brainstorm solutions -- like going shopping together and not entering each other's rooms uninvited -- then meet in a week to check on the situation. And, in the meantime, let your older daughter have some space while you devote extra time to the younger one.
While you won't ever eliminate all the fighting, you can lessen the frequency.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.