ASK EMORY: Siblings who fight


Dear Emory,

My two boys fight all the time, and I just hate it. The younger one (6-years-old) loves his brother very much, and he is desperate for his attention. So much so, that when he can’t make his older brother play with him, he’ll tease him to make him annoyed or angry. The older one (9-years-old) is a nice boy, but when his brother teases him, he screams or threatens to ‘hurt’ his younger brother if he doesn’t stop bothering him. This is the pattern they repeat over and over again, and the fighting is getting worse and worse.

I’m so tired of walking on eggshells, trying to keep a close eye on them, and trying to stop their fighting. Sometimes they can play well together for a little while, but it always ends in screaming and tears. This is not how I imagined my two boys would be together as brothers. I always hoped they would be friends and be kind to each other. But how do I make this happen?

“Warfare on Wayne”

Dear “Warfare,”

Wow, this does sound exhausting for you. Your boys are fighting every day. Despite your best efforts, they aren’t learning how to solve their problems without exploding.

Siblings can learn over time how to solve their problems with each other, and enjoy more fun and less fury. Yet, right now your boys seem to be stuck, repeating the same bitter battles over and over, and not learning how to avoid or resolve their problems. No wonder their frustration often explodes into fury.

I imagine that your sons might be feeling as worn out and discouraged as you are, “Warfare.” They have to live together, yet they haven’t yet figured out how to play together. When they try to play together, they haven’t yet figured out how to peacefully resolve their differences.

These problems are familiar to adults and children in every family, and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll boil them down to two essential issues:

• How do I get the other person to respect my wishes? How do I get the other person to hear what I have to say, and to care about what I want?

• Am I willing to respect the other person’s wishes? Am I ready to listen to what the other person is saying, and am I willing to care about what they want?

From your description, “Warfare,” it seems as if your older son hasn’t yet learned how to get his younger brother to hear him when he says, “No, I don’t want to play right now,” or to care about what he wants, or to respect his wishes.

And, it seems your younger son hasn’t yet learned to listen to his brother when he says, “No, I don’t want to play right now.” Or to care about what his older brother wants, or to respect his wishes.

In other words, Warfare, I imagine that if you are feeling tired and defeated by these problems, your boys feel sad and defeated about these problems, too. I’m guessing that, at this point, each brother feels that the other one does not care about, or value, the other.

Your boys need some new ideas—and a new sense of hopefulness—about better ways to deal with and solve their problems. With your help, they can figure out some reasonable, fair, and mutually respectfulsolutions for their problems.

You might, for instance, talk to each boy one-on-one and ask them for their ideas. By asking them questions like this, you are (1) encouraging them to think, (2) encouraging them to take a problem solving approach, and (3) encouraging them to figure out what they need to figure out to solve their problems, instead of fighting about their problems.

“In our family, when anyone wants to play with someone else, what would be a good way to ask them? Is saying, “Would you play with me?” a good idea? Or is there a better way to ask someone to play?”

“And in our family, do we want to make an effort to give each other play time? How much play time? How often would be a good amount of play time to give to each other? Is every day okay or should it be more or less?:

“In our family, is it okay if anyone who doesn’t want to play right that moment can say something like, ‘no, not right now’? Or what should a person say when they don’t want to play?”

“And, in our family, should the other person respect ‘No, not right now’ and not try to push them into changing their mind? Why is it a good idea to respect them saying, ‘No, not right now’?”

“In our family, if someone says, ‘No, not right now,’ is it okay to ask, ‘Then, when will you play with me?’ And is it okay to expect an answer, such as, ‘I can play with you at such-and-such time?’ Is it important whether the person who promises to play later actually keeps their promise?”

“Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes sometimes. Should we expect that sometimes this new plan won’t work? What would be a good way to deal with that problem if it happens? Is there some good way we can figure out how to get back to working together, whenever someone makes a mistake and stops working together?”

I appreciate how difficult sibling fighting is, “Warfare.” But what a great problem this is for your boys to learn from! Learning how to solve their problems with each other will be important not just this year—but in all the years to come. As your sons learn better ways to get along with each other, they’ll also be learning how to deal with future problems with room-mates, work colleagues, and even their own future family members.