Fights, arguments and every other sweater-pulling incident between brothers and sisters are not only inevitable, but also very useful. Squabbling helps children test their strengths and limits.
Fights, arguments and every other sweater-pulling incident between brothers and sisters are not only inevitable, but also very useful. Squabbling helps children test their strengths and limits. But when these arguments become too frequent, they can make family life miserable. So what can you do?
A good way to prevent things from getting out of hand is to set up a “code of good behaviour” that applies to everyone and to make sure it’s followed, says Dr. Michel Maziade. “Children need to know that there’s a line they mustn’t cross, and that they aren’t allowed to hit or insult other people, or they will face a consequence commensurate with their age and the seriousness of their behaviour.”
“Setting clear rules for children is the best way to love and raise them,” continues the child psychiatrist. “A little discipline doesn’t hamper their imagination or their freedom of expression. On the contrary, experience shows that once order and calm is restored in the household, each member has more time to play and enjoy good times.”
Of course, parents need to adjust their attitudes to the age and level of understanding of each child. According to early childhood consultant Sylvie Bourcier, you can start to explain the consequences of a child’s actions to her from about the age of 3. Then, around 4 to 6 years of age, she begins to understand that others may react differently and that she will need to adapt.
The golden rule is: be patient. “It’s not because you’ve fallen in love that your respective children will necessarily like each other right away. You need to give them time to get to know each other and adapt to this reconstituted family, and that can take several years,” says social worker Michèle Lambin.
According to her, the strength of the couple and a healthy family environment are other important factors. “A good way to foster harmony is to develop rituals like having meals or going out together, for example, while keeping in mind that the children will also need to spend some time alone with their biological parent.”
And, even more than in a traditional family, good communication is key. The children come from families where the rules may have been different, which could lead to misunderstandings. “You need to talk, talk, and talk even more to make sure that frustrations don’t accumulate,” says Dr. Maziade.
Another important point is that you need to clearly define the role of each stepparent with the children, especially in cases of conflict. Even if it may be tempting to side with your own children during a fight between stepbrother and stepsister, the best course of action is to listen to each child and to find a fair compromise.
When to get involved
Specialists agree with the general rule that it’s better not to get involved in arguments and to let children manage their own conflicts. Unless you were witness to what happened, it’s better not to take sides. Blame and punishment should also be avoided when it’s impossible to know who started it.
In Quebec, nearly 26% of households with children are single parent households, and 12% are blended.
However, if the safety of one of the children is threatened, in other words, in case of dangerous acts or offensive words, then you must get involved. You have to tell the children that this attitude is unacceptable and to separate them. From the age of 2 or 3, you can send them to their respective rooms for a timeout, suggests psychologist Nadia Gagnier. Once things have calmed down, talk to them and listen to them to try to find a solution. If they fought over a game, for example, you can help them realize that they can either take turns playing or play together.
“We usually try to let them settle it between themselves, except if we think things will degenerate. But in some cases, such as if we’re about to read a story but they can’t agree on which one, I just tell them: ‘Figure it out or there won’t be a story.’ They usually decide to take turns choosing.”
Clémence Lamarche, mother to 5-year-old Henri and 3-year-old Joséphine
Make sure you don’t decide for them and impose your solution, warns Gagnier. “To become independent, your children certainly need your guidance, but they must also learn to think for themselves.” Remember also that they are observing you, and the way you manage your own disagreements with your partner or other loved ones serves as a model for them!