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Sibling Smack-downs


Use my words or punch you in the face?


Choices, choices. The first time I saw the girls fight, it wasn't what I expected. I saw the conflict begin the same way it had since they were just months old; one would have a toy and the other would take it, and then the twin that was wronged would cry. And then I'd help resolve the situation modeling language, "she is sad because you took her toy. Let take turns." But on that day, before I could get to the language modeling stage, the wronged twin screamed a battle cry and then grabbed a fistful of golden locks belonging to the perpetrator. I suddenly found myself witnessing my very first two-year-old cat fight, torn between laughter and horror.

When sibling fight, it is hard not to be sucked up in the drama. After all, someone could get hurt, and as the kids get older, they will get hurt. And it is our job to teach them conflict management.  But to understand why people fight,  we have to understand the triggers. Usually it stems from a communication issue; they feel like they are not being heard, understood, or are so overwhelmed by their emotions that they feel like hitting is their only option. We all have seen adults fly off the handle from various communication failures. For a kid with intonation or expressive language issues paired with anxiety and attention seeking behaviors, the hitting seems like a reasonable "plan-B" because that is all they have. They are still learning to identify and express feelings which may take years to fully get a handle on.

 And then there is antagonistic sibling behavior.

Our siblings are the first peers we encounter.  Through the constant exposure, we subtly learn the intricacies of another person. We learn their likes and dislikes, we learn their moods and subconsciously we learn all their tender points and weaknesses. And then we learn what happens when we push their buttons and for many of us, it feels powerful to have that much impact on another person. It's like a mini soap opera unfolding in front of us and we are the Diva.

I have seen all of my kids try on their Diva hats. I have watched the twins smile triumphantly as they run off with a toy they just snatched from the other.  I have watched #3 make rules that the twins "have to follow" which usually turns into a screaming brawl.  I have watched #2 tell his siblings the things they can and can't do because, "I am the supreme ruler of this house and make all the rules. You must obey or be banished to Pluto which isn't even considered a planet anymore since it was declassified." That declaration is usually answered with screaming and a WWE take-down if #1 is involved. I've also seen #1 give the Diva a try. He is subtle, but when he sees that he has succeeded in agitating #2, he seems pleased with himself. 

I've also seen what happens when they don't have the words to express their frustrations. I've seen all types of objects go flying in rage. I've seen toddler versions of Jerry Springer in full motion with no body guards to help. And the only thing you can do is separate them, model the language they should have been using if their brains were able to act less impulsively: "I am angry. Give me back my toy. I  do no appreciate you taking my stuff. I feel like punching you in the face" And then go have some vodka.

Many times the Diva behavior triggers the Jerry Springer behavior.  If we see it brewing, we are able to tell the kids to "stop antagonizing each other", which does work if the punishment outweighs the feedback they're getting from the behavior.  Other times, we try redirection with a game, puzzle, YouTube video, and  anything that takes the attention away from each other. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't.  For #2, he gets in such a rage that we have to let it play out while he is in a safe space far away from #1 who gets so agitated by the screaming that he tries to wrestle him to shut him up.

When I see the kids fight, my mind goes back to the fights I used to have with my younger brother when I was a kid.  I remember the fighting but not what they were about.  Not a one.  I do remember, there was no one around to model the words or to redirect us and somehow we manged to get through the phase unscathed; no scars, broken limbs or hard feeling.  So hopefully, the kids will learn the interpersonal communication skills they need to interact with each other and the general population. And with help from us, they'll learn how to identify their feelings and express themselves effectively. 

Or maybe, they'll be the next soap opera Diva.

Only time will tell.

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