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Growing Concerns (05/30/2007)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
A parenting column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: Our kids, ages 4 and 5, are driving us crazy with their constant bickering and fighting. Do you have any ideas for a pair of exhausted, frustrated parents?

Answer: For what it's worth, I've been there. My children spent about 12 years squabbling with each other. Suddenly one summer it stopped, much to my delight! Sibling conflict is one of the most irritating things parents endure, but if you think about it from the child's point of view, it's not too surprising that it happens.

First of all, within a family there is competition for limited resources: limited toys, limited space, limited adult time and energy. Confronted with this, kids are bound to fight for what they want. Secondly, when people of any age live together every day, they do get on each other's nerves. Young children have not yet developed the patience and coping skills to allow them to work through their negative feelings constructively. Finally, home is where most of us let our hair down, and kids are no exception. Most of us use better social skills at work, at church, or out shopping than we do at home.

Despite the fact that it's a pain in the neck, sibling rivalry presents a rich opportunity for helping children learn to practice good social skills and conflict resolution. As a parent, you can guide your children in this process. Here are a few ways to do that:

" At a time when your children are not fighting, engage them in generating a list of rules for "fair fighting," such as "use words, not fists." Make a poster to remind them of the rules.

" Involve the children in deciding the consequences for not following the rules. Be sure to follow through consistently the next time an unfair fight breaks out.

" Decide together on preventive strategies: dividing the play space or the toys, for example, or agreeing to play next to, but not with, each other for a period of time.

" Introduce your children to the word "compromise" and help them think of ways to compromise when they run into a conflict. (Yes, even 4-year olds can learn such big words if you give them concrete examples of what you mean. In fact, they usually like to add such a word to their growing vocabulary.)

" If conflict breaks out, let the kids work on it themselves as long as they are within the rules. If it seems as though it might get out of hand, step in as a coach to remind them of the ideas they came up with before. Remember that they will learn best by doing. And the skills they learn with each other will serve them well in all relationships to come.



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