A Special Solution to Sibling Strife

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They'd barely tumbled in the door from school when it started. "Mom! I called that seat first!" "Mom! She took two cookies and I only got one!" And there I was, jumping in to play referee…again.

If your house is anything like mine, you probably feel like you spend much of your time with your kids trying to solve spats and silence the bickering. But you also probably keep holding onto the hope that one day there might be harmony. Guess what? There is hope! It comes in the form of one simple word: "special." Here are three ways focusing on "special" can increase the peace in your home:

Parents to Kids: Treat each one as special

Maybe we think this should go without saying, but kids like to feel they're special. Even though we know it, we sometimes confuse our desire to be fair to our children with treating them equally. But they're not equal.

Dr. Scott Turansky, co-author of Say Goodby to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes..in You and Your Kids! (with Joanne Miller), suggests that parents try instead to treat kids independently. He notes: "parents inadvertently encourage competition by treating them the same. Kids look for inequities." Turansky often reminds parents that "fair doesn't mean equal."

We know we should treat our kids differently from each other because they are different from each other. But framing it as treating them "special" creates a more positive environment. It makes those differences a good thing. When each child in a family can feel valued, there's less chance for conflict to develop due to competition.

Look for ways to engage each of your children in an activity all their own, that you don't share with any of their siblings. Maybe you can play chess with one child and scrapbook with another. Or include one of them as your biking buddy, while you save time for doing jigsaw puzzles with the other.

Point out the strengths of their particular temperament and ways each one adds to your family. You might say, "Susie, I appreciate how much you love being around people. You do such a good job making our friends feel welcome when they visit." Or, "Daniel, you make a good leader. I like how other kids look to you to help decide what to do when you're playing."

Parents to Conflict: Address issues individually

When bickering and fights take place, it's our tendency as parents to tackle the offenders as a unit. Instead, Turansky advocates separating children. "Work with one kid at a time. Give each one a separate plan, particular to them."

With this concept in mind, once we've deciphered the nature of the issue at hand, we can move on to addressing the conflict one-on-one with our kids. This allows us to observe each child's role in the conflict and helps isolate the factors involved. Then we can tailor the problem-solving strategy to the individual child's age, personality and strengths. As we do this, we should emphasize the unique solutions each particular child brings to the situation. Making them feel special as peacemakers empowers kids to become more effective at resolving their conflicts.

For example, sometimes arguments ensue when one child wants to be left alone, while another craves attention. Taking them each aside gives you the chance to draw their attention the positives of the interaction. You can say, "Jane, your younger brother really looks up to you. Do you think maybe he's just wanting to be with you because of that?" And you can suggest to the younger one that his enthusiasm might be overwhelming to his sister and propose that he find a creative way to invite her to do something fun after she's had some time alone.

Kids to Kids: Teach them to value each other

Parents also need to cast a vision for their kids of having a loving home environment where everyone treats each other as special. Make it a habit to take time to celebrate each other's accomplishments. Talk with each child about ways they could do something unexpected for their siblings. Encourage them to speak well about and to one another. Then praise them liberally when they do any of these things.

When kids begin developing a pattern of displaying these behaviors, the level of conflict in the home subsides. After all, it's hard to be angry with someone who has done something kind for you.

We saw the benefits of casting this vision one year when my then seven-year-old daughter, Evelyn's, birthday approached. Everyone in the household grew tired of her (hourly) exclamations of how many days were left until her celebration. At first her sisters hounded her to stop and fights erupted over her right to have a birthday countdown. Then one day my eldest daughter found a solution. She began announcing each morning the number of days remaining for her sister. Evelyn loved the recognition and her excessive counting down stopped. Being made to feel special by her sister solved the struggle they'd been having.

Turansky points out that the key element is remembering that we're trying to teach our child how to relate to other children. "It's your child's first class in relationship school," he says. "They're building the skills necessary to be successful."

Look for ways to implement these three approaches to bickering in your family. Because when "special" becomes the byword in your home, your family life will be exceptional indeed.

Lara Krupicka is a freelance writer with a passion for helping moms make choices that transform their lives. She especially loves her husband and three girls (who also love each other… most of the time).