Your kids are fighting: How to stop a vicious cycle

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Your oldest picks on your middle child, who, in turn, takes it out on your youngest. How do you put a stop to this?

Parent advice:

When one child is picking on another child, the parent needs to listen to the behavior: Does he feel left out? Is she not getting the kind of attention she got before? Does he have something to say and no one is listening? If you really listen, chances are you will hear what your child’s particular stress is: No one is paying attention to me; I’m hurting; school was awful today; I’ve been bullied. Assume your child is trying to communicate to you and listen.

–Elaine Spicer

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Very early on I explained that I wasn’t going to step in unless there was blood. They had to work out disagreements between themselves. “Hurting my feelings” didn’t count. “Looking at me mean” also didn’t count. If there isn’t attention from the parents, most of this irritating, petty stuff will go away.

–Marie Grass Amenta

Expert advice:

“There are inevitable conflicts between any human beings when you live together,” says Adele Faber, co-author of “Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too” (Harper). “The question is how you can turn down the flame to the little pilot light. It’s there, but it doesn’t turn into a big conflagration and burn down the house.”

Faber says the key to minimizing the flare-ups is engendering plenty of good feelings among siblings, so when the inevitable arguments arise, it’s not impossible to find some common ground. In this case of hand-me-down pestering, Faber suggests a multiprong approach.

Call a family meeting. “You say, ‘Our family has a problem here and it’s not going to get fixed unless we have everyone’s ideas. We’ve got a lot of good brains in this family and I’ve got confidence we’ll figure out a way to solve this.”‘

Air the grievances. Tell the kids to “lay it all on the table,” Faber says, and list everything that makes them mad at one another. “I hate when he plays with my Legos and doesn’t put them back.” “He always bugs me when I’m trying to read.”

Invite solutions, asking the kids what they want to happen..”You can only play with my Legos if you put them back.” “Stay away from me when I’m reading.” “When so-and-so is using the computer, instead of knocking him off the chair, ask for a turn.” Write down all the suggestions, even the crummy ones, she says, then decide which you can commit to.

Hatch a plan. “Review the whole list and find four or five solutions you can all agree on. Post them where you can all read them and meet again in a week to see what’s working and what isn’t. Then decide whether you need amendments, additions, subtractions. Life is a process and we’re helping them become part of that process and part of that solution.”

A final tip: Accept your kids’ negative feelings about one another, Faber says. “We push away negativity because it’s painful to listen to, but kids need to know you’re listening to their feelings.”

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