Imagine you are living in a post-apocalyptic world where resources are scarce. There is fierce competition for basic necessities. Not only are resources scarce, they are controlled by a small but powerful monarchy. These rulers have so much power that they control all the food, clothing, and shelter. They assign you your living place and may even force you to share that space with your most hated rival. Everything you get depends on pleasing them. They are capricious—one minute bestowing gifts to you and the next putting you on some gruesome work detail. Your rivals plot against you and report any wrong-doing to the rulers. Sometimes they even lie about you just to secure their own position in the ranks.
This, my friend, is not a plot synopsis of the latest scary Hollywood science fiction thriller. This is what it’s like to live in a house with siblings. Being the youngest of five, I remember it well. The wars waged over which television program we all watched (because we only had ONE television—imagine the horror!), who got the coveted prize in the cereal box, who got to eat the last of ANYTHING, who made the bedroom a mess (which was probably me as my sister is a compulsive cleaner, and my house has been known to look like a bomb went off in it). The list goes on and on.
Yet, as parents, we are somehow surprised when our little darlings don’t get along. We watch television families and somehow think they are a reflection of real life. Not once on “Seventh Heaven” did the girls start pulling each other’s hair and cursing at each other. On the “Cosby Show,” all the kids were always impeccably groomed and never once fought over a bathroom. I can tell you that unless there were eight bathrooms in the Cosby house, that’s just not reality! When I see these examples, and the pressure they put on families, I think back to something James Lehman said in The Total Transformation Program: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” What he meant was that it’s not just Hollywood that likes to paint a pretty (and unrealistic) picture of family life. We all do it. The family that seems to have it all together probably has a few issues you don’t know about. You are comparing your real life to someone else’s fictitious one.
If you want to see improved relationships in your family, it is important to look at where your family is at right now and to start with some small, measurable goals. While you can’t force your kids to like each other, you can create an expectation of civility and hold them accountable when they are not. By the way, did I mention that you are the powerful rulers mentioned at the beginning? You DO have the authority to expect your family to follow some basic rules. They don’t have to like them. They just have to comply or choose to accept the consequences.
If your children are constantly at war, here are a few suggestions to bring more peace into the household.
1. Establish House Rules. Set up some house rules and let everyone know what the new expectations are. These rules might include how people in the house treat one another. For instance, definitely no abuse should be allowed. This includes child to child, child to adult, and adult to child. You can break it down further by defining what constitutes abuse. This would include physically hurting someone, calling them derogatory and hurtful names, destroying the property of others, and even threatening them or threatening to hurt a pet.
You may want to include rules about respecting property. For example, no borrowing without permission and taking turns sharing items that are for the whole family to enjoy. Keep it short and simple. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself or them by making a list that is a mile long. You can always tackle other issues later on. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
2. Establish Consequences. Decide ahead of time what the consequences will be if the rules are not followed. The consequences may vary for each child as you consider their age and level of maturity. One particular consequence that can be very helpful with siblings is to have them do something kind or helpful for the person they wronged. For instance, one child may have to serve his sibling dinner, or do their chore, or even write an apology note. (For a more in-depth look at consequences and rewards, see The Complete Guide to Consequences program by James Lehman, MSW.)
3. Hold a Family Meeting. Once you have decided on the basic rules, have a family meeting. This need not be a big formal thing. You can get everyone together over a pizza on the weekend. Let them know that you are trying some new things to make the house more peaceful, and you expect them to help out by cooperating. It is important to have these kinds of discussions when things are relatively calm. Let them know that you believe they are capable of meeting your expectations.
4. Be Objective. Lastly, it is important to un-do the labels that you may have for your children. There is often one child who seems to be at the heart of all of the turmoil. There is also typically one child who is seen as the “well behaved” child, who is merely a targeted victim. The reality is that it takes two to be in a fight. So, if there is a conflict, both children should be held accountable, regardless of “who started it.” It is important for the aggressor to learn self-control, but it is also important for the other child to learn that they have the power to walk away and not take the bait.
In the beginning, it may feel like you are surrounded by opposing hostile forces, but don’t lose heart; keep going! All kidding aside, it can be very discouraging to be in a household where there is constant strife. Take some consolation in knowing that there are millions of families who are dealing with the same issues.
If you work on just a few simple goals at a time, you will be more likely to see progress. Remember, small steps will still take you where you want to go. If you have tried all these techniques and still feel like you are in the middle of a war zone, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. Many families have been helped by The Total Transformation Program. You can also look for local supports by calling 211 or looking online. Just know that you don’t have to do it alone, and there is hope for better times ahead.
About Jacqueline McDowell
Jacqueline McDowell formerly worked as an Empowering Parents 1-on-1 Coach. Prior to coming to Empowering Parents, she has worked in a diverse range of residential care settings with people who have been impacted by mental illness, cognitive and physical disabilities, as well as pregnant and parenting teens. She has a Bachelor's degree in Social Work from the University of Southern Maine. She is the proud parent of an adult son, Jeremy.