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When Sibling Rivalry Becomes Sibling Abuse

What to Do When the Kids Are Fighting

All brothers and sisters fight and call each other names. It is called sibling rivalry. For parents, it can be a time when it is not pleasant to be around their children.

Dr. Vernon Wiehe, a researcher in family relationships and a professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, in his new book for parents entitled What Parents Need to Know About Sibling Abuse, warns that sibling rivalry can get out of control and become sibling abuse. He suggests parents can intervene in sibling rivalry that is in danger of getting out of control by implementing a family conference using the acronym SAFE.

"S" Stands for STOP the Action.

When brothers and sisters are engaged in hitting, slapping, pushing or name-calling, parents should stop the behavior. Children might be asked to go to their own rooms or do something alone for a period of time. If the behavior reoccurs, parents should mention the need for a family discussion. After dinner or before watching TV in the evening is one time to sit down together as a family to talk about the behavior and to consider alternatives.

"A" Stands for ASSESS What Is Happening.


The first things to assess in the family meeting are the facts and feelings about what happens just prior to the siblings becoming embroiled in conflict. All siblings involved should be included in telling what happened and how they were feeling at the time and after the conflict. After a highly emotionally-charged altercation between siblings, children often project blame or put responsibility onto the other sibling when confronted. They may protest, for example: "Tommy hit me," or "Alicia called me a name."

Parents can cut through children's projections of blame by requiring that each child speak only in "I" statements. This means that each statement must begin with the word "I." Acceptable statements are, for example: "I hit Tommy back after he hit me," or "I teased Alicia, and she called me a name." The use of "I" statements forces children to focus on their own contribution to the altercation rather than projecting responsibility onto their sibling. This makes sense because a child can take responsibility only for his or her own behavior.

"F" Stand for FIND out What Will Work.

This is the core of the problem-solving process. The central question to the siblings is: "What can you do to avoid what happened?" Although parents may be tempted to present simple solutions to the problem, they should skillfully involve the children in analyzing the conflict and how it could have been avoided.

An outcome of this phase of the problem-solving process may be the family setting some basic rules that all must follow. Posting these rules on the refrigerator door may serve as a helpful reminder to all concerned. For example, a rule might be: No one borrows anything (toys, clothing, personal possessions) without expressed permission from the person owning the object. Or, when the door to a bedroom or bathroom is closed, no one enters without permission from the person in the room.

Frequently conflicts develop around the completion of household chores assigned to siblings, such as taking out the trash, setting the table and washing the dishes. To help reduce these conflicts, a chart can be mounted on the refrigerator clearly identifying who is responsible for what task on what day and establishing a consequence for not fulfilling these responsibilities. For example, a consequence for not completing a task may be no TV for one day for that person.

"E" Stands for EVALUATE Whether or Not the Decisions from the Family Problem-solving Conference Are Being Implemented.

This evaluation can occur a few days or a week later and provides clues for fine-tuning desired outcomes. The problem-solving process in a family conference is not a one-time event, but may need to be used frequently as siblings and parents confront the complex challenges of living together. On the other hand, every time siblings have a conflict does not mean the family must have a problem-solving conference. Sibling rivalry is normal. Parents can expect siblings to have conflicts, and children need to learn to work out these conflicts among themselves.

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