by Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman
"Can you help?" the first email began. The concerned inquirer went on to detail a situation between two brothers, ages six and nine. "I've got a sibling rivalry problem," the frustrated mother explained. "My two kids are constantly poking and pushing each other. I don't mind a little fun tickling, but it often leads to physical confrontation. Tickling is OK because it doesn't hurt anyone. It is the escalation that is the problem. They don't know when to stop. They are constantly on top of each other creating problems. I am frustrated." This parent’s final question was, "Why does sibling rivalry have to be so hard to deal with?"
The second email also came from a concerned mother. She briefly described her major frustration with her fourteen-year-old son and her eleven-year-old daughter. "We invested in an above ground swimming pool this summer. What fun I thought we would all have! Not so. The pool is turning into a nightmare of constant problems. These two kids go after each other all the time in the pool. Their sibling rivalry is ruining the relaxed mood of the summer and creating real distance between them. The biggest issue is SPLASHING. They purposefully splash each other, usually for no reason. The splashing escalates from innocent fun, and tears are often the result. I have tried a no splashing rule, but they said splashing is fun and they like doing it. I told them to only splash when the other has their back turned, but their quick movements resulted in someone beginning a splash when a back was turned but hitting the face as the other person rotated in the water. I finally told them that if you are in the water you are going to get splashed. So don't go in if you don't want to be splashed. I am not totally happy with any solution I have come up with. Do you have any ideas I can use with this growing sibling rivalry?"
Both parents have a problem. Both have two kids who are having trouble getting along. Both have what they label as a sibling rivalry problem. Both mothers are wrong. These are not sibling rivalry problems. They are boundary issues. Neither parent has created appropriate boundaries that work.
Take tickling and touching, for instance. What is the difference? Why is touching any different than tickling if you are in my space without my permission? "Tickling doesn't hurt," the first mother contends, assuming that "doesn't hurt" is an appropriate boundary. It is not. When your daughter's first boyfriend touches her breast softly in the car on the way home, that doesn't hurt. Is "doesn't hurt" really the criterion on which you want to base appropriate touching?
The second mother attempted to create firm and understandable boundaries. No splashing is a boundary. Only splash when a back is turned is a boundary. Those didn't work, so the parent created another boundary, designating the pool as a splashing zone and outside of the pool as a splash-free zone. This is not a useful solution for the child who wants to swim yet doesn't want to get splashed.
So what are these parents to do?
A common parent reaction in cases such as these is to do nothing. The belief that precedes the lack of response here is that kids need to learn to work it out themselves. No, they don't. They need to be taught how to work it out. They will not learn appropriate ways to handle these situations unless someone teaches them. The best person to do that is you, the parent.
The first step in boundary setting is to make the boundaries clear, specific, and positive. "No hard splashing" is not specific. “Hard” means different things to different people and is open to interpretation. "This side of the pool is for people who want to participate in splashing games. The other side is for those who desire to swim without being splashed." That boundary is clear and allows for the child who wants to swim unhampered without splashing.
"Keep your hands to yourself unless you ask for and receive permission" focuses on what you want rather than what you don't want and makes the boundary clear. "No touching without permission" creates a clear boundary but focuses on what you don't want. Stick to the positive phrasing.
Next, turn boundary setting in your family over to each individual person. Yes, that includes the children. Any type of touch can be a violation to the one being touched. The most appropriate person to decide when his or her own personal space is being invaded in every situation is the one being touched. Allow the person who is on the receiving end to decide what is too much or too close.
The final task is to teach your children to speak up for themselves. If you want a behavior, you have to teach a behavior. Two important teaching pieces are necessary here. The first is to teach children to give a directive.
Examples of directives include:
"Please step back."
"I don't want to do splashing right now."
"I want more space."
"Please stop poking me."
The second task is to teach your children to include the reason for the directive: why they are making a request. That part of the directive begins with the word "because."
"Please step back because I am uncomfortable with you being this close. You are in my space."
"I don't want to do splashing right now because I would rather see how long I can float on my back."
"I want more space because I need room to do an activity."
"Please stop poking me because it interrupts my reading and I want to finish this chapter."
The "why" can be delivered before or after the directive. "Poking interrupts my reading and prevents me from finishing this chapter. Please stop poking me" is as helpful as "Please stop poking me because it interrupts my reading and I want to finish this chapter." Either form is fine.
Teaching the child who is experiencing a space invasion to speak up is one important role of the parent. Another is to teach the child who received the directive to hear it and respond appropriately.
"Gustavo, did you hear Arturo ask you to back up and give him more space? Here is how we do that." Then demonstrate and allow Gustavo to practice.
"Karen, Willie just asked you to step back because he is uncomfortable with you being that close. Take a step back and check with him if he feels OK with you being there."
Do not dismiss violations. React every time you see an incident of space invading by using the One-Minute Behavior Modifier (explained in detail in The Only 3 Discipline Strategies You Will Ever Need) if needed.
"Shantel, that is space invading. We don't invade another's space in this family without permission because it often leads to verbal or physical violence. What we do in this family is ask the other person for permission. It sounds like this, 'Is it OK if I read on your bed, too?'"
Several repetitions of the One-Minute Behavior modifier might be needed before the child learns the appropriate behavior. If no change in behavior occurs at that point, it is time to move to the Dynamic Discipline Equation Opportunity Equals Responsibility (also detailed in The Only 3 Discipline Strategies You Will Ever Need).
"Paul, in our family, opportunity equals responsibility. You have the opportunity to play in the sandbox with your brother. Your responsibility is to be respectful of what he is building and allow it to stand. If you choose to be disrespectful of what he is building and knock it over, you have decided to have a different opportunity. You will be deciding to play in the yard for a while. You can decide."
Follow through immediately if you see Paul activate the undesired behavior. "Paul, I see you decided to be disrespectful of your brother’s creation by stepping on it. When you choose to do that, you have decided to have a different opportunity. Come play over here in the grass for a few minutes. You will get another opportunity to play in the sandbox later."
Setting clear boundaries, teaching your children how to articulate their personal boundaries to siblings, teaching them how to respond to requests for personal space, following up with the One-Minute Behavior Modifier, and implementing the Dynamic Discipline Equation if necessary are useful strategies to help your family respect one another's personal space. It may also go a long way to reducing incidents of sibling rivalry.
Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman are the authors of The Only 3 Discipline Strategies You Will Ever Need. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free Uncommon Parenting blog.To obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their website today: www.uncommon-parenting.com.