Father: “My three children (16, 15, 12) are masters at provoking each other and adding fuel to the fire. They know each other’s weak spots like no other and therefore know exactly what to say or do to stimulate the other person in such a way that they cross the border.
“I often advise them to ‘play shower’: let it run off like shower water and don’t react to everything. Now I wonder, is that actually good advice? Am I not slowing them down too much? Should I just let it happen?”
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Susan Bögels: “Relationships with siblings are usually the longest we have in our lives. The quality of these relationships influences that of later relationships in life. Research shows that chronic conflict with a sibling predicts later anxiety, depression, and aggression. This is therefore pre-eminently a wonderful training ground in mutual relationships.
“Parents can use these conflicts to teach children social behaviour, to learn to relate to each other, to learn to negotiate, and to indicate their limits. And sometimes we need to protect children from each other.
“I would first look at the quarrels as if you were seeing them for the first time: without judgment, without intervention. What exactly is happening? What do all children think and feel?
“You can help your children learn to put themselves in the other person’s perspective. This can be done through joint conversations where all three can take turns expressing their grievances undisturbed, or by talking to them individually about the fights, which gives them more space to say what is bothering them. Also ask what they think the other person is thinking and feeling.
Do the children’s quarrels bring back unpleasant memories of conflicts from your own past? ‘Play shower’ is not always the best attitude in conflict, it can also indicate powerlessness. It is important as parents to know how we deal with our own conflicts. Arguing is part and parcel of relationships with people we love, but we have to learn to fix them. As parents, we have an exemplary role in this.”
Don’t let patterns develop
Stijn Sieckelinck: “In a family situation, I think this is an excellent response. We try to give children a sense of autonomy: you decide how you react to provocations: you can let them slide off you. It’s not an answer that brings peace, but you can’t always expect that in families either. Making each other’s life miserable every now and then is part of it. The presence of conflict is the rule rather than the exception, especially with three children. There is always something that runs less smoothly. Ignoring the sibling’s misbehavior can help the afflicted child pull themselves together for a while.
“At most you would do well to vary your metaphor of the shower. Otherwise your children will soon say: ‘You always give the same irritating answer if you don’t want to get to the heart of the conflict’.
“You have to watch carefully that there are no patterns in which the same child is always the victim of the filth of the other, to stay in the metaphor, or if it becomes psychologically and physically dangerous. That really needs to be addressed.
“A parent may say at home, ‘Let it slip,’ but a teacher in a classroom never. That is where ‘working together in peace’ is the goal.”