This weekend, a couple of our kids had a sibling conflict at the house while my husband and I were out running errands. When we left, chores were done, the boys were relaxing on the couch watching a movie. The girls were upstairs working on their projects. All was right with the world. Little did we know that we were going to lecture on the psychology of sibling conflict that day.
I don’t dispute that Number 4 has a small problem with authority (he’s 11). Well, it causes large problems, but he doesn’t have it all of the time; mainly at school, but sometimes at home, and… never mind that right now. Usually Number 2 (she’s 16) is easy going and non-confrontational. Earlier this day, Number 4 did his regular chores, plus mowed the lawn and did various extra chores – all quickly and without complaint. So I was surprised when Number 2 texted that Number 4 was hitting her and refusing to listen. I tattled to my husband, and we called home to straighten things out. A few minutes later, I received a text similar to the first. After another round of texts and phone calls, we finally understood what the problem was.
The sibling conflict came down to a lack of both ‘benevolent leadership’ and ‘internal locus of control’.
Initial Conflict. Numbers 4, 5, and 6 were watching a movie. Number 6 got bored and left, then Number 5 grabbed the remote to change the movie. Number 4 grabbed a different remote to stop him, and a remote battle ensued (in which one remote grew a red blade made of light, and the other grew a blue one – there were sparks and it was all very exciting, I’m sure).
Escalation (choosing the wrong strategy). This is where Number 2 walked in. She decided that if two out of the three boys wanted to watch something else, then majority rules. This is a strategy they use when deciding on movies as well as other activities; however, we don’t allow votes mid-activity. If one doesn’t like the ruling, he/she can go do something else until the movie/ activity is over. Number 4 rebelled because he felt like he was being treated unfairly.
Sibling Conflict (blowout). Number 2 tried to force the surrender of Number 4’s remote physically, but he fought back. Subsequent blowouts included Number 4 refusing to go/stay in his room when asked, and then throwing things around in his room when he finally decided to stay there.
Ruling with an ‘iron fist’ is a fear-tactic that immature leaders resort to when they find simply asking nicely doesn’t work. This type of leadership is re-enforced because the behavior get results short-term, but resentment of the leader builds under this fear tactic. The leader will eventually encounter resistance (if not be actively worked against) and must inflict harsher penalties for non-compliance; and so goes the vicious circle.
Benevolent leadership is defined by Fahri Kararkas as:
“The process of creating a virtuous cycle of encouraging, initiating, and implementing positive change in organizations through: a) ethical decision making and moral actions, b) developing spiritual awareness and creating a sense of meaning, c) inspiring hope and fostering courage for positive action, and d) leaving a legacy and positive impact for the larger community.” – Benevolent Leadership (2009)
This idea is used in business management systems, but it can be applied to all leadership positions, including babysitting. Of course, this type of leadership takes time and trust. That is what we are attempting to build up to “one day at a time” here. What this means (in the context of this post) is that Number 2 should have approached the dispute with a mindset open to ‘positive change’ versus a mindset that just wanted to enforce her will.
Internal Locus of Control
On the other side of the boxing ring, Number 4 was upset that he had been unfairly treated. He blamed his tantrums on Number 2. We explained that while she made him angry and frustrated, his decision to behave destructively was up to him. When he acted out, his sister felt she had to act harsher in order to control him. The act of blaming his sister for his behavior comes from having an external locus of control, which means that he put the responsibility for the way he felt and acted on an outside force (his sister).
Our job as parents is to point out that we are largely responsible for our own reactions and thoughts, not those around us. Forming an internal locus of control is a good life skill to develop self-esteem and personal growth. For example: If you have an internal locus of control and you do something well, you believe it’s because you practiced hard/ worked on it/ kept trying (etc.); not just because you were lucky. This mindset gives one a healthy feeling of control over one’s life.
Why all this Psycho-babble?
Sibling conflict is unavoidable. As they get older, the fights become about more than who gets to hold the remote control. Helping our kids understand how and why they react a certain way during conflicts allows them to learn about themselves and make better choices for themselves in the future.
So what do you do when the fights are still about the remote control? Most of the time, we simply take the remote away, but I don’t recommend this. It only solves the shouting temporarily. The result is that I become the bad guy, and then they run off to find something else to fight about. Helping kids identify the root problem and suggest their own solution defuses a lot of situations. Resolving conflicts between kids takes time and the ability to bite your tongue (both are low resources for me), but the rewards are worth it!
Read Conflict Resolution for Kids for an uncomplicated way to guide your kids into working their own problems out; it is a habit well worth forming.
Personally, I love psychology; I love how we are all given the same psychological building blocks, and like kids with Legos, we all build unique minds with them. Applying psychology to a sibling conflict helps us understand the situation. Understanding makes us able to mediate a fair conflict resolution.