In my experience, most of the mean behavior among kids is mutual. Sometimes it will be your older kid behaving hurtfully and sometimes it will be the younger. This is not, of course, because they are bad: It is because they are still learning the skills they need to be able to advocate for themselves while at the same time reaching out generously to others. These kinds of social emotional competencies take lots and lots of practice.
That’s where you come in!
Learning how to be in touch with and verbalize your emotions so that you can make clear request of what you want or need is first and foremost learned from you. Start by helping your kids identify their emotions. When siblings are fighting, don’t take sides. Instead, guide them through the process of labeling how they are or might be feeling and what they need to feel better.
Let’s look at how this conversation might go:
George: She came in my room without asking and that is against the rules!
Anna: You, slime ball, you drew on my picture!
Mom: Anna! In our family we speak respectfully. George, it sounds like your sense of fair play and what you can count on has been violated. Anna, you sound really angry that your brother would ruin something you care about.
George: Yeah! She wasn’t being fair!
Anna: Well, he wasn’t being nice!
Mom: Anna, let’s let George tell his bit. George, you’re mad because you want to trust that your room is private. What would you like Anna to have done?
George: She should have knocked!
Mom: Can you ask her to please knock next time?
George [to Anna]: Would you please knock next time?
Anna: Yes, I should have knocked, but I was really mad.
Anna: Yes, I will knock next time.
Mom: Thanks, Anna. Now, it’s your turn. You were mad enough to ignore one of our family rules. You must have been ready to spit nails.
Anna: Yes, I was! He drew on my picture, and now it is ruined and I had worked really hard on it. That is so mean.
Mom: What do you need from George?
Anna: I need him to apologize and never come near me again.
Mom: I hear that you are still really hurt and maybe even wish right now that you didn’t have a brother, but you do, and we are learning to live peacefully with each other in this house, so what request can you make of him?
Anna: To not draw on my pictures?
Anna [to George]: Please don’t draw on my picture or anything else that is mine.
George: But you said your picture was better than mine and that was mean. Really mean.
Mom: George, I hear that you were hurt and you can say more about that, but first can you respond to Anna’s request?
George: Sorry, Anna. I shouldn’t have drawn on your picture.
Mom: George, can you tell Anna more about how it felt to have her compare her picture to yours?
George: It wasn’t nice and it made me mad. She always thinks she’s so perfect.
Mom: George, stick to your feelings right now. Don’t worry about the past.
George: It hurt my feelings.
Mom: Tell Anna. Use an I-Statement.
George: Anna, when you said your picture was better than mine, it hurt my feelings because I really liked my picture. Next time please find something nice to say about my picture.
Anna: Sorry, George. You did do a really good job with the shading on your picture.
George: Thanks, Anna!
Now, you might be shaking your head thinking a) my kids would never calm down and forgive each other that quickly and b) no way do I have enough time to walk them through that kind of conversation every time.
Certainly, when your kids are first learning these skills, it may take them longer to cool off and they may need more of your help to know what to say to each other. But the more you do it, and the more practiced they become, the more you will hear them going through these conversations by themselves.
And yes, walking your kids through these kinds of conversations will take your time-probably when you are right in the middle of getting dinner ready or helping another sibling with a school project-but what is the cost of not doing the work? Slammed doors? More hurt feelings? Yelling, screaming, threats? Punishments that take you even more time and energy to follow through on but do nothing to assuage your children’s tender feelings? Hate and resentment that builds up among siblings?
I would like to argue that teaching kids to resolve conflict peacefully is some of the most important work you do as a parent. As a teacher, I could always tell which kids came from families where these skills were being emphasized. Those were the kids who did not get bullied because when other kids did something mean or hurtful, those kids knew how to address the problem head on and to defuse the bully before he or she could even really get started.