Q: I have a 10-year-old son and twin 7-year-old daughters. Overall, they get along well, but my son can get into a know-it-all or contrarian mode easily, which can lead to fights. He will often try to correct his sisters (without always being correct; he’ll just make things up and dig in) or say that things they experienced didn’t happen. For example, if the girls came back from a birthday party and said they had Popsicles, he might say “No, you didn’t. Birthday parties have cake.”
Sometimes I let them work it out, but other times I do step in to validate their experiences (“I was at the party, yes they had Popsicles”). None of them like to drop it once these arguments get going, so I would appreciate ideas to get all of them to let it go and how to redirect his desire to be right, especially as we head into summer break.
For other background, my son is a well-liked kid who has a lot of friends in his class and the neighborhood. He gets a lot of one-on-one time with us, is an extrovert who loves to talk and is not good at spending time by himself (which I believe contributes to this arguing issue).
A: Believe it or not, there’s a lot of good news in this letter. You say that they get along overall and that your son is well-liked, has friends and gets lots of attention from you. As a parent coach, I’m thinking your family is in really good shape!
To begin, siblings fight. Period. Living together, sharing space and time, staying patient and flexible, all while managing your own life and growing, is going to result in ruptures. It cannot be avoided. The ruptures are inconvenient, messy and upsetting, but they are also important in helping individuals learn how to problem solve, grow their frustration tolerance and build resilience. But as parents, we also need to teach our children the skills to recognize their frustration, communicate and resolve issues. This is accomplished through connection and deep loving relationships, not punishments, on-the-spot consequences or lectures. We have to be more direct and intentional.
First, I want you to use your one-on-one time with your son to become a keen listener. Say something like, “It cannot be easy to be the big brother of younger twin sisters!” And just see what he says. Maybe he is frustrated and sick of them, maybe he feels that they are favored, maybe he feels ganged-up on or isolated or maybe he just shrugs and says, “Yeah, they are okay. They just get on my nerves sometimes.” We don’t actually know how your son feels, and it doesn’t make sense to create solutions if we don’t know his emotions first.
If he is talkative and open, ask him about the bickering. “I have noticed that sometimes you disagree with them for the sake of it, what’s that about?” Maybe he will know and maybe he won’t. For instance, maybe your son becomes spicy when he’s hungry or maybe he is filled with frustration after school and takes it out on his sisters. He may be unaware of this, so it is up to you to look for the patterns and show them to him in a nonconfrontational way.
If there’s an easy fix, take it! Feed him. Or keep his sisters away from him for an hour. Or give him the downtime he needs. Helping him think about his own emotions and feelings is empowering, and I bet he will find his own solutions rather easily.
If it turns out that the sisters are also annoying your son in small and large ways, a family meeting is an excellent tool for either establishing or reestablishing your values and rules. As your children grow and change, so do the expectations in your home. Start up the family meetings, keep them positive and - without directly calling out one person - address the disagreements in the home and ask the children to find some solutions. These solutions could include consequences, which are absolutely fine if they are agreed upon beforehand and are reasonable. The solutions could also include proactive ideas for not allowing the frustration to build.
At the end of the day, if your relationships are strong with your children, it is fine to hear them bickering and simply state loudly, “STOP.” Go into the room and point each child to another place in the home and keep it moving. Don’t lecture, don’t “get to the bottom of it” and don’t choose sides; just literally stop the talking and move the moment along. All things being equal, sometimes the parent just needs to be the one in charge and put a stop to the meanness, and this can be done without calling someone out and shaming them.
Finally, subtly point out when your son is kind and helpful to his sisters (the family meeting would be a good place for this). Any act of kindness should be quietly noticed and a simple wink or shoulder squeeze can send the message of, “Hey, I see what a kind big brother you are.” It’s a simple act of parental love that can go a long way. These years will pass, and they will fight about new things in their tween and teen years, but we are looking for a through line of kindness, not perfection. Good luck.