One day while I was out running errands, my youngest son called me to complain about being treated badly by his two older brothers. Since we live in a tri-level house, I instructed them to each pick one level and stay there until I got home. I got the usual questions designed to annoy me:
“What if I have to go to the bathroom and he won’t let me upstairs?”
“What if I get hungry and he won’t let me in the kitchen?”
I refused to be baited. By the time I got home, tempers had eased and they were friends again, playing video games together on one TV.
Sibling conflicts take on a whole new dimension when one (or more) of them hits puberty. Already an unpredictable bundle of emotions, teens are hypersensitive to teasing and criticism – and their siblings are more than willing to dish out a steady diet of both, regardless of whether they’re older or younger.
A wise parent will manage not to take sides while defusing the heat of the battle. Usually a physical separation is in order, probably to their own rooms.
Your goal should be to help them learn to get along so one day they can be friends. This is why I vetoed my husband’s idea of making the older brother do the younger brother’s chores as punishment for picking on him. Picture it: with every dish he washed, the perpetrator would seethe with resentment and plot his revenge – which sort of defeats the purpose.
It’s part of a parent’s job to civilize the children. But you can’t make any headway when everybody’s mad at everybody else. Send them to their corners to calm down. Once everyone is breathing normally and thinking rationally (or as rationally as adolescence allows), talk to each one individually. This is key, because otherwise they’ll be gauging who’s getting in the most trouble. With each one, have a discussion about why they were so angry, and how they handled their anger inappropriately (name-calling, bad language, assault). Validate their right to be frustrated when their feelings get hurt or they’re deliberately harassed, but teach them a better way to handle their anger.
Tell them they need to stay where they are until they can be pleasant, or until they sincerely apologize. If they choose to stay isolated for a couple hours, let them, unless it’s time for dinner or chores. If they do find their way back together again, do not shoot yourself in the foot by saying, “Well, I see you two decided to make up!” Just play it cool, pretend like you don’t notice, and be grateful for the peace agreement.
After all, you know it isn’t going to last. . .