To Argue or Not to Argue?
By Derenda Timmons Schubert, Ph.D.
The parents contact me to seek consultations about the issue of arguing between their children. The parents told me the following story: Joe (10 years old) and Monica (11 years old and diagnosed with autism) were arguing to the point of driving their parents CRAZY! According to their parents, Joe and Monica argued about sharing their things, where to sit at the dinner table, where to sit in the car (front seat or back seat), what TV show or movie to watch, etc. You name it, if there was something to argue about, Joe and Monica found it! They wanted to know whether this arguing was typical and was it harmful to either of their children or the children's future relationship? The parents described their responses ranging from talking to the children about their behavior, telling Joe to be nicer to his sister because she has been diagnosed with autism, mediating problem-solving solutions, separating the kids, ignoring the arguing, and yelling at the kids. They were tired.
Arguing among siblings is as natural as opening your eyes. If we remember our own sibling relationships, we can easily recall episodes of conflict. Such episodes occur even when one of the children has been diagnosed with a disability. Actually, some level of conflict is considered a healthy sign because the typical sibling is treating his or her sibling with the disability just as he or she would treat another sibling. In this instance, the typical sibling is treating the child with autism as any other child and not a child with a disability. The benchmark for parents would be excessive punching, hitting, biting, kicking, which produced fear between siblings or increased aggression. The sibling relationship research indicates that siblings of the same gender and within 4 years of each other are likely to have intense passionate relationships. Translated as: they will argue! Siblings of different genders with more than 4 years between them are described as having the least passionate relationship. Of course, factors such as each child's temperament, family expectations, and life circumstances (a parent's death, disability) can influence the degrees of closeness and conflict among siblings.
Despite all of this information, Joe and Monica's parents still needed some practical ideas to address the World Wide Federation Wrestling and Arguing matches between their children! Joe and Monica's parents were on the right path. They were using ideas which could help create peace in their home. The following ideas were discussed:
Educate your children about the disability. Upon further discussion, it was discovered that Joe's parents had not discussed with him the communication and social difficulties of his sister. With more education about the reasons for his sister's behavior, the conflict at the dinner table reduced to a tolerable level.
Find the root of the problem. Joe's parents sat down with him to discover what he thought was the reason the arguing occurred so frequently. They discovered that he felt left out and treated differently than his sister. With the combination of education and time alone with either or both parents, Joe reduced the frequency of picking fights with his sister because he felt more secure. Joe's parents also sat down with Monica to understand her perspective. She expressed not understanding why her brother was mad all of the time. Monica stated that she would do what he did to her when he was mad at her. Monica's parents spent time with her, separately and together, to teach her alternative ways to handle Joe's anger. For example, when they are sifting at the dinner table, Monica could learn to ask for the salt and pepper instead of reaching across Joe's plate. Over time, Monica tried the new social skills, which replaced the yelling and hitting of her brother.
Family Meetings. Family meetings bring a family together to talk about the issues important to the family. The issues can be around problem solving an issue or conflict to planning a family vacation. Family meetings can occur once a week or twice a month. Keep in mind the more frequent the more impact they will have on helping the family communicate. The length of a family meeting is determined by the family. Each persons attends the meeting with an agenda item or ideas to discuss. The meeting can be formal or informal. The goal is to increase communication and family togetherness.
Time Out From Each Other. When all else fails, taking a break from one another may be the answer. Sometimes people need time to cool off. After some "cooling off time," the siblings can address the issue with the assistance of a parent or independently.