How do we stop our two daughters, ages thirteen and seven, from fighting and bickering all the time? I'm concerned that the effects of all this conflict may be potentially harmful. We're a Christian family, so we've talked many times about what it means to be kind, loving, and forgiving. After one of these discussions they always promise to do better next time, but nothing ever changes. When should we begin to worry that their sibling rivalry is getting out of hand?
It seems obvious that simply "talking" to them about the problem isn't working. You're absolutely right. Your daughters' constant bickering and mutual disrespect is potentially harmful. We think it's time to take decisive action.
Before taking action, however, we encourage you to have one last family conference. You and your husband should sit down with the girls when everyone is in a good mood. Tell them that you are extremely concerned about the disrespectful way they treat one another. Then explain that, since they seem to be unwilling to change, you're being forced to implement some new rules in your home. Make it plain that there will be immediate consequences if they bicker or make disrespectful comments to each other.
If the girls receive a weekly allowance, tell them that you will be making deductions for every violation of the new "respect policy." Other alternatives could include taking away favorite toys, activities, or privileges whenever they treat one another inappropriately. Choose activities or privileges that you know are important to each of your daughters. For example, your 13-year-old might lose phone or computer privileges for a few days, while your 7-year-old could be denied access to her bike or her doll collection.
Write up the new rules and consequences in the form of a contract. Then have each girl sign the contract and post it on the refrigerator. If you choose, you can include an "earn it back" clause that will allow the girls to regain their privileges by treating each other nicely for a certain period of time.
Once you've got all this in writing, stick to your guns and follow through with the consequences. It doesn't matter how the argument began-it's usually pointless to get involved in long discussions about "who started it." At the same time, it's important to consider the girls' age difference. The 13-year-old should assume more responsibility for getting along. You can underscore this idea by pointing out that she should be capable of acting more maturely than a seven-year-old.
You and your husband should also ask yourselves an important question. Are you modeling patience, kindness, and respect in your relationship with each other and with your daughters? If not, it's time to make some changes in your own behavior.
Remember, too, that sibling rivalry can sometimes be a cry for attention. Make sure that you and your husband schedule one-on-one time with each girl at least once a week. This could involve something as simple as a trip to the store with you, going out for hot chocolate and a bagel on a Saturday morning, or taking a walk around the neighborhood together in the evening. As you begin to spend this individual time with your daughters, you may begin to notice some significant differences in their behavior.
If you need help putting these suggestions into practice, call us. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss the situation with you over the phone. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified family therapists in your area who specialize in sibling conflicts and communication issues.