Sibling Battles During Quarantine

Sibling Battles During Quarantine

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Mom and her two sons, 9-year-old Alex and 12-year-old William, are going out for a bike ride. This is their “outside time” during the stay-at-home quarantine. Mom is happy to be leaving the house with them, because she has been working all day at her computer and feels guilty that she has not been spending time with them.

After a few minutes into the ride, Alex screeches at his brother, “I want to ride next to Mommy.” William responds in a huff, “I got here first.” Alex kicks William’s bike, and William punches Alex in the arm. Mom, whose patience has worn thin over the past frightening months, is filled with disappointment, and immediately yells at her sons. ”What’s the matter with you? You’re ruining our outing. We’re going home.” And it’s back to cabin fever for all.

What happened here exactly, and what could Mom have done to quell the fires of sibling rivalry?

Life is certainly upside down these days. Parents and children are spending full days together week after week. Any family issues that are normally there, are certainly intensified.

Usually, Mom is away at work all day. When she returns home, each child immediately starts vying for her attention. “Look at my painting!” or “I need your help with my math homework!” she will hear before she can slip off her coat.

Since the lockdown, Mom is sitting at the dining room table all day long, but she is unavailable. Her children constantly try to get her attention by walking in and out, asking her questions, or complaining about each other. The battle for her attention essentially goes on all day.

In general, siblings have a very hard time sharing their parent’s time and attention. Each child secretly wishes to have Mom all to himself and to be number one. Siblings constantly worry that the child who sits next to Mom at the dinner table is getting more love and attention. Both boys have been waiting all day to be with Mom as they set out on their bike trip, and they each need her emotionally. What could Mom do to quell the sibling fires?

Acknowledge their feelings: It would be helpful for Mom to acknowledge her children’s emotions. Once the feelings are discussed, the kids would feel supported and act them out less. Mom could say, “I know the situation is very difficult for both of you. I’m here all day, but I have to work all the time and can’t give you my attention. Now I’m with you and you both want to be near me. I think that’s why you’re fighting each other.”

Set a limit: Encourage your children to verbalize their feelings. Mom could say, ”When you want my attention, I want you to use words. Tell me, ‘I would like some attention,’ and I’ll try to work out some time. Do not take out your frustration on each other. If you feel angry at your brother you can say, “I feel angry,” but you must never hurt him.”

Joint problem-solving: Mom could engage the children in solving the bicycle problem together. She might say, “We have a problem. You both want to ride next to me. I would like to ride next to each of you, too. But there’s only one of me. What should we do?”

Teach them conflict resolution: Start off by giving them suggestions, such as, “What if, I set the alarm on my phone and after fifteen minutes you’ll both switch places?” Soon they will internalize these types of solutions and use them on their own, when there is a conflict.

External mechanisms: Since it’s very important for the kids to have their turn to ride next to Mom, she could keep a list on her phone of each child’s turn, and the date. This would calm the kids down, because it would assure them that they each would get a turn.

One-on-one time: As hard as it is to stretch time, it is very important for Mom to give each of her children some individual time, even if it’s only for a half-hour. To a child, time=attention=love. Enjoyable time spent together, reassures your child of your bond. Pencil in your “date” on the calendar. Your child will be able to see that even though you are busy now, his special time is coming up.

Reassure your children: There are some phrases that are very helpful to use with your children when they are feeling insecure. Tell them, “I know it’s hard for you to share Mommy, but don’t worry. I have enough love for both of you. I love you equally.” Showing them affection throughout the day, with a few words of praise, a gentle touch, or a hug, also communicates your love when you are working.