Children fight for many reasons. One of the major reasons they fight is to engage parent(s).
Years ago I can remember being busy in the kitchen. My two boys, around ages 3 and 5, were playing in the living room. Then they started fighting. Without saying a word, I stopped what I was doing and went into the bathroom. Within seconds, they had joined forces and were banging on the bathroom door trying to get me to come out.
Children like to have their parents involved with them. Before children start to misbehave or fight with each other, they usually ask parents to play with them, read to them, or just go for a walk or bike ride. Often they offer to help. Lots of time children will play well together waiting for the parents to finish their work. If none of these positive ways to get attention work, they will find negative ways. Mostly, I don’t think children do it consciously. I believe, for them, any kind of involvement is better than no involvement. They need the adult contact.
Often parents are legitimately busy since there is so much to do. Other times, parents just don’t want to engage for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’ve already spent a good chunk of time with the children. Maybe they are tired, sick or distracted with other things. If children keep getting put off, then they start to do things that will bug the parents until they get involved.
A parent will usually get involved in their children’s fighting by “rescuing” the more vulnerable child. Usually, it’s the youngest, but not always. Some younger children are more vibrant and determined than their older siblings. Some older siblings are passive. Rescuing one sibling from the other can create a dynamic of VICTIM-BULLY-ARBITRATOR. The weaker child learns he or she can get the parent’s attention by being a victim. The stronger child learns that he or she can get the parent’s attention by being a bully. The parent feels needed as the rescuer/arbitrator. Children mistakenly think they have to have parents to settle disputes and parents, lacking faith in their children, believe they are not able to get along.
Most of the time weaker children do need to be protected from stronger siblings. HOW parents do that is a key to maintaining good relationships between the siblings and between the parent and each child.
When parents are aware of the dynamics of triangulation they have more options in handling it. In any case, without judging treat both children the same.
Of course, all of the above suggestions depend on the situation. Some will work in some situations, but not in all. Parents need to consider the circumstances and choose the best option.
With care and concern,
Dr. Bea Mackay