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Handling sibling brawling, bawling

She glared at him, struggling to hold back her tears. He looked at her in total contempt.

This wasn't a couple on the verge of divorce, just 9-year-old Matt and 7-year-old Reggie in the midst of one of their brawls.

To my embarrassment, they'd chosen an exceedingly public place for this latest tussle: a Saturday night amid a well-heeled crowd waiting outside a Los Angeles hotel.

"Just like my kids," one woman offered sympathetically.

You can separate them, threaten them, punish them. No matter what you do, siblings are still going to fight. What you hope for when you're traveling is a respiteat least when you're out in public. Sometimes things don't even lighten up when you're heading someplace the kids really want to go.

"Kids may fight more on vacation if they are together more than they are at home," explains UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, herself the veteran of many battles between her twin 9-year-old sons. "Remember that your family dynamics go with you on vacation."

New York psychotherapist Jane Greer adds that just taking kids out of their regular routine and structure may be enough to provoke more tension and fights. Little ones, especially sensitive to changes in schedules, may react by bopping or bugging each other.

That's why the experts say it's important to keep a semblance of routine on vacation. That goes for discipline, too, when the fights start: "You've got to put some structure in place so the kids don't run haywire," says Greer. "You'll have more havoc _ and a ruined vacation _ if you fail to put out the brush fires."

Waterman practices avoidance whenever she can. She keeps games and toys on hand to distract her kids and adds, "It's real helpful not to have them sit next to each other."

Try giving the kids jobs: navigating the route to the hotel, having one child stay in one spot and "watch the luggage" (as opposed to tormenting the baby). The busier they are, the less opportunity to insult each other.

I know one California mom who has her son read to his younger sister when the going starts to get rough. "He feels like he's really helping and then they both usually fall asleep," she says.

Snacks help, too. In our family, fights seem to get all the worse if the kids are hungry. If I sense a certain edginess creeping into their tone, I'll offer an apple, a granola bar, some crackers _ anything to ward off that grumpiness that inevitably leads to an argument over something like whose joke was funnier.

If you can, try exercise. New York author Nancy Samalin says she knows one dad who, when the fighting gets too wild, routinely pulls off the road and makes the kids run around the car five times.

Another tip to alleviate stress: rotating assigned seats in the car for long trips. If you're in a public place, such as a restaurant or a hotel lobby, Samalin suggests giving the kids a warning _ and a choice: "We can stay, or we can leave and not get"

"The important thing is to follow through," she adds.

"Kids like to fight," Samalin continues. "It's fun _ especially if they get their parents' attention." (Her book, Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, is $11 from Penguin.)

What you want to avoid is taking sides which, of course, is exactly what the kids hope you'll do. If they're ready to duke it out, separate them. Then, let them resolve the conflict themselves.

For example, says Waterman, if they're arguing over which program to watch in the hotel room, "tell them the TV is off until they can come up with a plan."

And don't be afraid to take away privileges on vacation, such as no swimming or television for an evening.

Deborah Swiss, meanwhile, is convinced planning for down time is her secret to avoiding fights on the road. "Kids are at their worst when they're over-tired and over-scheduled," says Swiss, a family consultant from Boston and the single mother of two. Her tip when all else fails: pre-stamped, pre-addressed postcards she can pull out for the kids to write.

As for me, I haven't figured out a successful strategy yet, and I've tried them all. My kids argue over who will sit next to 3-year-old Melanie or who gets which bed in the hotel room. On our last trip, they fought their way from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Travel with Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Send them to: Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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