This post is written by Chrissy Khachane, an educational consultant, parenting coach and new contributor for Mommy Shorts.
Sibling relationships have a large influence on our identity and other relationships in our lives. Through our siblings, we learn how to share, resolve conflict, play cooperatively, and develop emotions such as empathy. In many cases, the longest-standing relationships we have in our lifetime are with our siblings, and with that comes a lot to be learned about partnerships and connections. Plus, as a parent, there is no greater joy than watching your kids play nicely together.
Establishing and supporting a healthy relationship between siblings requires a good amount of modeling, patience, and perseverance on the part of the parent or caregiver. Plus, you should be prepared to encounter different hurdles along the way, as each stage of development presents varying cognitive and social developments (for example, toddlers are still learning how to share and understand feelings outside themselves and teenagers are navigating changing in hormones and strong fluctuations in emotions).
Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you determine the best approach for your parenting style:
1) Support cooperative play.
At any age, it is important to allow time for unstructured play and for siblings to explore toys, puzzles, and games in the same space. This can start at very young ages and doesn’t require siblings to be able to verbally communicate with one another. There is no need to force interaction, but instead, support an invitation to play together with free choice (the caveat being that this is a screen free scenario). It is also important in these play scenarios to allow siblings the chance to resolve conflicts on their own. If the situation escalates, an adult can help coach the siblings through possible resolutions.
2) Teach each child to respect the differences between one another.
Each person is an individual with his/her own likes and dislikes. It is easy to consider siblings as like-minded or to share similar interests because they come from the same family, but in reality, one of the best ways to support a healthy sibling relationship is to help one child see the strengths in the other that are different from their own. Similarly, older siblings can learn from their younger counterparts, just as younger children tend to learn from their big brother(s)/sister(s).
3) Talk through poor behavior with each child to promote understanding in difficult situations.
Children learn a tremendous amount through observation and one child watching your reaction to a sibling’s tantrum (in the case of younger children) or poor behavior like talking back or showing disrespect (in the case of older children) can be an incredible teaching moment for everyone involved. Depending on your parenting style, make time to explain to an older sibling how a younger sibling might not have the words to say what is bothering them or that they are still learning how to articulate their feelings. And, vice versa, if the poor behavior is coming from an older sibling, it is important to explain to the younger sibling how an older sibling might be frustrated or upset with a particular situation, but that talking back isn’t an acceptable response. With very young children, parents will find it helpful to take a moment after an incident to explain “why Mommy asked your brother/sister to take a time out” or “why Daddy asked your bother/sister to stop poking you with the block,” as this will establish consistent rules for appropriate behavior and help all children in the family learn the vocabulary to describe situations they encounter.
4) Teach your children how to resolve conflict.
When siblings fight, which all of them do, it can be challenging for parents to know when to step in and when to leave things alone. Personal parenting style plays a role in the debate on whether to intervene or not, but most parents have the same long-term goal— to teach their kids how to respect others, compromise and problem solve. Sibling conflicts present an excellent teaching opportunity. However, it is also a good idea to delay intervention when the argument is minor or when the kids seem to be resolving the matter quickly on their own. If the conflict has escalated to a place where you feel your involvement is necessary, it is beneficial to intervene as a coach or teacher who helps mediate the situation and guides them to their own solution, as opposed to being the problem solver.
5) Reinforce boundaries with private conversations.
While addressing poor behavior in the moment (with all parties present) is important, it is also important to have follow-up conversations in private to reinforce the rules. An example of this might be a situation where one sibling is teasing another. The parent should address the behavior with both children present (both to set a precedence regarding the behavior and also to model language for labeling teasing behavior), while also following up with individual conversations after the fact (e.g. to support the need to underscore the serious nature of teasing on one side, while also supporting any emotional struggles on the other side, for the sibling on the receiving end of the teasing). Follow-up conversations are especially important with elementary age children, because during this phase, children begin to tell fibs (maybe even to get a sibling in trouble) and test boundaries in ways that might be harmful or dangerous. A private conversation rather than a public scolding will be a better place to address these specific behaviors, and allow you to respond to questions or frustrations regarding the incident.
6) Give each child individual attention away from his/her sibling.
With today’s busy schedules, it can be difficult to set aside time for individual excursions or activities with each child; however, this is another important way to support a healthy sibling relationship. The individual attention does not have to be extravagant. It can be as simple as a trip to the library with one child and a trip to the park with another. It is about spending time with a parent separate from the sibling and engaging in an activity that is of their choosing or based on their specific interests. This is equally important for younger siblings, who often follow around their older siblings to playdates and activities, and older siblings, who often feel that their younger brothers and sisters get more attention from their parents.
7) Modeling healthy relationships includes validating each child’s feelings from time to time.
If one sibling expresses something as being “not fair,” take time to understand this comment further. Oftentimes, when a child expresses feelings about fairness, they are really expressing concern over inequality. Validating this feeling will promote open communication within the family and allow an opportunity for the adult to clarify any misconceptions that may exist.
8) Teach them the difference between “tattling” and seeking help.
Children tattle on their siblings for many reasons, including attention/recognition, need for information, legitimate concerns, and limited problem-solving skills. Rather than banning tattling in the home, it is important to give children strategies that will help them know when it is necessary to seek out an adult for assistance. This can be accomplished by brainstorming circumstances that warrant tattling. Start by encouraging your child to report significant events— such as instances where someone’s emotional or physical safety is threatened. Likewise, when a child does tattle, you can first respond by asking them if the concern warrants adult involvement as a way for them to check their intentions.
9) Give each child their own physical space.
We all need time to ourselves and this is also true for children. Obviously, this is easier when siblings have their own rooms, but it is not impossible for siblings who share a room to create personal space. They are most likely the siblings who crave moments of separation even more. Plan ahead for these moments by outlining a schedule for alone time in the room (either designating certain days for each child to have access to the room alone or allowing each child alone time in the room at different times each day). It is also helpful to have a preemptive conversation where each child shares where they like to have alone time (some might identify a parents’ office, living room, or another space in the home that isn’t their bedroom) in order to foster an understanding of how everyone has different coping strategies that work well for them. I would also recommend letting siblings in shared rooms find ways to weave in their own style into their bed or desk areas, so portions of the room feel more individual.
10) Teach your children to recognize and label their own emotions.
While your child won’t be able to walk away from every challenging person or situation in his/her life, sibling conflicts can be a great way to teach your children to develop appropriate emotional responses. Being able to recognize your feelings before they escalate is a a lifelong skill. It can also be very beneficial for children to recognize their own emotional needs before taking their anger out on their siblings. One great strategy mentioned by a commenter on @mommyshorts instagram is to create an “alone box” with supplies that can be used at a table, such as art materials, slime, stress ball, etc. “The rule is that if one of them has the box out, the other is not allowed to talk to them or sit by them. It’s a way to say— I need some me-time right now.”
11) Family rituals and traditions are a great opportunity to foster healthy sibling relationships.
If your children have trouble playing together or finding mutual interests on their own, you can also use family traditions and rituals to bring everyone together. For instance, if your family has a favorite sport or team everyone supports, consider creating your own “cheer squad” where siblings work together to come up with game time rituals for the family (e.g. wearing a team color, creating a cheer, or creating a game day menu). If bedtime stories (or story time in general) is a favorite in your home, establish a routine where each sibling takes turns selecting a story and explaining why they picked it. A family that enjoys travel adventures can foster sibling relationships by having the children map out aspects of the trip together. The goal is to celebrate common ground in the family, while allowing each sibling a chance to share his/her unique perspective.
What are your strategies for promoting a healthy relationship between your kids?
Chrissy Khachane is a boy mom (x3) and Educational Consultant and Parenting Coach who is passionate about empowering parents with research-based information so they can make informed decisions for their family. You can learn more about her at @simplychrissyk or find articles, information and recent TV segments on her Facebook page and Twitter.