This summer, Amy Wilson bought a bunch of sporting equipment and left it casually on the lawn, hoping her children would create great summer memories together, long days of whiffle ball and impromptu games. She pictured sibling togetherness, where they would create new bonds.
But instead, said the mother of three children and co-creator of the podcast “What Fresh Hell: Laughing in the Face of Motherhood,” by the second day, the equipment had become weaponry. “I looked through the window and saw my 13-year-old running for his life while the 14-year-old was chasing after him with the whiffle ball bat,” she said.
Although there are days when it feels as if we can do little more than send our children to separate rooms, experts say there are steps parents can take to diminish sibling squabbling and foster strong, lifelong bonds.
It doesn’t always involve whiffle ball bats strewn on the front lawn.
At its base, sibling rivalry is a battle for parent resources, be they attention, money or affection. Even siblings who love and care for one another can regard one another as a threat to getting what they want or need.
Remind yourself that, as painful as those battles are, they teach important life skills, such as seeing things from another person’s perspective, communicating effectively and resolving conflicts, says Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University. These are all things that will better equip them to make friendships and navigate romantic relationships as they get older. The wonderful thing about siblings, she says, is that no matter the fight, they’ll still be sitting next to each other at the breakfast table the next morning.
Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us,” reminds parents that although sibling rivalry is unavoidable, our approach to it can make all the difference in our daily lives.
“A parent’s role is to not to sweat the day-to-day stuff too much,” he says. In most cases, the conflict is benign, Kluger says, and parents needn’t worry that their kids are irreparably damaging what should be one of the most important and long-lasting relationships in their lives.
“My wife and I have two daughters, age 16 and 14, and I always worry about that,” Kluger says. “‘Girls, I want you to be best friends when you are 88 and 90. I want you to look at each other and say, ‘This is someone who has been with me for the entire ride.’ So parents often worry that every literal blow or verbal blow or lashing out will somehow inflict permanent damage to the sibling relationship, and it typically doesn’t.”
That said, it’s important for parents to talk to children directly about family citizenship, polite behavior and in-house etiquette in a non-pious fashion, says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” “Not in one download and not in the heat of the moment.”
As with every other aspect of parenting, modeling behavior is one of our best tools to foster strong bonds among siblings. Watch the tone and words you use when talking with your spouse, Mogel says. Parents criticizing each other “is a form of adult sibling rivalry that does not go unnoticed by eager young minds,” she warns.
How you interact with your own siblings can also have an impact. When kids see the support, laughter and love we share with our siblings, they will want that for themselves.
“A lot of the literature will say never get involved, but that’s wrong,” Kramer says. Research (including Kramer’s) shows that problem-solving skills must be taught and don’t always come naturally.
“We are not expecting parents to always intervene — that would just be exhausting,” she says. Instead of acting as a referee, think of yourself as a coach. Kramer says coaching is particularly helpful between the ages of 4 and 8, but if older children don’t have the social and emotional skills to resolve conflicts themselves, then parents should get involved.
Kramer says parents can help children manage conflicts with three steps: stop, think and talk. So have them stop what they’re doing, think about what their goals are and what their sibling’s goals are, and then talk about what they need so that together they can find a solution that satisfies both parties.
Parents haven’t always had to consciously nurture these relationships. Children aren’t sharing bedrooms and doing chores together as much as they used to, and they rarely have enough free, unstructured time for shared fun.
Experts agree that it is essential to find ways for siblings to have positive, noncompetitive interactions so that the fun times outweigh the negative ones. To do this, parents need to intentionally create positive shared experiences.
When siblings are far apart in age, Kramer suggests trying activities that “level the playing field, like bike riding, water sports and games of chance.” She says that when you see your children interacting warmly and having fun, acknowledge it by saying, “I love to see you guys laugh together.”
Look for opportunities that allow older children and teens to team up and make decisions together, such as planning dinner or a game night. “Encourage them to be a resource for each other as well,” Kramer says, perhaps by asking an older teen to talk about some of the challenges he faced when he was his younger brother’s age. It sends the important signal that siblings can and should learn from one another.
One way to build warmth among siblings is to reminisce about good times. Take pictures of them having fun together and then talk about that memory. “It validates a moment in time and helps to build a positive foundation for the relationship,” Kramer says.
In the battle for parental attention, it is important that there are no victors. Kluger acknowledges that some kids’ accomplishments are far more visible and public and that it is up to parents to even the balance. “Parents must remember that there is a certain type of applause that goes to the child who is winning football games, and there has to be a different kind of attention, applause and reward for the child who may not be doing things so conspicuously,” he says. It is important for parents to celebrate quieter, more private accomplishments, such as studying hard for a test.
When our kids are talking late at night and should be sleeping, the temptation is to tell them to be quiet and go to sleep. Resist that temptation, Kluger says. Those quiet hours when they trade confidences, tell stories or just laugh together are the building blocks of their adult relationship. Just step out of the way and let it happen.
Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the teen and college years at Grown & Flown and is the author of three business books.
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