Learning how to play, fight, share, solve problems, be assertive, compromise, and in general, get along with others are some of the benefits of living with siblings. But these important benefits are not easy to come by. In fact, in many families, having the children get along seems unattainable as they deal with aggressive behavior and excessive sibling rivalry. Books, articles, videos, and blogs are filled with commentary and suggestions on how to deal with sibling rivalry and fighting. But in actuality, much rivalry is quite normal and to be expected as no two people, young or old, can always get along. In general, siblings can learn to get along when they feel loved, heard, supported, and get the attention they need.
If your children, or your charges, seem to be in a never-ending cycle of conflict, check out these tips for helping them get along:
DON’T DO THESE
1. Don’t take sides. As Rudolf Dreikers stated (ref), “whenever parents take sides, one child becomes victor and the other vanquished.” And whoever lost the battle will most likely continue the hostility towards their brother or sister, potentially leading to bigger problems later. Besides, taking sides, especially when you may not have the full story, is not helping them learn to get along. You are subtly telling them they can’t figure things out on their own.
2. Don’t show favorites. While it may be true that one child is more like you than another, if you outwardly show your favoritism, the “un-favored” child will automatically feel less important and less loved. This will inevitably lead to bickering and fighting between the siblings in order to seek your attention.
3. Don’t make assumptions. Let’s face it, most of us get to know our children or charges well enough to know “who started it.” But we must resist the urge to ask the question! First of all, it doesn’t matter. If there is arguing or fighting going on, both children are not being respectful. Secondly, if we consistently assume that it’s one child, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the child will assume they will always be the one to blame, so might as well do it! And yes, I know …… it often IS the same child. See #6 below for some help on this.
4. Don’t make it a gender thing. Boys and girls develop in different ways and at different times. Although some boys may be boisterous and loud, some are not. Likewise, some girls may be quiet and shy, but some are not. If you make assumptions about their behaviors according to their gender, you are setting them up for difficulties with not only their siblings, but with anyone they interact with. If we assume boys don’t need as much one-on-one time or emotional bonding as do girls, we are doing both of them a disservice and potentially causing rivalry.
5. Don’t compare children. “Why can’t you be like your brother!?” Gosh – talk about a quick way to make a brother hate his brother! You might be thinking it, but bite your tongue before you say it.
6. Don’t let birth order get in the way. Sometimes we automatically assume the older child “knows better” or we put more requirements on them to behave. Or, sometimes we assume the youngest child always needs help or is getting picked on. These assumptions can encourage rivalry. Try to treat each child as capable, recognizing the child’s strengths and talents at their particular age.
1. Talk about how to resolve problems. Make sure your children know that you expect them to show respect for each other, even when they don’t get along. Have a discussion with them (using age-appropriate words) about your expectations for how they should handle any issues, making sure they know physical force is not allowed.
2. Role model positive conflict resolution. If our children see or hear us fighting with others in a disrespectful manner, how can we expect positive conflict resolution from them?
3. Give them space. All of us have days when things just won’t go right. We know this happens to children as well. If a particular child is having a bad day, give them space. Don’t expect them to handle things well, so make sure they know they can come to you for help.
4. Create a quiet place. Some literature suggests that children need their own quiet place to go when they are feeling frustrated, angry, sad, or are just needing some alone time. This is a great and positive alternative to time out. It doesn’t need to be a large space – even a comfy chair in the corner of their bedroom, with their favorite blanket or pillow can be helpful. Allow the child to go there when they are feeling frustrated or are needing to think. And if they help design the space, it makes it that much better!
5. Encourage mutual activities. Sometimes this is difficult, especially if the age range between siblings is large. But encouraging joint activities is a great way to offer opportunities for siblings to get to know each other better which can lead to them getting along.
6. Spend quality time with each child, each day. Many times we don’t realize how caught up we are in our day-to-day routines. All children (and even tweens and teens) deserve our undivided attention for at least 10-15 minutes a day. Make sure to really listen to what each of them has to say. This is a great time to find out what might be bothering them or what might be causing sibling issues. Of course, also make sure not to assume everything you hear is the absolute truth and don’t allow yourself to get dragged into the middle of an argument between siblings. Lastly, make sure you evenly (or as evenly as possible) divide up your time. If you consistently spend more time with the daughter rather than the son, you’ve unwittingly set the stage for rivalry of some sort.
7. Be encouraging. Siblings will learn how to get along only through trial and error….. which means there will be error. Be clear, be supportive and be encouraging. “It sounds like the two of you are having a difficult time sharing. Your voices are too loud and you are not being respectful of each other. I will set the timer and in 5 minutes, I would like to hear how you resolved your issue. I’m sure you can figure this out without me.”
Siblings can learn to get along. In fact, many grow up to be each other’s best friend and life-long support. The above tips won’t work all the time (especially if the child is over-tired, sick, or over-stimulated) but they should help you create a comfortable, loving atmosphere between siblings.
Check out Debbie’s previous discipline blog posts with us, such as How to Encourage Sharing.
Debbie Farr, Ph.D. Debbie received her Ph.D. in family studies and human development, her master’s in counseling and her BA in psychology. She has worked in various capacities, serving children and families for over 30 years, but her passion is in helping parents be proactive rather than reactive. To that end, Debbie offers workshops, presentations, and trainings for parents as well as professionals, blending education with support and coaching. Debbie has worked as a director for a family resource center, worked in numerous schools in several parts of the country, and taught at the university level. Currently she is working with SitterCycle’s positive discipline strategies and is putting the finishing touches on her new company, Flourishing Families. She is also getting ready to launch an “Ask Dr. Debbie” column in a local newspaper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.