I’ve got two (or more)! What do I do?

Siblings have the longest lifetime relationship of anyone. As a parent, when we read this statement, do we get a smile on our faces–or an under-the-breath groan?

Siblings have the power to create great energetic play together, wonderful cooperative games and projects that result in memories for a lifetime.  Those memories can also turn fairly ugly fairly fast, as the older one gets frustrated at the youngest and yells, or the youngest keeps pushing the older one’s buttons just to see the resulting blow up, or the middle one runs quickly from one to the other, working the other two into a frenzy with the news she reports on the other.

How to help the siblings in your family maintain peaceful interaction, and minimize conflict?  The staff at Harley Hopkins Family Center spent some time discussing the challenges siblings can present, and methods that may help to alleviate some of the tension.  However, when we first began discussing the issue, it was made entirely too clear that no parent can expect peace in a household of siblings all the time. Conflict is a part of every relationship–a normal part of the relationship that needs to be accepted and addressed.  We do not “win” in the sibling wars by creating an environment where there is no conflict.  We “win” when we help our children find constructive methods to resolve the inevitable conflict that arises.  The parents will “win” when the kids find a “win-win” solution to their arguments!

In their book “NurtureShock” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman present observational studies of siblings aged 3-7 years that find for every hour of play, 10 minutes of that hour is spent arguing. This is seen in typical children who are considered to be playing together fairly well.  Out the window goes our assumption that we can get them to stop their arguing.  Instead, parents can become an advocate for maintaining a positive sibling relationship through the arguments. We do this by creating expectations for how our children will argue or fight.  For instance, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in “Siblings Without Rivalry” offer a routine for clearly stating family expectations around fights. They address the safety of the children first.  If there is harm or imminent harm being done, the children need to be removed from each other for a cool down time. It is necessary and advantageous to accept the feelings of the children involved, but these feelings can not be expressed in a way that causes harm.  If a parent sees two angry children stalking each other with menace in their eyes, the parent can state clearly “You two are very angry with each other. You may not hit each other. Let’s separate to our rooms until we have cooled down.”  For siblings, seeing that a parent understands the way they are feeling can have a sometimes visibly calming effect.

If a parent can reach an argument at the  point before the anger is really simmering, finding a way to structure their efforts at reconciliation can be helpful to the siblings. Even adults take years to work out a comfortable way to approach conflict. Using sibling interactions as a source of material for modeling how to handle angry disagreements can give your children a social leg up. Faber and Mazlish  suggest that as much as possible, when siblings are at a point of arguing but not at a point of drawing blood, we leave the problem solving up to them.  We do this by creating a go-to method that will help them to stay focused on the solution, rather than the blame. Here are the steps they suggest:

1. Acknowledge their anger.  Again, when a parent shows they understand the feelings shooting around the room, it becomes easier for the children to let go of some of that anger.

2. Reflect each child’s point of view. For example: “I see that you are both angry. You both want to play with the stuffed bear.”

3. Describe the problem with respect.  Even if we as adults can see that the problem is small, it doesn’t feel small to our children.

4. Express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution. Put the problem squarely back where it belongs–with them.  If you feel that your children would benefit from a list of possibilities, feel free to help them with that list.  “Maybe you could take turns, maybe there is another bear you could find, maybe you could play a game that uses the bear and the dog.” Then allow them to find the solution that works for them.

5. Move yourself out of the conversation.  For older children that may mean leaving the room. For younger children that may mean just being silent until the siblings start to problem solve themselves.

Siblings have as many ways of fighting as they have fun games to play. Sometimes the methods that we would use at home need to be amended in public, or in the car.  Here are some suggestions from our early childhood staff for creating a peaceful environment during the more pressing times of the day when we can’t take as much time to deal with the fighting.

In the car:  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

  • Sing with your kids–the joy of all that out of tune singing will really keep them entertained!
  • For older kids provide a snack in the car
  • Have a special activity bag that is for car drives only
  • During the car ride talk with the children about where they are going, what they will do when they get there, who will get to do what
  • Play the quiet game–whoever is quietest longest–wins!
  • Use audio books in the car
  • Before you get in the car, role play what you expect.  Play out the whole ride, and state expectations when you can see that they veer off course
  • Use humor to break the tension if you sense it.  Use a silly word, or make a joke, something to make them laugh

In a store: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

  • Plan your outings when your children have the energy to go with you
  • If you see that you have planned too many trips in a row–just go home. Don’t push them past their capabilities
  • If you can shop without them–after they go to bed, or when they have a babysitter–do so
  • Be clear with your expectations: State up to three rules for the outing before you get in the car. Have the children repeat the rules. Before you get out of the car, state the three rules, have the children repeat them. Before you enter the door of the store, state the three rules, have the children repeat them.
  • Be prepared to leave the store or outing if fighting escalates.  Do not be afraid to leave a full cart of items.  Many managers have been known to just hold the cart for you until you return!

How about at home? The hour before dinner time is consistently considered one of the most difficult times of day. Here are some ideas.

  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
  • Follow a routine each day at home. Keep it consistent.  Within the routine, be sure that you are spending quality play time with your children each day
  • During that hour before dinner, find jobs in the kitchen to help with dinner prep.  Could be as simple as washing lettuce or setting the table. Get them engaged
  • Children may need to eat earlier than the adults in the household. If they are consistently hungry, serve them early. Then the adults can have their meal together later
  • During times when you are busy with household tasks, like dinner prep, have quiet activities ready for them that are pulled out just for the times you are doing these tasks
  • If dinner prep is routinely difficult, find an earlier time to do some of the prep: cut and peel vegetables in the morning and store them so they will be ready in the afternoon
  • Have a place in the house kids can go to work out problems. One staff member used her stairs and called them the “peace stairs”. If there is an issue that needs to be resolved, the siblings can sit on the stairs for as long as it takes to work it out. They can’t leave the stairs until they do!

If you are looking for further resources to add to your problem solving approach toward sibling rivalry, here are some recommended books

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Loving Each One Best by Nancy Samalin and Catherine Whitney
The Sibling Effect in NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

We want a household where the children in our lives can see the positives in each other. Find ways to model the behavior you would like to see in your children, and have patience–the possibility of a peaceful household will surely be within our grasp as we teach our children skills and watch them grow up into better and better mediators and problem solvers.

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