*First published in Elephant Journal on October 3, 2020
Siblings are spending much more time together. Have you noticed increased fighting, bickering, and conflict? Here’s how to help your kids feel more connected.
While staying home through the pandemic, families are spending more time together than ever.
Without access to in-person classrooms, soccer practice, play dates, and other outings, families find themselves having to come up with more and more inclusive activities. This may be challenging for siblings who differ in age, stage of development, and personal interests. Also, while parents work from home, or find themselves busy for parts of the day, children are left with limited options: entertain themselves independently, or play with their sibling.
During a Zoom meeting, it’s frustrating if your children interrupt with arguments over who gets to choose what to watch on T.V. or who gets to be the project manager for the magnatiles design. Why can’t they figure it out on their own and work together? That is a good question and a great family goal for this new reality we find ourselves in.
Here are some strategies to help promote sibling harmony and work toward not only finding common ground but also enjoying time together.
Schedule individual connection time with each parent.
Kids need to feel connected to each of their parents—individually and together—even if that time only lasts five to ten minutes. Often, if this need remains unfulfilled for your child, it incites competition between siblings for those limited hours of attention left in the day. A child’s need for connection is normal and expected; let’s honor it! When spending time together, make sure each child knows how much you enjoy the particular activities you two have in common and carve out a timeframe for engaging in those activities. Get creative by finding ways to enter each individual child’s world. For example, comment on what they have been working on that day, ask about their experience getting their homework done that afternoon, or find out what they did with their time. This moment of connection will help each child feel seen, heard, connected, and fulfilled.
Normalize conflict. Arguments, disagreements, and compromises are normal parts of life and relationships. If children expect them and learn the skills to work through them, this will decrease the potential for each child to act out. Remember, each disagreement presents an opportunity to practice conflict resolution, active listening, and compromise. Kids will struggle with this, and probably fail the majority of the time, and that is okay. Over time, they will get better. Encourage learning new lessons and practicing new skills by supporting them through the experience.
Avoid comparison and competition. Humans love to find patterns and categorize things. This is a very helpful, adaptive part of our nature, but it can be harmful if applied to siblings in the wrong way. If family members compare siblings too frequently, it can lead to increased competition and teach them that they aren’t “on the same team” in life. This also fails to recognize each child for their own unique individual strengths. Imagine: if one child makes a mistake and you respond by pointing out that their sibling never makes that mistake, resentment can surely build. As another way to look at it, picture a six-year-old who is still practicing their fine motor skills. Then, they overhear someone say that when their older sibling was four years old, they could already read and write. These observations and comparisons are not only bad for sibling harmony but also harmful for a child’s self-esteem.
Think together as a family. Make a list of games, activities, and shows that everyone in the family enjoys. Get the kids excited about all of the possible options they may have by supporting their ideas and suggestions. Some kids may come up with tons of ideas on their own, while others may need some more scaffolding. Brainstorm what materials they may need, and put them somewhere that they can be accessed without parental assistance. If it's helpful, each morning at breakfast the family can review the list and think about what they may want to do together that day.
Set conflict resolution guidelines. Kids aren't born with conflict resolution skills. Instead, they typically pick up and internalize these abilities by observing others. Conflict resolution must be modeled and taught, so it is important to be mindful of what your children may learn from you, and not just when you teach them. Set conflict resolution goals. This could include the “dos” and the “don'ts” as well as the “what ifs.” For instance, what to do if someone cheats, or hits, or doesn’t share. Expect to frequently repeat the guidelines you create, as it takes children repetition and practice to reach integration. When you notice your child isn’t following the guidelines, take this opportunity to gently remind them. With maturity, your children will be able to self-refer to these skills.
Name it when you see it. When you notice your children playing well together, or resolving a conflict on their own, show them that you not only notice this good behavior but also feel impressed by their skills. Sometimes direct praise can feel unnatural, but just a simple smile, hug, or moment together can be reinforcing enough. Helping children focus their awareness on the times they respectfully play together will help them solidify pathways back to that good rapport in the future.
Encourage reflective conversation. At the end of the day, start a conversation about what everyone did that day, what worked and didn't work, what everyone did well, and what areas they see for improvement. We don't want this time to be about blaming or comparing, we want it to be about non-judgemental observation as well as brainstorming new options and choices. Encouraging the habit of reflection helps promote self-awareness and a growth mindset.
Set clear consequences for behavior that is out of line, unsafe, or hurtful. Just as we want to set clear rules and guidelines for children, we also want to set clear consequences. This includes repercussions for name-calling, physical aggression, and other emotionally or physically harmful interactions. It’s acceptable to normalize that sometimes slip-ups happen because impulses are not always easy to control. If they happen, however, there need to be clear consequences. Follow-through, consistency, and predictability are very important.
Model good conflict resolution. Every time conflict arises between you and another adult, your partner, or with your child, you are modeling how to disagree. Watching adults engage is the best way for children to learn. It may feel like a lot of pressure, but leading by example contributes to behavior more so than explaining abstract concepts.
Teach active and reflective listening skills. Help your children develop the important life skill of truly listening to others. What is the best way to teach this skill? Experiencing it for yourself. When you notice your child using excellent listening skills, acknowledge it and praise them. It’s also important to remind your child to be an active and reflective listener when they start to disengage. Active listening means putting in the effort to thoroughly understand the complete message a person communicates before considering your response. That may mean that you ask clarifying questions to better understand the other person’s perspective. Reflective listening means summarizing and reflecting back on what you think you understood, and even making connections regarding the deeper meaning the speaker may be expressing. For example, you may say, “so, you don't like it when your sister cheats during Uno, and it makes you angry and frustrated?” As you check-in to see if you comprehend correctly, you open yourself up to correction in case you misunderstood. Encourage your children to use these conversation skills with each other. It will take lots of time and repetition, but with patience and kindness the concept will settle in.
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