My husband and I have three precious (but HUMAN) daughters. Our house is constantly abuzz with the sounds of siblings. Sometimes our ears are delighted with tinkling giggles but often our heads pound from the endless screeching, screaming and sobbing.
“She won’t let me play with the (insert absurdly noisy toy)!”
“She called me stupid!”
“She colored on my page!”
“She said I’m not really a magical glitter flower fairy!”
And so on and so forth.
Do you ever feel like your kids are constantly bickering, arguing and fighting? That’s because they are!
According to research, kids ages 2-4 “will have some kind of fight every 6.3 minutes,” averaging a staggering 9.5 fights an hour! So you aren’t crazy and your kids are completely normal — CONGRATS!
Sibling relationships are usually the longest and perhaps the most important relationship we will have. Research has shown that there are many positive lifelong benefits to having healthy sibling relationships.
So how can parents foster healthy relationships between their children?
Some background: I have a younger sister, Caroline. I have mostly fond memories of our relationship as children but we had our moments. For years, my life’s purpose was to make her vomit; my preferred method was repeatedly dunking her in swimming pools. Don’t feel too sorry for her, though. She paid my sisterly love forward with baby oil in my hair, chewing gum in my cavernous belly button and a black eye (the result of a swift blow from her baton). Thankfully, the many hours spent playing Barbie dolls, the shared experiences of family traditions and the equal love and support our parents gave us smoothed out the minor rough spots of our relationship. We are fortunate to be best friends as adults. She is my anchor in life, and I would do anything for her.
I desperately want this kind of deep, loving, authentic relationship for my girls. They may not understand now when I tell them that their sisters matter more than other friends, but it is a message worth repeating.
I am no expert and the following is 100% my completely humble opinion. These methods seem to bring out the best in our SISTER SQUAD, but I am in no way trying to preach. This is the ideal and I am far from perfect. I cannot do all.the.things.all.the.time. I am a weary momma just like you, and it can be exhausting trying to keep the peace. But I believe making the effort for the sake of my kids will be well worth it in the end.
INTERFERE BUT DON’T REFEREE
If I observe or overhear an argument that is escalating in anger, I interfere. Siblings will naturally have conflict but conflict resolution has to be taught. When I get involved, I try not to be the judge of who’s right and who’s wrong; I ask them only “what did YOU do and how did YOU try to stop the fight?” Then I help them navigate how to resolve the conflict in a respectful way: “I understand you wanted a turn but what happened when you yelled at your sister? What would happen if you asked her in a nice tone to please let you have a turn?” This requires tons of parental involvement (especially when they are little), but I have observed that when I take the time to walk hand-in-hand with them through a disagreement, they can work through it on their own the next time a similar situation occurs. And when they do, the next suggestion comes into play in a big way!
POUR ON PRAISE
Though it may seem like the exact opposite is true when your kids are screaming at each other, your children actually want to please you. So when you praise them for something they are doing well, they will want to do it again. Psychologists call it “positive reinforcement.” This is my favorite way to help my girls get along. If I see them treating each other kindly, I dole out as much praise as I can:
“I love the way you helped your sister build that castle. Thank you for being so kind.”
“It makes me so happy to see you having fun playing together. Isn’t it so nice to have sisters?”
This gives them confidence and joy in doing what is right and good.
DON’T ALLOW UNKINDNESS
In our house, we require kindness. It is actually the only family rule with no exceptions. Other rules can be bent with grace (or laziness — TRUTH!) but treating each other with kindness is a non-negotiable. If our child says or does something with malice to a sibling or a parent, there are consequences. One great idea I heard from another mom is to ask the child who was unkind to repay the offended sibling with an act of service. I like this because it reinforces the positive things they should be doing.
Just like you must cultivate a friendship through shared interests, siblings who have things they enjoy doing together will strengthen their bond. Late night talks while sharing a bedroom or having slumber parties, taking a class or going to a camp together, listening to an audiobook together are all great ways for siblings to connect. Family traditions are also very important and don’t have to be elaborate. In fact, I believe the weirder the better. Only your siblings will experience these things with you, which makes the bond so unique and special.
BUT GIVE THEM THEIR SPACE
Being in constant closeness with anyone can cause strain on the relationship. My college roommates can certainly attest to that! Sometimes, your kids just need a break from each other. Allow them to politely request time to themselves.
SPECIAL ATTENTION WITHOUT FAVORITISM
Don’t compare your kids; let them know that you value each of them equally. If you can set aside time to spend with your children individually, even if it is just a few minutes a day, it will help them feel special and appreciated.