Ask Dr. Bronwyn: The Secret to Sibling Closeness
Q: My kids are constantly fighting, and it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed. I keep thinking about how close my sister and I were, and how much I wish that was true for them too. Is there anything I can do to help them get along better? Do you think it’s because they are too close in age (21 months apart), or that they aren’t the same gender? – Becky Bickerson
Dear Ms. Bickerson,
Worrying about how your kids get along is a common concern. Good news: They don’t have to be best friends right now. Even better news: You have a lot more control that you think in transforming your home from the Ultimate Fighting Championships to a love-in. You’ve touched on a hot topic in child development. Accumulating research shows that as adults, sibling closeness highly influences how people interact in relationships, cope in the face of adversity, argue, resolve conflicts and experience satisfaction in life.
If last night’s door slamming has you now thinking “My kids are officially screwed for life,” take a breath. Your children don’t have to be best friends in childhood; that’s often not realistic or possible. Fighting is totally normal and healthy, and research has shown that on average, most siblings bicker eight to10 times an hour. But, there are ways parents can bring about beneficial outcomes from conflict while also strengthening relationship skills.
While separating the combatants might seem like a logical way to cool things down, there are healthier ways you can turn arguments into lifelong lessons and help your little ones reap the benefits of sibling relationships. Here are some strategies to try.
Encourage siblings to share and care.
If your older child built something with Legos, and has lots to share about it, you might say, “Oh I bet ‘name of younger sibling’ is going to love to hear about the cool jet fighter you made.” Of course, do comment only on those things that your child’s sibling will indeed care about.
Give siblings opportunities to take care of one another, which can be as simple as peeling a banana for a younger sibling, reading a story together, singing each other a song, or giving a hug before bed.
Point out the bonds.
Your children know how happy it makes you to see that they like doing things for one another. Make comments like, “What fun for you two that you’re able to play together now.” Catch siblings “being good.” Look for any positive interaction between your children and praise them with your attention and enthusiasm (even small ones like cooperation in a game).
My sibling=My friend
Talk about your children as friends and not always as siblings. Instead of saying, “You opened the bottle for him because you are a good big brother and take care of him,” you could say, “You are such a nice friend to him. He really likes being your friend.”
"Figuring out who is right or wrong in sibling conflict is almost impossible. Let’s face it: Even though one of your children verbally assaulted the other, the humming his sibling did under her breath despite pleas from him to stop was really annoying."
Allow siblings unstructured time together. Open-ended experiences encourage siblings to figure out how to play together, respond to one another and problem solve.
Talk about the other sibling when you’re alone with one of your children in positive ways. Guess what she might be doing. Speculate that she’s probably missing her sibling, etc. When one child is away, collaborate on a surprise that her sibling can give him when he returns. Brainstorm together (if possible) something one sibling can make for the other, create, draw, etc.
Teach mini-conflict resolution.
Show your children how to interact more positively, respond less impulsively and calm down before reacting (e.g., counting their fingers, taking deep breaths). Modeling self-talk, the internal conversation we frequently have with ourselves when stressed, frustrated or anxious, can also temper your child’s negative sibling responses. For example, rather than reacting big, and punching her brother in the face, your daughter can calm herself down by talking through the issue, “Yes my brother drives me nuts and never knocks when he comes in my room, but I need to get a grip, or I’m the one that’s going to be in trouble.”
Create sharing schedules.
When you can, develop a system for more equal distribution. Set up a rotation system of privileges with each child getting a turn. For example, someone gets to choose the book that you’re reading at night, and someone else gets to pick what you serve for breakfast. For younger siblings, you can also set up a timer system for sharing. Two-minute-turns on a timer go a long way in motivating sharing that you can then praise.
Make time for team-building.
Have fun together as a family. Board games and card games are a great way to share fun times together and to inspire relaxed conversation. Choose activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family, like riding bikes, baking and doing a craft project.
Initiate family share time. Make a family game of sharing positive things about other family members. Encourage everyone to be specific about the things they like.
"You might feel like you’re inspiring better behavior from one of your children when you use her sibling as a model and say something like, 'Wow, look at your brother. He really takes good care of his body by eating all of his healthy food.' In reality, all that you’re inspiring is sibling resentment and jealousy that can last a lifetime."
Come up with chores or tasks that encourage your children to work together and to collaborate — building a fort in the backyard or opening a lemonade stand. Having a common goal, that can even be as simple as teaming up kids against parents in a board game, engenders feeling of comradery.
You might feel like you’re inspiring better behavior from one of your children when you use her sibling as a model and say something like, “Wow, look at your brother. He really takes good care of his body by eating all of his healthy food.” In reality, all that you’re inspiring is sibling resentment and jealousy that can last a lifetime.
Don’t be the judge.
Figuring out who is right or wrong in sibling conflict is almost impossible. Let’s face it: Even though one of your children verbally assaulted the other, the humming his sibling did under her breath despite pleas from him to stop was really annoying. Not to mention the fact that by your stepping in to resolve, punish or admonish, you are encouraging lying and tattle-telling, and exacerbating future conflicts. By staying out of sibling situations (unless someone is in danger of being physically hurt), you motivate your children to argue effectively and resolve their issues on their own.
Teach problem-solving skills.
Just because you ignore the conflict, of course, doesn’t mean your children have the skills to come up with solutions on their own. Young children often can only think of one solution to a problem, e.g., “We could take turns, when obviously — considering you are there in the first place to negotiate an intense battle over a reluctance to share — that solution isn’t working. Support your children in coming up with various potential solutions to the same problem.
Encourage them to try out the possibilities until they find one that works in making them both feel better so that they can become better at coming up with solutions independent of you.
One size does not fit all.
Treat your children individually (not always equally). Making sure things are equal does not decrease conflict and may encourage even more resentment. Instead, point out special qualities and needs that make your children unique.
Apologies are overrated.
Don’t force apologies; they are meaningless if they are not authentic.
Look for patterns in sibling conflict. Can you figure out what’s behind all the strife? Is one sibling getting a lot of negative attention? Are your children competitive with each other? For your attention? Do the fights happen more frequently when they’ve spent too much time together? Are they bored? Tired? If you can identify a pattern, you can address the situational factors that exacerbate conflict. For instance, if you realize that much of your son’s “annoying” behavior with his sister occurs when he is feeling left out, or wants her attention, you can brainstorm more positive ways with him that he can use when asking to join her activities or have one-on-one time with her.
Model “good” arguing.
This is a hard one for a lot of people. When you feel angry or frustrated, you might be the type to react big. (“IF YOU TWO CAN’T GET ALONG, I WILL CANCEL HALLOWEEN!!!!”) Your children will benefit by modeling calm behavior, and they will learn from you that even people who love each other can argue and feel angry or frustrated and still be close. It’s important that young children learn that although we don’t always agree with people, or want the same things as another person, we can’t say horrible things when we’re angry. Nor can we use physical aggression.
Make sure you practice what you preach. It’s healthy for your children to see you argue with your spouse or mother or friend from time to time, so long as the argument isn’t heated, no insults are slung and you come to a resolution. It's not easy, I realize, but when you consider the long-term stakes for your kids, I’m confident you can refrain from dropping F-bombs.
Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.