It’s June and restrictions may be easing in the UK but families have been cooped up under one roof without the respite offered by schools for 11 weeks now. Siblings have had to endure each other’s company, have had to put up with each other’s annoying habits and have had to compete with each other for scarce resources, whether that’s a laptop, the kitchen table space or a parent’s attention. There may have been more fighting in your household as brothers and sisters have vented their emotions on a convenient scapegoat. Tensions have been running high as children have their own anxieties and frustrations and pick up on adult stress in the atmosphere. Children with immature brains and lack of experience at self-analysis won’t understand that it is actually the fact that they are missing their friends or playing sport or worrying about getting into university or being bored or even missing the routine of school that is irritating them rather than the really ANNOYING way their brother is slurping his drink! Although does he really have to be so gross?
You may have found yourself shouting at the kids more than usual, stepping in to sort out conflicts, separating them, banning the TV/iPad/games console. It’s not surprising that we’re focused on the fighting because it really demands our attention. We want it to stop. We definitely do not want to be going into A&E right now with a head needing stitches. But in fact we need to invest our time in laying the foundations for siblings to get on better with each other rather than putting all our energies into reacting when things go pear-shaped.
If the lifting of some restrictions is the light at the end of the tunnel for you perhaps it will give you the energy to have a fresh look at how your children interact and what you can do to help them get along.
Here are 7 ways you can help your children to get on better:
- Build up each child’s self-esteem with descriptive praise. So much unkind and aggressive behaviour comes about because of how the child is feeling about himself, from feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. When adults help children feel valued and appreciated they are much nicer to others. Some sibling conflict comes about because a child feels that his parents prefer his sibling. This is less likely if parents can give him lots of messages about how uniquely he is valued.
- Notice and comment favourably when siblings are getting along together. In busy families if children are playing nicely together parents don’t usually pay much attention but just get on with their to-do list, but if siblings start fighting that attracts a great deal of attention. Since children have evolved to do whatever gets more of their parents’ attention we need to be careful that we’re not making too much of spats and ignoring collaboration.
- Provide for time alone and time together. Even it were possible to always keep warring siblings apart to prevent battles that would not teach them how to get on. Providing one to one time alone with each parent reassures the individual child that they have a special place in their parents’ affections and that there is a Special Time reserved for them when they get undivided attention. This takes away one of the reasons for sibling rivalry. But we also need to engineer fun time together so that siblings see the point of each other –to be playmates and provide support for each other. Set it up so that you all play a fun game together with clear ground rules and lots of encouragement for pro-social behaviours. Comment on how much more fun it is when everyone is involved. Maybe point to particular attributes individual children bring to the game.
- Use emotion coaching to help the children manage their own emotions and develop empathy. This means naming the feelings you can see in your child and help them to use words to describe their emotions. Also use books and films to discuss how people are feeling; How do we know? What are they likely to do? What will help with challenging emotions? Talk about your own feelings and what strategies you’re using to deal with them. “I’m really fed up right now so I’m going to take a bath and listen to my music. I need some space for half an hour.” Children can’t sort out disputes until the feelings have been aired. It’s our job to help our children to resolve disputes themselves. We can help them, not by judging or by imposing solutions, but by clearing the air by describing how each child feels.
- Teach your children social skills. Some kids will pick these up easily and some will need more specific instruction such as through role play. Kids need to know how to ask for things without annoying others, to negotiate, to compromise, to take turns, and how to apologise and make amends.
- You will need some rules. Many families find they need rules about the sharing of common resources like electronic devices or even favoured seats in the car! You may need rules about which things need to be shared and what can be kept private. You may need rules about speaking respectfully. Rules will be specific to each family and will reflect individual families’ values Be clear what your values are before talking to the kids about what rules you need. Getting their input makes it far more likely that they will follow them. Notice and comment when the kids are following the rules.
- Lastly, model relationship skills. How do you talk to the children and to your partner? How do you resolve disputes? Are you using coercion and put downs or are you discussing things, considering the other’s perspective and compromising? You can be sure that the children will pay more attention to what you do than to what you say to do.
During this time families have been together far more than normal and if you’re finding it’s fraying a bit around the edges try some of these 7 steps for sibling harmony and enjoy being together.