By Guest Blogger Christine Murray, PhD, LMHC, LMFT, Director of the Healthy Relationships Initiative
Whether you have two kids or ten, it’s likely that sibling relationships are a frequent source of joy and tension in your family. As parents, some of the most heartwarming moments in families come when we see our children show love and kindness toward one another. For example, I’ll never forget one of the sweetest moments between my two boys when the little brother was getting ready to start kindergarten, and his big brother started to read to him to help him learn how to read. Awwwww.
But, some of the most stressful parenting moments also can relate to kids’ sibling relationships. If you’re like me, you’ve often found yourself wondering, “Why won’t they just stop fighting?” Or, “Why can’t they just get along?” While it’s probably not a realistic goal to try and stop all the fighting or help your kids get along all the time, parents definitely can take steps to help foster better (not perfect!) sibling relationships among their children.
In today’s post, we’ll cover a few basic parenting strategies for setting the stage for healthy relationships between siblings. In addition, if you’ve got extra time for even more reading on this topic, check out our full Healthy Relationships Initiative blog series on promoting healthy sibling relationships here.
First, take the long-range view. Remind yourself that you’re not just parenting your children to get along with each other in the moment, but also trying to set the stage for them to have a healthy sibling relationship throughout their lives. If you’re fortunate to have healthy sibling relationships in your own life as an adult, reflect back on fights and disagreements you had with your own siblings during childhood as a reminder that these childhood fights don’t necessarily lead to a lifetime of conflict. I can personally attest to this—My twin sister and I did not get along at all when we were growing up, and we’ve become very close friends over the years. Taking this long-range view can help to put current conflicts in perspective and also help you to choose your battles when it comes to figuring out which sibling challenges require more or less attention.
Remember that each child is an individual. Regardless of where you stand on the nature vs. nurture debate, if you have more than one child, you’ve almost certainly seen that even siblings who have the same parents and are raised in the same environment can have vastly different personalities and needs when it comes to parenting. As you navigate sibling challenges, keep in mind that each child may require a different approach. Some kids are quick to change their behaviors when corrected, while others like to test the limits more. Some kids naturally have more patience than others. Children’s age and maturity also come into play, and often it’s differences in children’s developmental levels that can lead to conflict in the first place. It’s important to be fair and equitable in parenting whenever possible, but differences in children can call for different responses to conflict and other challenges between siblings.
Help children learn to navigate conflict. It’s never too early to start teaching your children positive relationship skills! In many ways, sibling relationships are a great “lab” for learning and practicing conflict management skills that can be invaluable to have through all stages of life. My kids hate when I tell them this, but I often remind them that learning to get along with each other is a great way to learn how to get along with people who are different from them, and this is something they’ll need in future relationships and in their future careers! Help your children learn to develop skills that support positive conflict management, such as active listening, brainstorming solutions, and understanding how to agree to disagree with others. For more information on this topic, check out our HRI Toolkit for Families with Young Children for more tools and tips for conflict management.
Seek practical solutions to common disagreements. Are there common topics that lead to strife between your children? While you can’t (and likely wouldn’t even want to) remove all possible sources of sibling conflict, it’s likely there are some hot-button issues that could be addressed by proactive, creative solutions. If you notice that certain topics tend to lead to frequent tension between your children, try to think creatively about what rules you might put in place to avert conflict or if there are other ways you might eliminate that source of conflict. For example, if your children fight over who will sit in the front seat of the car, consider assigning days or alternating weeks so that there will be clear expectations about who will sit where, and when. As another example, if your children fight over who will eat a certain type of cereal, consider stopping buying that cereal until they can agree to share it. Try to be proactive and practical about minimizing sources of conflict until your children develop greater maturity and stronger conflict management skills.
Consider the underlying issues behind conflict. Look beyond the practical sources of conflict to consider if there may be some underlying emotional or relational issues. Sometimes, a fight is just about who gets to hold the remote control. But sometimes, the remote control issue is symbolic of underlying feelings of inadequacy or jealousy held by one or both siblings. Of course, this is just one example of how underlying issues could play out in a conflict situation between siblings. But, as a parent, it’s important to try and take a step back from the immediate conflict issues and reflect on what deeper concerns may be at play. This is especially true if there are themes or patterns in the conflict issues and how they are addressed. When you identify these deeper issues, you can consider how to offer deeper-level support to your children that goes beyond identifying a specific solution to a specific conflict problem.
Seek help for additional support. Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out for additional support and help as you navigate challenges in your children’s sibling relationship. It may be tempting to dismiss sibling conflict as an inevitable part of parenting. However, unmanaged sibling conflict can lead to larger concerns in families, and the stress of this conflict can be very difficult for everyone in the family. There should never be any shame in reaching out for support, whether from a close friend or family member or from a professional counselor or parent educator. If professional support would be helpful for managing the stress of sibling conflict in your family, click here to check out our HRI blog post for tips on finding a counselor to address family concerns.
Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form here.
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