Older brother with disabled younger brother

Fostering Sibling Relationships: Part 1

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Oh, the arguing and bickering; the screaming and shoving!  And that’s just what’s required to get everyone to school in the morning.  When you add how brothers and sisters go at each other, the house can become an urban war zone, complete with insurgents and intermittent explosive devices.  For all this, sibling relationships provide the context for your kids to learn a number of very important lessons about living with another person who is relatively equal.  Siblings have to share the same space, put up with another person’s quirks and idiosyncrasies and compete for resources (i.e., bathroom, snacks, parental attention).  Having a sibling around requires you to find your own niche, sometimes one that matches your natural interest and sometimes one that requires you to develop skills you might not otherwise have developed (either because of encouragement from sibs or because they were better at what you would have wanted to do).  You have to learn to compromise, deal with frustration and learn how to let things go.  You have to deal with jealousy and being annoyed by someone who you can’t just ignore or escape.  You learn compassion for someone who you also dislike intensely.  You learn how to share when you don’t want to.  You learn how to sacrifice for a sibling’s has special needs.

But, that doesn’t mean siblings end up incorporating these lessons in a positive way that promotes psychological health and loving relationships.  It could just end up with them being annoying, critical and mean to each other.

What’s a parent to do?

There are a number of things you can do to foster a closer, more affectionate relationship between your kids.  At the very least, you can reduce the amount of direct conflict and arguing.

Cooperative activities.  Kids have to learn how to get along.  The can learn this best by doing.  The more they practice getting along, the better they will become at it.  There are two main areas where you can require some cooperation so they can practice: play and work.

Play.  The enjoyment and fun that comes from playing can help encourage your kids to get along so they can have more of it.  You can help this along by requiring your kids to play together at least some of the time.  If they are particularly resistant, then you can make the opportunity to do others things contingent on them spending a set amount of time in pleasant, cooperative and loving play together.  “You guys will have to get along together for 15 minutes before you can do anything else.”  (As with all of these suggestions, make sure you don’t have them get pushed beyond their limits. You want them to succeed.)

Work.  Siblings who are already getting along will naturally have times when they work together.  But when your kids avoid each other or do nothing but argue, bicker and undermine each other, it is time for them to get some practice working well with someone they don’t particularly like.  Give them a task to complete together.  Be sure to supervise them at first; give direct instructions on how to work together and how to treat each other.  If they get into a conflict, add another task.  Keep adding (small) tasks until they complete a task without any conflict.  They will either learn how to be supportive and cooperative in working with others, how to fake it or you will get all those little chores done you have been putting off.

Teach them conflict resolution.  Sibling conflict is the perfect opportunity to teach your kids about how to resolve conflict with a selfish, stupid jerk (not an insignificant skill in life).  And, forcing your kids to sit down with each other and calmly resolve their conflict drives them CRAZY!  Some of the important steps of conflict resolution include:

  • Set the ground rules
    • No name calling
    • Don’t interrupt
    • Use I statements:  I feel, I want, I don’t want, I think
    • Any outbreak of conflict will result in starting the process all over again from the beginning
  • Summarize the other person’s position, complaints or grievances
  • Be fair (how you are supposed to treat others not what they deserve)
  • Wrong is wrong.
  • When all else fails, trade off

Manners.  Polite, civil behavior is important at all times.  Require your kid to treat each other like they strangers.  In other words, be polite and civil to each other.  If they have trouble, identify a period when official formal manners are required.  “Thank you very much.”  “I so appreciate your assistance with this brother.”  “Would you mind terribly passing the mayonnaise?”  It doesn’t stop until there is an unbroken period of correct and formal manners in every interaction.

See Fostering sibling relationships II