by Sarah Allbee, LMHC
Parents are on the frontline when it comes to helping their children get along with each other. They are the first ones that can help siblings develop a positive relationship with each other that will last a lifetime.
While it is typical for siblings to fight, there are things that parents can do to help nurture a supportive relationship between siblings. To help us understand how to help siblings get along, I enlisted some help from parents who have multiple kids at varying ages.
These parents all have different careers, come from various religious backgrounds, and are at different stages of their parental journey, but they are all parents. I thank each of them for giving their honest answers to my questions in the hopes that they help other parents who are struggling with this universal topic.
Meet the parents:
Shannon: mother of 4, Former BYS Family Services Manager
Children’s ages: 27, 25, 23, and 21
Tara: mother of 5, Writer, and Full Time Mother
Children’s ages: 9 (twins), 7, 5, and 2
John: father of 4, BYS Therapist, and Parent Peer Group Facilitator
Children’s ages: 18, 16, 14, 12
- Do your kids get along? When do they get along the best?
Shannon: Our kids do get along. Now that our kids are grown, I think they get along the best when I stay out of their relationships and allow them to develop them on their own! One thing to remember is that kids go through lots of different stages as they grow, so our experience has been that siblings do well with each other and then they struggle with each other, and then they are close again.
Tara: Our kids get along best when they are working together to achieve common goals.
John: It depends on the day/hour/minute. They get along best when they’re all in good moods. One bad mood is enough to throw everything off. It’s the hot pain potato metaphor – if someone comes home in a snit, or gets an unwelcome text, they might toss that pain potato to a sibling who then passes it along…etc. Aside from getting along when they’re in a good mood, they get along best when they’re focused on achieving a common goal.
Sarah’s Summary: Both Tara and John identified that their kids work best when they’re working together to achieve goals. You can encourage your children to work as a team by providing positive praise and encouragement when you catch them working nicely together. When they do work together as a team, it can be very helpful to reward this behavior. If they are working together to achieve a reward they both desire, then they will be more likely to put effort into the task and can celebrate together as well.
- What strategies have you found to be the most helpful to encourage the bonds between siblings?
Shannon: First, I have found that allowing them to develop their relationships on their own terms is helpful. Second, I have found that it is important that I don’t share my concerns about one sibling with another sibling. I can encourage them to reach out to one another, but my kids shouldn’t be my sounding board. Third, encouraging them to share their successes and concerns with each other helps them to turn to one another for celebration or advice.
Each time a baby was born, the baby “brought” a gift for the other siblings when they arrived – a desired movie or toy – and we made a big deal of welcoming each new one into the family. We allowed all of the children, including the toddler, to hold the new baby (with help, of course) and we integrated each baby into our regular life and schedule.
Tara: I like to encourage friendship between siblings from the moment a new baby enters the family. When a new baby is brought home, I give the other kids a gift from the new baby, a movie for example, with a card that says “I’m so happy to be in your family and I can’t wait to be friends”. If you try to encourage friendship between them, when inevitable issues do come up, resolution is way easier because they actually like each other.
John: I’d probably have an easier time detailing things that didn’t work (e.g. trying to make everything equal all the time really worked against us). The hardest bond to encourage has been between the boys because our older son wants to be older and sees his younger brother as the baby. Video games have been the most helpful way so far to encourage bonding between the boys. They don’t always work, (e.g. when they’re competing against one another) but because they have a shared interest and goal, they can talk about tactics, strategies, new content, etc.
Sarah’s Summary: As Shannon and Tara both said, encouraging connection from the moment children are brought into the family is a great way to kickstart sibling friendships. Siblings who genuinely like each other and value each other’s opinions will get along better as kids and as adults. Sharing concerns about one sibling with another is not advisable; let them be just siblings. Furthermore, it is important not to compare your children to each other, as it will most likely lead your child to think you love their sibling more and that the sibling is better than they are.
- What are some ways you handle disagreements between your children?
Shannon: Now that my children are grown, if they have disagreements, they work through them on their own. When I have allowed myself to get involved, I have found that I am not aware of the complete story and I end up making things more complicated, so I offer encouragement for them to work through their disagreements together.
When they were young, we would require that they talk to one another and work things out. They would need coaching, but it was important that they spent the time to work through things rather than fighting physically, slamming doors, or giving each other the silent treatment. Please don’t get me wrong…we had some physical stuff and some slammed doors, but those didn’t get shrugged off. We held our kids accountable for their choices and tried to help them navigate through them.
Tara: We like to let them try problem-solving with each other first before stepping in. Here are some tips we give them.
Share with I-statement: “I feel _________ when ________”, “I want __________”
Listen and hear what they are saying
Check: “I think I heard you say you feel ________”, “So you want me to __________”
John: Time and again, what hasn’t worked is putting myself in the middle of a conflict in an authoritarian role. Instead, I’ve switched to trying to reflect back to them what I’m hearing from both sides. It rarely “fixes” it in the moment, but it seems like it makes repair between them afterward easier.
Sarah’s Summary: When your kids are fighting, it can be helpful to coach your children to stand up for themselves, rather than jumping in and solving the argument for them. If you defend one child and scold another, then the scolded child may think you love their sibling more than them, leading to increased sibling tension. Going through a process like the one Tara mentioned may take more time, patience, and listening skills, but the hope is that your modeling of these behaviors will pay off in the end and they will eventually work through their disagreements on their own.
- What do you think is the most important thing your children can gain from being a sibling?
Shannon: I firmly believe that our families and our homes are our practice places for going out into the big world. Perhaps the most important thing children learn from having a sibling is that there is more to life than just what happens to them. Life out in the big world is about functioning with other people. Having a sibling gives them the opportunity to practice at home learning to share, learning to think of others and their needs, learning to serve, learning to celebrate someone else and their accomplishments and also enjoying that they have someone to laugh, cry, and experience life with who is unique in their own way.
Tara: Lifelong friendship.
John: They learn to work through conflict, communicate, and practice patience. They get true friendship. They learn that life isn’t just about them, that others have their own desires and triggers, and that kindness involves considering other’s feelings in addition to their own.
Sarah’s Summary: All parents agree that there are many things their kids will gain out of being a sibling, including friendship, learning that life isn’t just about them, and considering others’ needs and feelings in addition to their own.
One of the biggest ways to encourage sibling bonds is to spend quality time with each child to let them know how important they are to you. It can dramatically decrease sibling rivalries when parents let each of their children know how much they love them and how there is no replacement for them in their parent’s hearts.
Thank you to all of these parents for their helpful and insightful responses.