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Siblings – How to Create Healthy Bonds

IMG_5443With three kids, I’m often asked if they get along. Um…yeah… sure… from time to time… here and there. Truth be told and kidding aside, this is an issue that is extremely important to me. Whenever times are tough, I love the feeling that my own three brothers are in my corner. To give this same sense of security to my own kids is crucial to me. I often joke with the hubby that they can grow up to hate me as long as they are there for each other. For tips on making this happen (the part where they get along, not the part where they hate me…ahem), I turned to Noni Levi, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Parenting Coach who first answered my own questions, followed by her article on fostering healthy sibling relationships right from the start. Oh… and you may get a tip or two on putting up with your own siblings this holiday season.

I’ve heard the tip to never compare siblings to one another, but what about praising one for their accomplishments — I sometimes catch myself toning down my praise of my third child so I don’t hurt the feelings of the other two after I notice their faces dropping. What do you suggest in order to celebrate one child’s success without hurting another’s feelings?

First you should never compare your siblings, even if it is a positive comparison. It creates division between siblings. Since children want our love and approval it may be difficult to hear a sibling receive praise and they may wonder “what about me?” Here are two suggestions to balance these issues.

This idea is from Redirecting Children’s Behavior course. Families should have a weekly “encouragement feast.” The family sits in a circle with one person in the middle. Each family member says one thing positive about the person in the middle. For example, “One of the things I love and appreciate about you Billy is your great sense of humor.” After everyone has encouraged them the person in the middle would then say one thing they love about themselves. Then the next family member takes their place in the middle. The exercise continues until everyone has an opportunity to be in the middle and be encouraged. Children love this exercise and it teaches them to receive encouragement as well as give it.

IMG_4602The second idea is a very positive way for parents to notice what their children are doing positively and to give them a compliment. Parents post a chart with each child’s name on it. Under their names they write the positive things they’ve done each day. For a child who is fearful you record the small acts of courage. For the one who has trouble cooperating, note each time they listened. Other positive deeds include acts of kindness, cleaning up, sharing, doing homework etc. The chart is then read aloud at the end of the week. This helps children feel good about themselves and parents focus on the positive things they do.

I’ve read to not get involved when siblings fight. Listen, though – I had an older brother and I got worked by him, so I’m very sensitive to this tip. I will let my kids work it out, but even if I notice an unfair developmental advantage vs. the obvious physical (i.e. the ability to better argue their point), I step in because I remember feeling helpless against my older brother. In short, I don’t want my younger two children to have their spirits crushed because they will spend 18 years being outmatched. Any advice?

Letting children work out conflicts without teaching them conflict management skills is abusive. Refer to the steps to teach conflict resolution in the article below. If children know these skills and are hitting each other you can separate them and ask them to cool off. Once they have cooled down then go back to guiding them through the conflict resolution steps. In some cases, if you have two older children who are well match physically, you can ask them to take it outside. There is value in learning that fighting hurts both parties.

Also, one Breezy Mama wanted to know, “Is it typical to hit and bite one another? When am I supposed to react and what am I supposed to let them work it out on their own. I do not want to foster tattle-telling.”

It is very normal for some toddlers to bite and many children from a toddler to a teenager to hit each other sometimes. If you have a no hitting rule in the home, parents included, then you can model healthy relational skills. When a child has bit or hit another, it is appropriate to have them makes amends to the other child, such as bring an ice bag for a bite, a band-aide, a hug or words expressing remorse.

For a while, I was really good at doing one on one time with each child, but with our new schedule I’m finding it difficult to fit in. Do you have any recommendations?

Juggling busy schedules is difficult. It is important for everyone to have one on one time with each other. Parents need to have a date nights (for ideas on cheap date nights, click here), children need time with mom or dad. You may not have as much time as in the past but still make an effort to have alone time. Even ten minutes to read a book, have a foot rub or play a quick game can fit into most people’s busy schedules.

IMG_4756With three kids, there’s a lot of playdates, activities, homework, birthday parties – how do I fit it all in and make sure each kid gets their own life?

The only advice I can give is have each child in only one activity at a time. I personally feel most of us over schedule ourselves and our children. Here is a quote by Mother Theresa: “Everybody today seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater developments and greater riches and so on, so that children have very little time for their parents. Parents have very little time for each other, and in the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.” Also connect with other parents to carpool with. It is truly a juggling act with every added child to a family.

One Breezy Mama wrote in, “Having two boys who are so close in age, I am trying to promote a good relationship between the two and anticipate issues that may arise as they get older. What can I do now while they are young to foster a strong and healthy relationship between the two?”

I think individual personality types are as important as gender differences. No matter the differences it is important to teach children to have respect for each other’s personal boundaries.

Does your advice change and/or do you have additional tips for brother/brother siblings, sister/sister siblings and sister/brother siblings?

I think this question is too big for a few sentences. Some kids are just more compassionate than others. Always look to find situations where you can encourage children to act in compassionate ways.

ry=400-2Frankly, as an adult, I’m very close with my three brothers and that’s an important part of my life. Do you have advice for Moms that don’t currently have a healthy relationship with their own siblings?

This is also a very broad question to very unique and personal situations. People aren’t friends with everyone and sometimes siblings are so different they will never be close. Some people have siblings with some form of mental illness or addiction which prevents closeness. If you don’t particularly like your sibling you can always be polite at family functions.

by Noni Levi

I have had many clients share about their sibling relationships. Some are very close to their siblings and consider them good friends and valuable support systems. Others have conflicted or even severed relationships with their siblings. Most parents want their children to get along and have strong positive bonds but may be unsure how they can help to foster those relationships.

Time magazine recently ran an article titled, The New Science of Siblings, July 10th 2006. In the article one study stated that the two most powerful variables affecting children’s conflict resolution skills were parenting styles and the child’s temperament. We can not change our child’s temperament, but we can teach our children ways to deal with their temperament challenges. As parents we do have control on how we handle our children’s conflicts, as well as how we model effective ways to deal with conflict in our own lives.

IMG_6861By the time children are 11, they devote about 33% of their free time to their siblings-more time than they spend with friends, parents, teachers and even themselves according to a Penn State University study published in 1996. So how do you as parents help your children to connect with each other in healthy and positive ways?

Let’s explore the first time they meet. For many, the second child arrives when the first is still a toddler. Some of the first things you might notice after the “honeymoon period” is over is that the older sibling hugging the baby too hard, pinching or hitting them. The older sibling might also say things like “take the baby back”, “she’s stupid”, or “I hate him.” These are normal feelings of anger declared by the older sibling, but they are expressed in inappropriate ways. Many parents are uncomfortable with their child’s strong negative feelings and tell the children not to talk that way or punish them for their negative behaviors. Parents then lose a valuable opportunity to first validate their child’s feelings and then to teach them more appropriate ways to express their anger and frustration.

When the older sibling shares negative feelings through words or actions, validate their anger and frustrations, i.e., “It sounds like you’re really angry” or “It looks like you are really mad.” Let them know you understand it is hard for them to now share their parent’s love, attention, and time. When they have calmed down and felt acknowledged, then teach them appropriate phrases to say or actions they can take to express their negative emotions — such as punching a pillow when angry or saying they are angry.

Some other suggestions to help in the transition of a new baby are to:

1. Find ways for the older sibling to feel helpful with the younger one.
2. Have each parent take special one on one time with the eldest.

The other area that is extremely difficult for parents to handle is sibling conflict. In another study at the University of Illinois it found that siblings between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times in an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 group top out at 6.3 –or more than one clash every 10 minutes according to one Canadian study. This puts into perspective all the conflicts we see not only with siblings but within the toddler playgroups.

Once the second child is old enough to crawl and explore, they love to get into the older sibling’s toys which creates conflict. The parent usually responds by punishing the oldest and coddling the youngest. When the parent responds this way they have tri-angled themselves into the sibling relationship. The parent is then taking responsibility for managing the sibling’s conflict instead of teaching them the skills to work it out themselves.

Even children as young as 18 months can be shown basic resolution skills. Here is one way to handle conflict. Buy two puppets; let the children pick them out. Use these puppets only during times of conflict. Encourage the children to express how they feel and what they want. When they have a conflict, you speak through the puppet for the youngest, using a child’s voice i.e., “I’m mad when you hit me, stop that.” Then let the older child use their puppet to share their feelings, “I am mad when you knock down my blocks, don’t do that.” This is the beginning of you teaching your children to work things out themselves. Continue using this technique for all their conflicts. When the younger child gains more verbal skills then let them talk for themselves.

Some other tips to promote sibling harmony:

• Avoid comparing your children, even positive comparisons. It does not create closeness between siblings and sets them up to compete with each other.

• Treat each child according to what they need vs. treating equally. Parents get pulled into thinking each child needs to be treated equally. At certain times you will be focused more on one child’s needs over another. Each child needs you in a different ways at different times.

• Acknowledge each child for their uniqueness and tell them what you appreciate about them.

• Avoid labeling your children “good one,” “cooperative one,” “bossy one.” This will lock children into possible fixed roles and doesn’t encourage them to grow and change. Your child may try on many hats while developing a sense of who they are and what they can be.

Remember the sibling relationship is lifelong and they will have conflicts throughout their life. The best gift you can give your children is to teach them healthy ways to solve their disagreements. Helping your child learn to manage and resolve conflicts with their siblings gives them the building blocks for all relationships that follow both professional and personal; friends, co-workers, bosses, and marital partners.

Recommended books:

Raising Your Spirited Child (click here) by Mary Sheedy Kurchinka
Redirecting Children’s Behavior (click here) by Kathryn Kvols

levi Nonie Levi, M.A., MFT is a Licensed marriage and family therapist who teaches a potty training course 3-4 times a year through San Diego’s Parent Connection. For more information on Nonie and/or to get in touch with her, please click here.

chef_horseMake sure to check out this week’s Delish Dish: Turkey Enchiladas by clicking here.

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  1. Great advice and timely. Thank you!

  2. Jen Stevens says:

    Great Article! With two boys less than two years apart I need all the advice I can get. Thanks for the basic tips.

  3. This is extremely helpful stuff! Not the usual babble about forcing siblings to get along. Thank you!


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