The other day, I looked over and saw something incredibly rare and beautiful: My three kids were reading a book together. Nine-year-old Perdy had her arm around three-year-old Carmelo; 11-month-old Rocco was resting his head in Perdy’s lap. I had always wanted a big family, and there they all were, happily existing in one another’s company. I got teary-eyed just looking at them.
But then, baby Rocco yanked the book from Carmelo’s fingers. Carmelo shoved his baby brother and screamed, “No, baby!” Perdy sharply told him not to push the baby. Carmelo yelled at Perdy that he hated her, and she ran off to her room in tears.
Just another blissful day at my house.
When I’m thinking straight, I know fighting among siblings is completely normal. (I have a brother, after all.) But there’s something about seeing my kids argue that pushes all my buttons and leaves me an emotional wreck long after they’ve gotten over it and are playing together again. I get upset because I want them to be best friends, and really, what was the point in having more than one if they aren’t going to get along and entertain one another? I pictured them happily playing together all day long, not brawling and sniping.
My response to their fighting isn’t consistent—if I’m totally honest, it usually involves yelling and sending at least one darling child to his or her room. I find it helps to remember these squabbles are often the first encounters kids have with conflict—which means they can be teachable moments. As Anne Graham, a child and adult psychologist in Apohaqui, NB, says, “These disagreements can provide an arena for learning about conflict resolution that will help them later in life.” Like so many things, when it comes to learning how to effectively resolve differences, it’s best if those lessons are first practised at home.
I’m all for life lessons (and more peace and quiet). Here are some ground rules to lay down for a more harmonious household.
1. Know how (and when) to respond
If fighting among siblings is a natural occurrence, at what point should we intervene? Not too soon, says Jeannette Decker, an ECE for 29 years who owns Brookfield Preschool in Brookfield, NS. “Working things out with siblings helps instill coping skills in your children, and that will help them later in life,” she says. “It’s how your kids are going to learn to negotiate.”
This doesn’t mean you let them go at it Fight Club style. You need to step in when someone is getting hurt, whether that be physically or verbally, says Vancouver-based parenting coach Julie Romanowski. “But try not to get trapped into continuously stepping in like a referee in a hockey game,” she says. There is a better way, and although it takes time to implement (and requires you to remain calm throughout), the long-term payoff is worth it.
Romanowski advocates the VB response—validation plus boundary—to help your kids learn how to get along. “You validate their feelings, letting them know it’s OK to feel jealous or mad, but it’s not OK to hurt their sibling, and set that boundary,” she says. So if your son throws the Wii remote at his sister because she won’t let him play, you’d tell him that you understand he’s frustrated, but refer back to previously stated house rules that we never hurt each other no matter how annoyed we feel, and remind your daughter about the importance of sharing. Doing this requires staying neutral, no matter how exasperated you are by the behaviour, and standing firm no matter how long it takes to get the message through. With young kids, this might mean stating those boundaries multiple times—repetition is key. “See it as an opportunity to build on their skills of teamwork as they learn to get along,” she says.
And if they keep pushing those boundaries? Well, that’s what kids are supposed to do, Romanowski says. Remain neutral and patient as you guide them through their feelings, looking for ways to teach rather than punish or give consequences.
Aaron Hamilton, dad to Megan, 10, and Reznor, 7, knows from experience that responding authoritatively often backfires, adding fuel to the fire. “Sometimes sitting with them and letting them cuddle with you is all it takes to relieve the situation,” he says, admitting it isn’t always easy to do when tensions are high. Recently he started to use humour to deflect the tension, particularly with Reznor, and likes that he’s teaching a coping strategy that will work well throughout their lives.
Feel like the conflict is moving beyond normal squabbling? There are clear signs that your kids need more help to get along, says Graham. “If you see a definite pattern, that there’s ongoing verbal and physical aggression between your children, you should seek help from a family therapist,” she says. “Unresolved and ongoing conflict between siblings can lead to lifelong chronic family issues—I see that in my practice all the time. It’s not always the best choice to let the children work it out because learning how to fight right is a skill that needs to be taught.”
2. Teach kids how to express themselves
When kids know how to express their emotions, they’re less likely to lash out or scream something hurtful. Graham has four kids herself, and when they were toddlers she taught each of them to articulate how they felt by using cut-outs of faces showing different emotions so they could give a name to various feelings. “I also encourage them to talk when they are calm and relaxed, so they can use those skills when they’re stressed,” she says. Graham finds it helpful to sit down as a family to do this, reflecting on emotionally charged moments after everyone has cooled off.
3. Respect each child’s autonomy
As much as you want your kids to play together, you can’t expect it to always happen. “If your children are getting along with just a couple of tangles a day, I’d say that’s a normal family,” says Decker. “We can’t always get along with people in our lives, whether that’s your kids, your husband, your dog or whoever. It’s important to respect their individuality and different temperaments.” It’s perfectly OK to tell kids to give a sibling some space, she says, and suggests you offer some special activity to distract them, such as going for a walk or doing a craft, if they really don’t want to leave their sibling alone. When you give your kids space, it serves several purposes, Graham says: “It develops their independence, allowing them to learn to play on their own, and gives them time to be quiet and regulate their emotions.”
4. Give each child your undivided attention
One simple way to help everyone get along better is to make sure that everyone gets time with you one-on-one. As anyone with a sibling knows, it can feel like someone else is always getting all the attention, and that hurts.
Mother-of-two Lauren Byrne says her daughter, Avery, is in absolute bliss when they go out together and leave her brother behind with her dad. “Whether I take her to a movie on her own or the grocery store, Avery just loves that time with me,” she says. (I told Perdy that once her second brother was born, either her dad I or would take her on a special date every week. Rocco turns one in a few weeks, and last Friday I finally made good on my promise and took her out to a movie. Clearly, I need to up my game on this rule.)
Alone time with you doesn’t need to be hugely ambitious, says Graham. It can just be downtime where you cuddle and watch a favourite show, share a book, go for a walk together—anything really, so long as it is just the two of you. When you’ve got young kids and are struggling just to make it through the day, that can sound like a lot of added pressure, but Graham says she recommends parents try to spend 15 minutes per kid per day with child-directed play. (That means letting them choose what they want to do with you, and going with it even if it means playing robot hospital—again.) “It gives them time to take control and connect with you,” says Graham.
5. Keep your own emotions in check
Whether you’re witnessing a bar fight or your kids are brawling in the back of the car, conflict can be incredibly stressful to watch. It’s not something many of us are great at dealing with (*puts hands up*), and while yelling may put a quick stop to fights, it isn’t effective in the long run. That means we need to get a grip on how we are feeling, too: If we really want to guide our kids through a situation, we need to step up as leaders. “Take a breath and tap into your coping skills,” Romanowski says. “We need to deal with our own frustrations at another time—there’s no room for that here.”
In fact, when your kid is acting out, your reaction can have long-term implications. “Kids can feel very insecure at those times and it comes out as bad behaviour. If your parent, your number one guy, the person you love the most is coming down hard on you, that’s going to actually increase your anxiety and insecurity, and increase bad behaviour,” says Romanowski. “In times of distress, what most kids need is someone who is neutral, stable and going to have their back. Me being neutral is the security blanket for my kids.”
6. Reinforce the love
We also need to look for the sweet moments between our kids and encourage more of them. As Graham says, “Most parents observe it and may think,That’s so cute. But we should say it out loud. ‘Wow, that was so nice when you gave your sister a hug’ or ‘Thank you for going and getting her juice.’” When she sees her kids do these acts of service and kindness, she tries to praise them. “Doing that makes your child feel good, and they’re going to want to do that again.”
Stress the importance of family from when your kids are very young—you want them to know they are a team. David Parks emphasizes that whenever he can to his two sons. “I always say, your brother is your friend and you’re going to be friends for your entire life,” he says.
We should also remember that we are role models for our kids, so we need to show that spirit of teamwork, too. No one said this peace thing was easy.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2016 issue, titled “Keep the sibling peace,” pg. 43-45.