"YOU ARE THE MEANEST SISTER IN THE WORLD!!!"
My children are upstairs in the room directly above me, putting together a puzzle and fighting. I just heard a loud whap. Now there is crying. Also screaming. Our sitter is issuing time-outs.
Ah, siblings. My kids, 22 months apart, are best friends more often than not. But the recent winter break tested their love, to put it mildly. By the end of two-weeks spent mostly in each other's presence, a typical exchange had Older Sister declaring "I am SICK OF YOU," followed by Younger Sister screaming "GET AWAY FROM ME! Just get AWAY from me!"
I find this horrifying.
Meanness—to your sibling, or anyone, ever—is not a happiness habit.
What to do? I know that most siblings fight, and that social scientists have consistently recorded high levels of hostility in sibling relationships relative to other relationships. But this is not okay with me; I want my kids to be kind to each other. My dad and his brother are lifelong best friends and business partners. My brother and I are close friends. I want this for my kids, too. But how?
Fortunately, we parents of multiple children have some good science to guide us. Here's what I take away from this research.
- Treat kids fairly. From a very young age, kids start monitoring how their own relationships with their parents compare to those of their siblings. What is important here is not that we treat our kids exactly the same, but that our kids believe our differential treatment is FAIR. It doesn't really matter if we parents think the ways that we treat our children differently is fair, it matters what our kids think and whether they agree with each other about it. When kids believe that their parents are treating them fairly relative to their sibling(s)—parents show similar levels of affection, praise, and discipline, for example—sibling relationships are more positive.
Pay particular attention to warmth in this regard: When kids report that a parent's attention has decreased in warmth relative to the warmth that parent shows their sibling, it can really affect kids' happiness AND their relationship with their brother or sister. Not only do they show more symptoms of depression, but their relationships with their siblings become less warm as well.
- Emotion coaching is really important. Teaching kids how to identify, monitor, evaluate, and modify their emotional reactions to their siblings can have a really positive effect on sibling relationship quality. I've posted about how to teach kids this before; the goal here is to teach children to de-escalate frustrating episodes. That way, when their sibling pushes their buttons (in ways only siblings can), their negative response won't be as intense Emotion coaching also makes siblings better communicators, increasing the odds that they'll ultimately have a more positive play experience (see next suggestion).
- Give them positive opportunities to play. Positive play experiences help siblings lay a foundation for a life-long bond. This is related to the research on ratios between positive and negative emotions: Positive interactions between siblings need to outnumber negative ones by about five to one. One particularly good research-tested program aimed at improving sibling relationships focuses on finding things for siblings to do together that they both enjoy. Even kids who seemingly have nothing in common or with very wide age spreads can find ways to enjoy the other's company. The key is for us parents to help them find a little time each day for them to play or share a positive experience. Most kids will argue when playing together at some point; the key is to make sure that the number of positive experiences outweighs the negative ones.
Knowing this, I try to limit the time my kids spend together when they are likely to fight. In the late afternoon, for example, my kids tend to be a little cranky and prone to bickering, and so I often encourage them to have some "alone time" or to play with a neighbor until dinner. I also try to encourage them to do something each day where I think the odds are good they'll have a positive interaction. For example, I know that when they hold their pet rats together (in a dry bathtub—it's really quite a scene) they usually dissolve into raucous laughter within a few minutes. So a few afternoons a week, I suggest that they spend some quality time together with Bella and Despero.
- Role-play positive responses to conflict. Inevitably, siblings will have conflicts that they need to manage, and research shows that when kids are actively taught certain conflict management techniques, the quality of their sibling relationships does improve. The first goal is to help them NOT respond impulsively toward a slight, but to take the all-important first step in conflict-resolution: taking a big, deep breath. Ultimately, we want to teach kids how to respond in emotionally charged situations—to calmly communicate their individual needs and point of view to their sibling. This is best taught and practiced in neutral role-playing situations rather than in the heat of a fight. Read this post for more on conflict resolution.
- Think twice before intervening during a conflict, especially if you have teenagers. The "just stop it" approach, as it is known in my house, teaches kids nothing. When kids don't yet have the skills to work things out themselves, it is okay to play a "coaching" role during a conflict—emotion coaching and practicing the steps of conflict resolution outlined in this link. But when we intervene in kids' relationships, we need to be mindful that although our intentions are good, we might not be helping if we seem to take sides or exhibit favoritism. Research shows that preschool-aged kids benefit from more parental guidance during conflicts. Once kids reach adolescence, however, it is best to let kids work arguments out themselves.
For most parents, fostering close relationships between our kids is one of our greatest concerns. And rarely is the payoff as great as when kids get along well and love one another!
Do your kids get along well? If so, why? What have you done to foster sibling closeness?
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Kennedy, Denise E., Kramer, Laurie, 2008, Improving Emotion Regulation and Sibling Relationship Quality: The More Fun with Sisters and Brothers Program, Family Relations, Vol. 57, Issue 5, p567-578.
Kowal, Amanda K., Krull, Jennifer L., Kramer, Laurie,2006, Shared Understanding of Parental Differential Treatment in Families., Social Development, Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp 276-295.
Shanahan, Lilly, McHale, Susan M., Crouter, Ann C., Osgood, D. Wayne, 2008, Linkages between parents' differential treatment, youth depressive symptoms, and sibling relationships, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 70 (2), pp. 480-494.
Susan M McHale, Kimberly A Updegraff, Corinna J Tucker, Ann C Crouter, 2000, Step in or stay out? Parents' roles in adolescent siblings' relationships, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 62, Issue 3, p 746.
Big thanks to Nila Rosen for her research assistance with this posting!