Promote Sibling Harmony in Seven Steps

by Cassandra R. Elias

Sibling HarmonyFriends come and go; siblings are forever (whether we like it or not).

Would you like your children to get along at least most of the time?

What are the steps that are involved to have sibling serenity?

You can start at the beginning. What do we mean by that? Before your second child is born set a foundation of kindness, empathy and gratefulness. If the foundation is strong, so is your first child's self-esteem.

All kids are bound to get mad at their siblings. Sometimes they argue; sometimes they strike out. You can take active steps to give your children confidence in themselves and the skills to work through their conflicts.

Seven Simple Steps for Siblings

1. Make Friends Early

Give your child a chance to get acquainted with the new baby before birth. Talk about "our baby" and "your little sister or brother." Encourage your child to talk with baby in your tummy and to feel the boots and kicks. Some kids enjoy reading or telling the baby bump stories. Art lovers like to make pictures for a scrapbook or in the baby's room.

The nine months of pregnancy offer plenty of time to look at pictures when your big kid was just a newborn. Flip through the pages together and talk about new babies, changing diapers and nursing so your child knows what to expect once the baby arrives.

2. Help Your Child Learn How to Be Sensitive

Teach your children about empathy. Comment on other kids' feelings like, "Look at that little boy. He's crying. I think someone hurt his feelings." "Sarah hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?"

Notice and talk with your own children about their feelings. "When your sister messes up your things, you get really angry." "You're upset that we had to quit reading to rescue the baby." Your understanding and naming these emotions lays the foundation of your children developing empathy for each other.

3. Foster Individuality

Connect with each child. Many experts suggest you schedule a special one-on-one time, like date night or a few minutes at bedtime with each child. During this time, you'll come to recognize your children's unique personality and skills. Once you identify a child's special talent, find opportunities to encourage and validate this strength.

Each child has special abilities, likes and needs. They aren't the same and you don't need to treat them as if they were. In our large family, the children often made it clear that meeting individual needs was more important than focusing on fairness. When one child asked, "Why did Ellen get new shoes and not me?" Another answered, "Because hers were worn out."

Do you have two children who love pizza and one who would rather have Indian food? In a democracy, you would always go out for pizza. In a family that recognizes individuality, you would sometimes enjoy an Indian buffet.

Avoid comparisons. Give honest, specific feedback to each of your children about their specific strengths and weaknesses, but don't compare accomplishments.

4. Watch, Prepare and Prevent

You can set the stage for sibling harmony. Do they squabble over chores? Do they fight right before dinner or in the car? Do explosions happen as you sit down for a few minutes on the computer?

Recognize the problem times and settings. Then put a plan in place to minimize these problems. Visible charts for chores or even as a way to take turns helps each child know what's expected. Telling them your expectations and consequences also sets children up for success.

As much as we might hate to admit it, when our energies are focused online or with work, we're not usually engaged with our kids. When we're not involved, there's a better chance of conflict between them.

If late afternoon seems to be squabble time, plan a snack and an special activity for that time slot. If car time has become a call to battle, have the kids sit as far apart as possible and then give each their own entertainment system. It can be as simple as markers and paper or an iPod.

Bribery, also known as an incentive reward, has its place, too. While bribery should be a last resort, it can give you a few minutes of peace -- hopefully!

5. Set Boundaries and Guidelines

Enforce respect in your household. Agree as a family that you won't yell, name-call, make unkind remarks or be disrespectful in other ways. Make a list of actions that aren't allowed in your family. This might include hitting, pinching, biting and scratching. Next, help teach self-management by making a list of healthy ways to handle anger. When everyone's calm jot down ideas. Your children might make suggestions like, "beat on my pillow" or "dig a deep hole and bury my angries." List and post the ideas for everyone to see.

6. Teaching Conflict Resolution

When your children are ready, it's time to teach basic negotiation and problem-solving skills. Many techniques can prevent there being "losers." Skills that allow everyone to win include:

  • Taking turns
  • Dividing a treat then letting the other person choose
  • Trading items
  • Compromise -- "we'll play your game first, then we'll play mine"

Ignore the small stuff. For small disagreements, you can expect kids to come up with a solution on their own. Suggested phrase for parent, "I'll be back in a minute. If you kids haven't come to an agreement about the toy, it goes into time out until tomorrow."

Address put-downs or bullying immediately. One resolution could be reminding the child of the family rules. Another might involve talking with the older or stronger child about how being older has privileges and responsibilities, such as staying up later and or not hitting the younger child.

Catch them "being good." When you see your children helping, sharing, cooperating and working well together, tell them you appreciate their efforts. Positive reinforcement makes them more apt to repeat this behavior.

7. Be a Team

Words like "We are a family who..." and "in our family..." create a family identity and foster team spirit. As part of a team, your children can learn to get along and work together.

Work towards creating an attitude of appreciation. One idea to foster gratefulness is a dinner time ritual when each person shares something they appreciate about each other.

April 10 is National Sibling Day. How are your children getting along with one another today? Try these seven steps and let us know if they work for you!